British Justice on Trial: Revelations from the First Month of UK Phone Hacking Trial

phone hacking5th December 2013

By  Peter Jukes

Guest Writer for Wake Up World

Reporting for IA from the phone hacking trial in the UK, Peter Jukes says there are far bigger factors in play than the guilt or innocence of the particular News Corp employees currently in front of the court.

We’re now a month in – or perhaps half-way through – the prosecution case in the phone hacking trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and other senior Murdoch executives at Britain’s central criminal court, the Old Bailey. There are a number of admissions from both sides (‘agreed facts’ in the legal jargon) which point to the institutional dysfunction at the News of the World, when the famous scandal sheet became a scandal in itself in July 2011.

The News of the World was rapidly closed down in a (fruitless) attempt to prevent the phone hacking scandal marring the biggest media deal in European history — News Corp’s buy of the remaining 61 per cent of Britain’s most lucrative TV channel, BSkyB. In hindsight, that attempt to firewall the deal is mirrored in the move, completed in June this year, to sever the ailing News Corp publishing assets from 21st  Century Fox — its lucrative cinema and pay-TV assets.

But it’s easy to forget what an important part News of the World played in the history of British culture, let alone in Rupert Murdoch’s rise to becoming probably the most powerful media magnate on earth, controlling the world’s second biggest media company through the clever use of preferential voting shares and a family trust.

Apart from being one of the oldest newspapers and the biggest selling English-language newspaper, the News of the World was Murdoch’s first big acquisition outside Australia in 1969. Along with the reinvented Sun a few years later and the acquisition of The Times and Sunday Times in 1981, the Sunday tabloid became both his bridgehead in the UK, and then a launch pad into the United States. It provided hundreds of millions of dollars in profits in the eighties and allowed the purchases which led to the development of the lucrative Fox Network.

By all accounts, Murdoch had a soft spot for the paper which had launched his global empire, and kept in touch with editors on a weekly basis.  But from the prosecution opening, which revealed that three successive news editors (Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck and James Weatherup) had pleaded guilty to phone hacking, the trial has revealed how the tabloid market leader had developed a cut-throat culture which rapidly spread over into criminality.

So here are three key things that – without prejudicing the case of the eight defendants who all deny the charges against them – the trial has revealed so far.

1. Follow the Money: Private Investigators Made a Killing from NOTW

When the News of the World’s Royal Editor, Clive Goodman, was arrested in the first phone hacking case in the summer of 2006, the prosecution revealed an email from News International’s legal director, Tom Crone, to the then-editor, Andy Coulson. At that time Crone estimated that Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who had mastered the art of phone hacking, had paid him over £1 million pounds. A second private investigator, Andrew Gadd, went on the witness stand two weeks ago to reveal he’d been paid about £330,000 over six years merely to trace people’s home addresses and company records. At least three more private investigators have been reported to have been on the newspaper’s payroll. Nice work if you can get it, and a sign that – in the cut-throat world of Sunday tabloids – any competitive advantage was at a premium.

Other evidence heard in court, by the News of the World’s former night editor, Harry Scott, explained the lengths the paper would go to in order to prevent a rival getting hold of their scoop. The old Wapping offices had a secret windowless room where picture editors, subs and journalists would file a really sensitive story. They would even produce a fake, spoof ‘street edition’ on a Saturday night to prevent other Sunday’s getting wind of a scandal. On more than one occasion, they accidentally printed the real story on the street edition, and published the spoof on the Sunday.

2. Don’t Look Now: You’re On Tape

Thanks to hundreds of civil claimants, the industrial level of surveillance deployed by Glenn Mulcaire is now well known. But last week the trial has also revealed that Mulcaire’s voicemail interceptions were copied and performed by journalists themselves. Police phone call data reveal that hundreds of phone calls from the News International ‘private wire line’ (a dedicated internal number from Vodafone) were made directly to unique voicemail numbers, which can only be considered as phone hacks.

Although the police could only obtain about nine months of News International’s phone records (from 2005-6) the police have identified nearly a hundred calls to the unique voicemail numbers (considered hacks). On one day alone in 2006, this News International landline made 24 hacking calls to royal aides and rival journalists. Aide to the royal prince, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, was hacked 416 times from the Wapping office exchange. One of the victims included the News of the World deputy editor, Neil Wallis, whose voicemail was hacked from inside his own offices. With his boss Andy Coulson also on the list of phone hacking victims, along with the then editor of the Sun, Rebekah Brooks, the level of internal mistrust is also quite revealing.

This was all before smart phones made secret recording a piece of cake. Tapes of former Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, leaving messages on the phone of his lover, journalist and publisher Kimberly Quinn, were recovered by the police from the safe in Tom Crone’s office. However, Blunkett also recorded his conversation with Andy Coulson when the News of the World editor confronted him with his affair in 2004. Two years later, when Clive Goodman had been arrested for phone hacking, he recorded his phone conversation with his boss Andy Coulson.

If that seemed to break the Fleet Street code of omertà , standards have only declined since. A recent recording, obtained by Exaro, of Rupert Murdoch talking to staff at the Sun in May 2012 about the hacking and bribery allegations, appear to have been recorded by no less than three of the journalist’s present:

So, no one is safe. Turn your mobile off.

3. It’s Always Personal

A dripping tap can erode a stone, and one of the slow realisations of the hacking trial is that News of the World was tapping the phones of some most senior figures in the British government at the time. Two Home Secretaries – with responsibility for the police and counter terrorism – were approached by senior members of the tabloid press accusing them of having ‘affairs’. In the case of Home Secretary Blunkett, caught in that taped conversation with Coulson, he pointed out that he wasn’t having an affair — he was divorced. And his successor, Charles Clarke, allegedly approached by Sun political editor Trevor Kavanagh over a liaison with his special advisor Hannah Pawlby, wasn’t even having an affair.

How this all sits with the alleged affair between Brooks with Coulson hasn’t been part of the overt prosecution case. There’s no law against hypocrisy.

Andrew Edis, QC, counsel for the prosecution, has adduced the Brooks-Coulson affair as an example of how close they were and how much they trusted each other, as part of his conspiracy case against them both. But the juxtaposition of the clandestine affair to a number of cases when union leaders or political leaders were told by senior tabloid management whether their private affairs were resigning matters of not, won’t have gone unnoticed by the general public.

That thread of personalisation has also dominated the news outside the courtroom, with News Corp sources alleging ‘secret meetings’ between Wendi Deng and Tony Blair – which have been covering the front pages of Mail on Sunday for the last two weeks. The timing could be coincidental. Murdoch may have genuinely fallen out with Blair, and the former Labour prime minster may well have been innocently supporting a friend in a difficult estrangement and divorce – as his ‘friends’ said in a piece in  Monday’s Daily Telegraph. But the optics of this are too prominent and well-managed to be completely left to chance, and further prove that the tabloid culture of personalising politics will easily survive the ‘News of the Screws’ that invented it.

In his opening remarks to the jury at Court 12 of the Old Bailey, Justice John Saunders said:

“… not only are the defendants on trial, but British justice is on trial.”

I would only add — so is the British press.

All eight defendants deny all the charges.

The trial continues …

About the author:

Peter Jukes is an author, screenwriter, playwright, literary critic and journalist. He is also the author of the bestselling book The Fall of the House of  Murdoch. You can follow Peter on Twitter @peterjukes.

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