An inner circle of Rupert Murdoch’s most trusted news executives appeared in a London court today for the start of what British commentators are describing as the “Trial of the Century”.
The criminal prosecution, which could last more than 3 months, is expected to include a host of explosive allegations about phone-hacking and the working practices employed within Murdoch’s media empire. All eight defendants have denied the charges.
Rebekah Brooks, one of Murdoch’s most trusted confidantes, is the highest profile defendant in the dock. Her close personal relationship with the British prime minister, David Cameron, is also expected to cause embarrassment at No. 10 Downing Street. Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, has become deeply entangled in the debate surrounding News Corp. He has admitted riding Brooks’ horse and attending regular social gatherings with the former editor of the Sun newspaper and CEO of Murdoch’s dominant Fleet Street subsidiary, News International. Cameron also employed Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World, as his director of communications. Coulson is among the defendants, and denies all charges.
The prime minister has come under intense pressure from the media in Britain to fully describe the nature of his relationship with Murdoch and his most senior acolytes at the News International newspapers, which were openly supportive of his election campaign.
This is the first major criminal trial held in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that rocked Murdoch’s global media organization. Staff were accused of illegally accessing the voicemails of celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family. In July 2011 it was claimed that the News of the World had hacked the voicemails of Milly Dowler, a missing 13-year-old who was later found to have been murdered. After 168 years in print, the world’s best-selling English language newspaper was closed.
As part of the subsequent investigations over a hundred journalists and their sources have been arrested, and at least two more trials are expected to follow next year.
Reporters, photographers and camera crews from all over the world thronged outside the Old Bailey this morning to catch a glimpse of the accused as they arrived in court. On the morning of one of the biggest storms in a generation, with hurricane force gusts of wind, Brooks swept into court in a buttoned up beige coat accompanied by her husband Charlie Brooks, a racehorse trainer, who was wearing a blue suit. He is also on trial for perverting the course of justice, which he denies.
At the heart of the trial will be a question that could haunt Murdoch’s entire empire: How much did the newspaper executives know about what was allegedly going on in their offices?
Court 12, a small wood-panelled courtroom, was a sea of wigs on Monday with nearly 20 barristers representing the defendants, as well as interested parties such as News Corp and the alleged victims of phone hacking.
The trial could continue well into the spring with the defence counsel anticipating that over a hundred witnesses will be summoned and cross examined, it could represent a long-running embarrassment for Murdoch and Cameron.
Brooks faces five charges relating to her time as former editor of the now shuttered News of the World and CEO of the parent company News International. She maintains her innocence. “I did not authorise, nor was I aware of, phone hacking under my editorship,” she said, when the charges were announced last year, calling the charge relating to Milly Dowler “particularly upsetting” and “untrue.” Her defence counsel is Jonathan Laidlaw QC.
Brooks’ former deputy and successor at News of the World, Andy Coulson, faces two charges of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office, as well as phone hacking charges. Months after he resigned from his editorship (in the wake of a first phone hacking trial in 2006) Coulson was recruited by Cameron and George Osborne (now Chancellor of the Exchequer) to become head of communications for the Conservative Party. Coulson entered No 10 as Cameron’s press supremo in July 2010, resigning in early 2011 when the police re-opened their original phone hacking inquiry. Last year, when charged by the Crown Prosecution Service, Coulson said he would “fight these allegations when they eventually get to court.”
Brooks and Coulson will be joined in the dock by six other defendants (see panel below) who also plead their innocence. With the exception of Brooks’ husband Charlie, the rest were employees of Rupert Murdoch’s News International, a now defunct subsidiary of News Corp, mainly serving as senior executives or editors.
At the heart of the trial will be a question that could haunt Murdoch’s entire empire: How much did the newspaper executives know about what was allegedly going on in their offices? A wide-ranging British media inquest has already recommended tougher regulation of the press, while there is no end in sight for the potential ramifications within News Corp with the Crown Prosecution Service confirming earlier this year they were looking at the possibility of corporate charges.
After the revelations that the News of the World had hacked the cell phone of Milly Dowler, Murdoch himself was summoned to explain what had been allowed to happen before a committee in the House of Commons. He called it his “most humble day.”
Murdoch’s company was cut in two earlier this year with the money-spinning entertainment arm re-branded as 21st Century Fox and separated from the troubled publishing company which runs the British newspapers, including the Times (of London) and the Sun.
Given the high profile political, commercial and celebrity connections of the defendants, the investigation, arrest and charging of the eight standing trial has already excited unprecedented media interest but the trial has also been subject to a large number of reporting restrictions.
British law puts the right to a fair trial above freedom to report in an effort to secure an unprejudiced jury. The Solicitor General, Oliver Heald, is so concerned that the trial could be prejudiced, he has written to the leaders of the three major political parties in the UK, warning members of parliament to “refrain from any commentary.”
Some of the 80 or so potential jurors who travelled down to be selected for the panel were reported to be delayed by the bad weather. If, however, as anticipated, 12 jurors are sworn in Tuesday, then counsel for the prosecution, Anthony Edis QC, will spend the next two days laying out the prosecution case.
Then the storm of media coverage will really begin.
Who is on trial?
Rebekah Brooks, 45
Role: Former chief executive of News International, editor of the News of the World and the Sun
Charges: Conspiracy to intercept, without lawful authority mobile phone voicemail messages (phone hacking) during her time as editor of the News of the World and the Sun. Two charges of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office (bribing officials) ranging from 2004 to 2012. Two charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice by hiding documents, computers and other electronic equipment in July 2011
Andy Coulson, 45
Role: Brooks’ deputy and successor as editor at News of the World, and Director of Communications, Number 10 Downing Street
Charges: Conspiracy to phone hack from 2000-2006. Two counts of conspiracy to bribe public officials from 2002-2005.
Charles Brooks, 50
Role: Horse trainer, newspaper columnist, and husband of Rebekah Brooks
Charges: Conspiring to pervert the course of justice by hiding documents, computers and other electronic equipment between July 15th and 19th 2011
Ian Edmondson, 42
Role: Former news editor of the News of the World
Charges: Conspiring to commit phone hacking between 2000 and 2006
Stuart Kuttner, 74
Role: Former managing editor of the News of the World
Charges: Conspiring to commit phone hacking between 2000 and 2006
Clive Goodman, 56
Role: Former royal editor of the News of the World
Charges: Two counts of conspiracy to bribe public officials from 2002-2005.
Mark Hanna, 50
Role: Former head of security at News International
Charges: Conspiring to pervert the course of justice by concealing documents and computers from the police Between July 15, 2011, and July 19, 2011
Cheryl Carter, 49
Role: Former PA to Rebekah Brooks
Charges: Conspiring to pervert the course of justice by concealing documents and computers from the police between July 6, 2011, and July 9, 2011