Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch
by Nick Davies
Chatto & Windus, $34.99 pb, 447 pp, 9780701187316
Bettina Jordan-Barber will soon face trial for receiving around £100,000 over nine years from the Sun newspaper for supplying information while she was an official in the Ministry of Defence. Both the prosecution and the defence during the recent UK ‘phone hacking’ trial accepted that the payments had been made, and that Rebekah Brooks, while she was editor of the Sun from 2003 to 2006, authorised eleven of them totalling £38,000. According to Brooks, it never occurred to her that the person her reporter, who will also soon face trial, referred to in his emails as his ‘number one military contact’ and ‘ace military source’ might be someone in the military. The jury accepted this profession of ignorance, so Brooks was found not guilty of ‘conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office’.
Brooks was the highest-profile defendant in the trial, a former editor of the News of the World and Sun, and finally the British CEO of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. She resigned in July 2011 at the height of the phone hacking scandal, with a severance payment of £10.8 million. She initially faced one other charge of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office, involving a payment of £4,000 for a picture of Prince William wearing a bikini top at a fancy dress party. Again, there was no doubt that Brooks had authorised the payment. Two military officers were the suspected source for the photograph, but one had since died and the other was overseas and not permitted to return to testify.
Originally, the prosecution believed that some other person had taken the photograph. When doubts arose about this, it sought to amend the charges, but Mr Justice Saunders refused permission and ruled that the count had to be withdrawn. The prosecution objected, saying that however the photograph was taken did not go to the primary issue of Brooks paying a public official. Nonetheless, an appeal would have taken some weeks, with the jury in suspended animation, and the increasing danger that some jurors would have to leave and the whole trial be aborted. The prosecution therefore acceded to the judge’s decision.
This goes to the heart of the prosecution’s problems. In many ways, the defence’s most important victory was won before the trial began. Brooks’s team insisted that to hear one of the charges against her in isolation would generate so much prejudicial publicity that it would make it impossible for a fair trial to proceed on later charges. So all of Brooks’s charges – the two involving conspiring to commit misconduct in public office, the charge that she was involved in phone hacking, and two charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice through destroying evidence – had to be heard together. The charges of conspiring to destroy evidence involved three co-conspirators. The phone hacking charges involved three other people who had held editor-ial positions at the News of the World, and one of these, Andy Coulson, was also involved with the former royal editor Clive Goodman on two charges of bribing public officials.
‘In many ways, the defence’s most important victory was won before the trial began’
So when the trial eventually began in October 2013, there were eight defendants on a total of fifteen charges. This was a formula for, in Jukes’s words, ‘an unruly and unmanageable enterprise’. The result was the ‘longest concluded trial’ in British history. The prosecutor, Andrew Edis’s, opening statement took 120 pages. Before the jury finally retired on 11 June 2014, the judge’s final summing up was 109,121 words. The author of Beyond Contempt, Peter Jukes, also created history by live tweeting the entire trial, financing himself through a crowdfunding appeal. The book gives a very good sense of the developing atmosphere in the court room over these nine months.
Central to that atmosphere is that this was probably the best-funded defence ever in British criminal history. Normally, the prosecution has a resource advantage. But in this trial Murdoch’s corporation paid for the legal teams for all the defendants except Goodman. Jukes judged that the entire prosecution legal team earned less in a day than one of the privately funded defence teams received per hour. Nick Davies estimated that the cost of the prosecution of the case had been £1.7 million, while Murdoch’s defence funds were thirty times as much. The defence provided the jurors with neatly organised bundles of laminated paperwork, while the crown often gave them chaotic bundles. Towards the end, when Edis wanted to give jurors an electronic version of the evidence, he had to offer to pay for it out of his own pocket.
The result was trench warfare. Nearly every day saw a welter of complaints about prejudicial publicity, charges of improper process, and objections to the admissibility of evidence. By December 2013 there were so many formal objections from the defence teams it was impossible to keep track of them. This formidable legal cohort showed its prowess even more in the probing and undermining of the prosecution evidence. Several witnesses were skewered by cross-examination that revealed errors or raised doubts.
The human element of a long trial, such prolonged, enforced intimacy, should not be lost. One of the prosecution solicitors talked of ‘long trial’ syndrome. This, he said, was akin to a reverse Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages become attached to their captors. Here, jury members feel sympathy towards the defendants. It is not in any of the formal rules of evidence, but a hidden issue in many trials is how much the jury likes the defendants.
‘Has there ever been a more unlikely character to stand in the dock of the Old Bailey than Cheryl Carter?’ her barrister asked the jury, and pointed out that her feet could not touch the floor when she was sitting on the stool. Carter, Brooks’s personal assistant, had been charged with destroying evidence. The detail of what was in her boss’s office and files was excruciating. One inventory was 131 pages long. The judge said he would see some of this evidence in his nightmares.
‘Jukes judged that the entire prosecution legal team earned less in a day than one of the privately funded defence teams received per hour’
Brooks and Carter testified that the seven boxes they took out of the company archives labelled ‘All Notebooks Rebekah Brooks 1995–2007’ in fact did not contain notebooks. The prosecutor questioned Carter about why on the momentous day when it was announced the News of the World was about to close, her highest priority was organising old files, and noted that what had been in seven boxes would now fit in four. He also punctured her testimony at several other key points. But the larger narrative was that Carter was a courteous woman, keen to help, loyal to a fault, not anyone’s idea of a criminal conspirator.
