Journalism in the dock – the defence of Rebecca Brooks.

The phone hacking trial, which has been going on for a long 4 months now, began the case for the defence of Rebecca Brooks on February 19th. As we know, Brooks, former chief executive of News International and  former editor of the News of the World and the Sun is on trial along with five others including Andy Coulson, the prime minister’s former communications chief and, before that, editor of the News of the World.

Brooks is charged with conspiracy to intercept communications by listening to mobile phone messages, plus two further counts of allegedly making corrupt payments to public officials and two final accusations that she allegedly conspired to pervert the course of justice by removing and concealing evidence. Coulson is charged with conspiracy to hack phones and conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public place.

The first bombshell  in the case for the defence of Brooks, in a trial where the dropping of bombshells is a daily occurrence, came before any testimonies were heard. The court was shown the transcript of an email sent by Brookes to James Murdoch, who was then News International executive chairman, reporting a conversation she had had with Tony Blair. Sent the day after the final edition of the News of the World (July 11th 2011) Brooks tells Murdoch that she had ‘an hour on the phone’ with former PM, during which time Blair advised her to set up and publish, ‘a Hutton style report’ which should be chaired by former Crown Prosecution Service chief Ken McDonald. Blair, Brooks also wrote, advised her to ‘keep strong’, use ‘sleeping pills’ and to ‘tough up’. Finally, Blair was ‘available’ to herself and the Murdochs provided it was all ‘between us’. Naturally enough, this news dominated the next day’s headlines though some commentators such as Ivor Gaber did ask why anyone should be surprised at Blair’s actions, given his closeness to the Murdoch clan. He is after all and lest we forget, the godfather of Rupert’s daughter.

The morning of the 20th February saw Brooks’ first appearance in the dock. After the jury was told by Mr Justice Saunders to acquit on one charge of misconduct in a public office relating to allegations that she authorised a payment to acquire a picture of Prince William dressed in a bikini, Jonathan Laidlaw QC for Brooks, began her defence. He told the jury that Brooks was not being tried because she was the editor of a tabloid newspaper. Neither, he said, was she on trial ‘for having worked for Rupert Murdoch’s company’. Iterating that Brooks consistently denied any guilt at all since her first arrest, Laidlaw told the court that it was time for them to, ‘see Mrs Brooks as she is, not as she is talked about’.

The court was then given a tour of Brooks’ journalistic history until Laidlaw arrived at count one allegation of conspiracy to hack phones which concerns the times from May 2000 to January 2003. Brooks said she had never heard the name of convicted phone-hacker Glenn Mulcaire or knew of his practices. Asked if at that time she had any knowledge of phone hacking? She replied “No, none at all.”  Later on in evidence Brooks said that in 2006/2007 she believed phone-hacking was legal if it could be shown it was “in the public interest”. 

On the last day of the first week’s evidence, Brooks’ private life was analysed and the jury got the inside story on how tabloid journalism works. It was ‘quite normal’, said Brooks, to have private detectives working for newspapers. There was reference to ‘Sarah’s law’ the child sex offender disclosure scheme which  allows parents, carers and guardians to formally ask the police to tell them if someone has a record for child sexual offences.  Brooks told how the controversial campaign to get the law implemented ‘defined my editorship’ and the court was shown 79 pages of News of the World articles which related to the campaign.

Returning on the Tuesday of this week the court heard evidence relating to the alleged hacking of the phone of murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler. Brooks stated that she did not know phone hacking was illegal until 2006  and she knew nothing of the hacking of Dowler’s voicemail until 2011, 9 years after it was alleged to have taken place  Asked by Laidlaw if she had ever sanctioned someone to access a voicemail as a technique,”  she replied “No”.

It later became clear that convicted hacker and former News of the World royal correspondent, Clive Goodman  was offered a job at the Sun by Brooks after he came out of prison. Essentially the offer was made , she said, because Goodman was going to allege others at the News of the World were involved in hacking and  although the allegations were unfounded to  go through an embarrassing employment tribunal would lead to a series of damaging headlines.’I had an objective which was to offer him a job to stop him going through an industrial tribunal’, Brooks said.

The defence of Brooks in her first two weeks in the witness stand concentrated on her time at the Sun as well as at the News of the World. The jury learned much about tabloid journalism in that time. They learned that public officials were paid for information on ‘half a dozen’  occasions by News International. They learned about the ‘fake sheikh’ who recorded the Countess of Wessex calling Cherie Blair ‘horrid’. They  learned  about the targeting of Clare Short MP labelled ‘fat and jealous’ for her anti page 3 campaign and about mentally ill boxer Frank Bruno about whose sectioning in 2003 the Sun front page said: Bonkers Bruno locked up. For these events, Brooks expressed regrets “The speed of decisions at the Sun often cause lapses of judgment,” Brooks told the jury. “ I personally made lots of mistakes during my 10-12 years as deputy editor or editor of a newspaper.”

