Phone-hacking trial

Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch

‘Professionally, we are definitely in this together’

(Rebekah Brooks to David Cameron, October 2009)

On 24 June 2014, five of seven defendants in the first major trial arising from the phone-hacking scandal were found not guilty of conspiracy to hack phones between 2000 and 2006. Most notorious amongst the newly ‘innocent’ was Rebekah Brooks, former editor of News of the World, chief executive of News International and favourite of press baron Rupert Murdoch. With her massive legal bill backed by Murdoch, having argued that the jury should not include any trade union members (who may be prejudiced against her), having destroyed all her own e-mail devices and ordered the deletion of 10 million e-mails at News of the World up to January 2010, Brooks claimed to know nothing. Most notorious of the ‘guilty’ was Andy Coulson, former editor of News of the World, No 10 Downing Street’s director of communications and favourite of prime minister David Cameron. Coulson was sentenced to 18 months in prison and will face retrial on two other charges of conspiring to cause misconduct in public office.

It is expected that the results of the Metropolitan Police’s three operations investigating phone hacking and corruption (Operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta) will dribble on for years to come as they attempt, belatedly and with few resources, to deal with a mass of evidence in dustbin bags at Scotland Yard which they have been sitting on for years, and more than 300 million e-mails supplied by News International in 2011 when it suddenly dropped its claims of ‘rogue reporters’ and decided to co-operate with the phone hacking investigation in the face of undeniable evidence that News of the World was functioning as ‘a thoroughly criminal enterprise’ (Chief Prosecutor at Coulson’s trial). The number of arrests made by Scotland Yard across all three investigations stands at little more than 100. With the exception of Coulson and Brooks, these are small fry.

What is really at issue is the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry, set up by Prime Minister Cameron when the allegations came too close for comfort in July 2011, to investigate ‘the culture, practice and ethics of the press’ and make recommendations for press regulation. Part 1 of its report, 1,987 pages long, was published in November 2012 and recommended press regulation on a statutory footing, with a new ‘independent’ regulatory body to replace the clearly useless voluntary Press Complaints Commission. Leveson’s recommendations, unpopular with those who claim to cherish ‘press freedom’, are gathering dust. The second part of the inquiry into ‘the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International, other media organisations or other organisations’ and the extent to which ‘any relevant police force investigated allegations relating to News International, and whether the police received corrupt payments or were otherwise complicit in misconduct’, will not be held until the criminal trials are over. This could be a very long time.

In the meantime, the fundamental underlying relations between the political establishment, the press and the police are unchanged. Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corp (formerly News Corporation) has emerged from his annus horribilis with a fresh smile. His ‘amicable’ divorce is complete, Rebekah Brooks is ‘innocent’ (if this is not stretching the concept too far!) and he is busily reconstructing his media empire ready for a fresh foray into ruling the United Kingdom (plus or minus Scotland), if not the world. His two sons, Lachlan and James, formerly head of News International and BSkyB (now free of taint), have been anointed chief executives of the family media empire ahead of an opening $80 billion bid to take over US media giant Time Warner.

On a more domestic scale, there has been a lot of rebranding: News International is now News UK, with new headquarters in London; the former Wapping premises have been literally razed to the ground with the expectation that the history of phone hacking will be wiped out with it. Murdoch is gearing up for fresh takeovers involving BSkyB in Europe. ‘Summer is a-coming-in, loudly sing cuckoo’ and it may be time for a champagne party like the old days. But there are some flies in the caviar.

Cameron has been forced to apologise for giving Coulson ‘a second chance’ when he was appointed director of communications for the Conservative Party (while still being paid by News International) and then the Prime Minister’s office, so he is likely to be more wary of Murdoch’s second coming. Rumours of Brooks’s (and thereby Murdoch’s) influence over Cameron, getting Coulson (her ex-lover) a No 10 job and choosing the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, are likely to keep Cameron at a distance for the time being. With a general election on the horizon, Cameron will need to gauge his relations with Murdoch carefully.

The allegations of press/police corruption are not over. 22 Sun reporters have been arrested under Operation Elveden and are incandescent with rage at being held in dawn raids (surely not us!) and that the evidence against them has come from News Corporation’s Management and Standards Committee, set up in the panic following the phone hacking admissions. Murdoch was taped at a meeting with these champions of a free press, branding the police ‘incompetent’ and lavishly promising unlimited legal fees and salaries. There are a lot of angry people demanding to be paid off.

When Rebekah Brooks left her chief executive post at News International in 2011 it cost more than £16 million in ‘severance pay’. She had spent the previous five years trying to limit the damage being done by the phone-hacking scandal – a subject she claimed to know nothing about – and, despite stating at a Parliamentary Select Committee in 2003 that ‘we have paid the police for information in the past’, because of arcane evidence rules she was found not guilty of corruption. Mrs Brooks has expensive tastes and will undoubtedly re-emerge transfigured.

Some hints of what happens if you cross Murdoch or his fellow Tory press barons may be instructive for Cameron following the sacking of Michael Gove as education minister. Not only have Gove and his wife worked as columnists for Murdoch titles, Gove shares with Murdoch a consuming ‘interest’ in education: in particular its privatisation. Following Gove’s sacking, Fleet Street united to pour scorn on Cameron. According to the Daily Mail: ‘An old friend of Cameron’s told me back in 2010 that the Tory leader’s most serious weakness is his judgment of people, “which is terrible”. Events – particularly the hiring of the disgraced former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his director of communications – confirm that view.’ The Goves have been spending country weekends with the Beaverbrooks, owners of the Mail Group. Quite so.

Carol Brickley

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 240 August/September 2014

 

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