Phone hacking: British Justice on Trial

Posted by Dr John Jewell

On Tuesday October 29th Justice John Saunders opened the trial into phone hacking at the now defunct News of the World. He could not have been more portentous. Explaining the gravity of proceedings he told the jury: ‘In a way, not only are the defendants on trial, but British justice is on trial.’

That’s as may be, but we are certainly embarking, in a clearly momentous week in British press history, on a process which will concentrate on recent journalistic practices and the relationship between the government and Rupert Murdoch’s News International. Standing accused of conspiring to listen to voicemails and conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office are Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. Brooks is the Former News International chief executive and friend of David Cameron, whilst Coulson was the Prime Minister’s former communications chief and, before that, editor of the News of the World.

So how did we arrive at this extraordinary state of affairs? Where Brooks, Coulson and six others face an extended trial? What series of events led to the closure of the News of the World and the public humiliation of the world’s (previously) most powerful media baron?

On 5th July 2011 it was claimed by the Guardian that journalists on the News of the World had hacked into the phone messages of murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler. Not only this, messages were removed to make room for more. This was followed by the news that Scotland Yard detectives had contacted the families of Soham victims, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman as part of their investigation into Private Investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who was previously employed by the paper.   Then came news that families of the victims of the 7/7 terrorist atrocities may also have had their messages monitored by Mulcaire. The father of one of the victims, Graham Foulkes, said the prospect of these allegations being true appalled him, he said. ‘the thought that somebody may have been listening to that just looking for a cheap headline is just horrendous.’

At the time there was understandable public and political outrage at these allegations. A campaign on Twitter attracted thousands urging advertisers to refrain from dealing with the News of the World. Genuinely perturbed by the situation and the potential damage by association, one by one the major companies began to distance themselves from the newspaper. Just one day after the Guardian broke the story, General Motors, Mitsubishi Motors, the Co-Operative and Lloyds Bank were among those who suspended advertising.

The rapidity of events was the most shocking thing. On July 10th James Murdoch, the chairman of News International, announced that the final edition would be published that weekend, citing the ‘inhuman’ alleged behaviour of some staff as prompting the decision. And that was that – The 168-year-old newspaper donated its final revenues to charity and did not accept any paid advertising. Ed Milliband told the Telegraph ‘What I’m interested in is not closing down newspapers, I’m interested in those who were responsible being brought to justice and those who have responsibility for the running of that newspaper taking their responsibility.’

And it’s this ‘responsibility’ that is at the heart of the matter now that criminal charges have been brought.  Brooks was editor of the News of the World between 2000 and 2003, after which she became editor of the Sun. It’s crucial that she was editor of the News of the World when Milly Dowler went missing and is charged with conspiring to intercept communications without lawful authority  between 3rd October 2000 to 9th August 2006. Coulson was editor of the News of the World between 2003 and 2007, before leaving to become Cameron’s communications man. He is charged with conspiring to intercept communications without lawful authority between 3rd October 2000 to 9th August 2006

But there are five other News International figures on trial, too.  Stuart Kuttner, the managing editor of the News of the World for 22 years and Ian Edmonson, the former head of news at the paper face phone hacking charges. Clive Goodman, its royal editor, jailed for conspiracy to intercept voicemails in 2007, is charged with misconduct in public office. Mark Hannah head of security overall at News International and Cheryl Carter, Brooks PA are charged with perverting the course of justice. Charlie Brooks, husband of Rebekah, is also charged with the same offence.

But of course we concentrate on Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson because of their closeness to David Cameron. Brooks told the Leveson inquiry that while she was Chief Executive at News International she and the Prime Minister exchanged text messages twice weekly, often signing off with LOL.  This friendship is perhaps inconsequential. The appointment of Coulson as the Conservative Party’s director of communications in 2007 looks now to be a colossal error of judgment – especially as it came in the wake of Coulson’s resignation from the News of the World claiming ‘ultimate responsibility’ for the scandal that led to the jailing of Clive Goodman.

But then relations between News International the government always were close. In 2011 the Independent reported that the Murdoch’s were given secret defence briefings and that. ‘in total, Cabinet ministers have had private meetings with Murdoch executives more than 60 times and, if social events such as receptions at party conferences are included, the figure is at least 107’

Now the time of influence is over. In May 2012, the Commons culture, media and sport select committee submitted a report which concluded that Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corporation was, “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of major international company”.  Moreover, it stated that Les Hinton, former executive chairman of News Corporation, Colin Myler, the final editor of the News of the World and Tom Crone, the newspaper’s head of legal affairs, deliberately misled and withheld truth from the parliamentary enquiry into phone hacking.

Today, News International does not exist. In June this year it changed its name to News UK in a bid to rebrand and move away from the negative publicity. As the present trial continues, with the revelations about the 6 year affair between Brooks and Coulson hitting the headlines, the government may end up wishing it could rebrand, too.