This was exhausting stuff for the accused and on Friday 28th of February and after the revelations that in 1998 Brooks had paid a public official for a story about former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein planning to attack Britain with anthrax, Judge Saunders informed the court that Brooks was getting ‘very tired’ and proceedings would adjourn early.

Week three of the defence began with Laidlaw referring to Brooks becoming CEO at news International with James Murdoch as her immediate boss. In 2010, the court heard, the News of the World’s email archive was significantly reduced. All emails stored before 2005, some 4.8 million of them, were deleted. Brooks said she had no knowledge of the events but believed it was linked to James Murdoch joining the company from Sky.  It was at this time too that payments to victims of phone hacking took place and were kept secret to stop more people suing. The jury was informed of a £200,000-a-year contract with PR ‘guru’ Max Clifford, granted because he agreed to drop legal action over hacking.

In 20011 Brooks arranged a meeting with Andy Coulson, by then Downing Street communications director, to advise him that a journalist, who could be named for legal reasons, had been involved in hacking while he was editor of the News of the World from 2003-07. A week after this meeting, Coulson resigned from his position. By June 2011, the court heard, Brooks was aware that she herself might be arrested and that shut down of the News of the World was considered a full month before the Milly Dowler crisis broke. News International’s director of public affairs, Simon Greenberg, wrote in an email to Brooks, ‘we should consider the shut-down option. Is the brand too toxic for itself and for us?”

On March 5th the defence concluded and the cross examination by Andrew Edis QC began. He asked Brooks if, when she became CEO of News International, she was aware the company was “covering up the extent of phone hacking”Brooks replied that she thought at that time that inquiries were completed and Goodman and Mulcaire had been the only people involved. Asked if she thought the company’s behaviour had been ‘honourable’ between 2007 and 2009, Brooks said: ‘At the time yes I did, I had no reason to believe otherwise.’  In later exchanges, which  the Guardian described as ‘tense’  Mr Edis suggested that in respect of payments to Mulcaire,’ the books were cooked to prevent anybody investigating or finding out what Mr Mulcaire was doing.’ Dropping her voice Brooks responded: ‘But I didn’t cook any books.’

At the start of Brooks’ final week in the Dock, Edis returned to the journalistic practices at the Sun and the News of the World. Cash payments for information or stories was not dodgy but entirely normal and, said Brooks, ‘In the newsroom atmosphere, the cash payments were not seen as criminal or negative or nefarious. She continued: ‘Maybe it’s wrong, but there was an assumption that if a public official was not acting in their duty that wouldn’t be wrong. It wasn’t something that was invented when I became editor. It’s something that’s been there always. ‘

Brooks told Edis that she had no idea that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked until the Guardian reported the case nine years later , nor did she did recall a conversation at a party in 2004 where Piers Morgan joked that he had hacked her (Brooks’) phone . He may have said it, Brooks, said, ‘I just don’t remember’. Rumours of hacking were afoot in the 2000’s she said, but felt, ‘my newsroom I felt under my editorship was a clean ship. No evidence ever came to me that one of my journalists was phone hacking.’

As Edis’ cross examination developed Tony Blair returned to the narrative as the court was reminded of News International’s closeness to government and top level politics. Brooks told the court that before her planned appearance at the Commons Media, Culture and Sport select committee on 19 July 2011, Blair offered advice and support over a seven day period. Edis read out texts from Blair one of which stated that she should “call” because “I have experience of these things”. Blair signed the text, “Tx”. Also revealed was the fact that Labour peer Lord Mandelson was planning to tutor Mrs Brooks on her select committee evidence, though this did not eventually take place.

The cross examination ended on the 12th of March with Edis putting to Brooks that she must have been aware of what all around her were doing. ‘You were running your world, and not much happened in it which you didn’t want to happen when you were at the top of the tree’ he said.  Brooks last moments in the stand, at the request of her defence, were notable for the dramatic intervention of Mr Justice Saunders. According to the BBC, the judge in the case told Brooks that it may be suggested ‘she helped to limit the damage to News International from the phone-hacking affair because she was personally involved in the illegal accessing of mobile phone voicemail.’ He concluded: ‘phone hacking was a big story – you don’t like cover-ups and damage limitations do you? The suggestion being made to you is the only reason you were involved in damage limitation [is] that you would not have done that unless you yourself had been involved.’

The case continues…..

Footnote: This piece is again in debt to the excellent moment  by moment coverage of the trial provided by the tweets of@peterjukes and narrative from ‘Inside the Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson Trial’ by James Doleman at the Drum