A variant of this theme also applied to Rebekah’s husband Charlie. After Rebekah was arrested, Charlie gave some garbage bags to News International head of security, Mark Hanna. Police searched their London flat that afternoon. Late that night another News security officer, using the cover of a pizza delivery, returned the bags to the Brooks’s London apartment building, by which time Charlie and a friend had drunk six bottles of wine. The next morning Charlie went to get the bags, with Rebekah in the car, but the Portuguese cleaner had seen a laptop computer in one and reported it to the manager. The following year, when Charlie and Rebekah were arrested (as was Hanna), they gave ‘no comment’ interviews to the police about these events.
By the time of the trial, however, a colourful version was ready. Charlie admitted that he was hiding things from the police, but that it was not evidence. He said that he and his wife were haunted by the fear of arrest, and – in an ironic theme that ran through the media defendants’ testimony – the fear of being stalked by predatory media; that Rebekah would be caught in a killer photograph being led away by the police. Charlie said he was worried that his collection of porn videos would be taken by the police and made public, and so with the help of News security officers he set in train what must be the most elaborate porn disposal operation in history. Charlie cast himself as a harmless duffer, with all-too-human weaknesses for porn and alcohol – one of his character references said he once drank a bottle of Fairy Liquid detergent to cure a hangover – but not a ruthless conspirator.
‘The judge said he would see some of this evidence in his nightmares’
It is one thing to have severe doubts about whether the four defendants were telling the truth. It is quite another to decide beyond reasonable doubt that they had destroyed evidence. A lot of evidence had gone missing however. In late 2009, Brooks initiated an email deletion program, prompted especially by ones that might be ‘unhelpful’ in case of future litigation. Around 300 million emails were deleted from the company’s servers, of which, despite the authorities’ best efforts, around 210 million were never recovered. Similarly the police never recovered the editorial computers that had been thrown away when the News of the World moved office. Nor did they recover Brooks’s hard drive.
Jury members would also be inclined to be sympathetic towards Stuart Kuttner. Once the widely feared managing editor of the News of the World, he would have signed off on many of the payments to their main phone hacker, Glenn Mulcaire. These payments averaged around £100,000 a year for six years. Nevertheless, Kuttner, like Coulson and Brooks, claimed that he had never heard of Mulcaire until he and Goodman were arrested for hacking the royals’ phones in 2006. Now, Kuttner was a seventy-three-year-old with a dignified bearing, who had suffered two heart attacks and a brain stem stroke. His barrister said these had affected his memory, and indeed there were forty-three occasions during his testimony when he could not recollect events. In 2002, following the abduction of young teenager Milly Dowler, the newspaper hacked into her mobile phone, its most infamous case of hacking. Some emails from the period clearly showed Kuttner’s involvement. However it was around these events that the memory of this elderly frail gentleman, whose character witnesses included a former archbishop of Canterbury, was most adamantly blank.
Brooks spent three weeks in the witness box and was a very impressive witness on her own behalf. She sometimes had made bad decisions, she said, and she had a ‘dossier of regrets’, and sometimes she was too much guided by company loyalty. But this woman in a man’s world also evoked sympathy and admiration. In the end – unlike her colleague Andy Coulson – there was ‘no smoking gun’ linking her to phone hacking.
The only guilty verdict was against Coulson, for phone hacking. The jury could not reach a decision on the bribery charges against Coulson and Goodman. They dismissed all the other charges against the remaining defendants. This was a poor result for the Crown, and there was much glee directed against it. The Sun, for example, proclaimed it a great day for red tops, a reference both to the red-headed Brooks and to the popular name for tabloid newspapers like itself.
The full ‘score card’ is rather more even. So far on phone hacking, the count is eight guilty verdicts; two (Brooks, Kuttner) not guilty. Three of Coulson and Brooks’s editorial colleagues – Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck, and James Weatherup – pleaded guilty before the trial began, as had the paper’s phone hacker in chief, Glenn Mulcaire. (All refused to testify.) Mulcaire and Goodman had already spent time in prison for phone hacking the royals. Another journalist, indeed, apart from the defendants the only journalist who was prepared to testify at the trial, Dan Evans, also pleaded guilty. One of the original defendants, Ian Edmondson, was discharged on health grounds. However, in October 2014 he also pleaded guilty. Eleven public officials have already been jailed on bribery issues, while another eleven trials are scheduled. And of course Murdoch’s UK company has now paid compensation or damages to 718 of Mulcaire’s victims.
The day, 4 July 2014, when Justice Saunders sentenced Coulson and his colleagues was the third anniversary of the Guardian’s Nick Davies’ revelation that the News of the World had tapped the phone of Milly Dowler, who had been abducted and murdered in 2002. It was a tumultuous three years. The Dowler revelation led to repercussions which are still working their way through the legal system and, much less certainly, through the political and journalistic systems. In July 2011 the 168-year-old top-selling British Sunday newspaper was closed; Rebekah Brooks resigned, and she and others were arrested; two senior police officers resigned; the British parliament forced Murdoch to abandon his bid to effect a total takeover of BSkyB; and Prime Minister David Cameron announced a major inquiry. Over the next few years, the Leveson Inquiry exposed the British tabloid press’s trade in human misery with a precision and authority that had never been done before, as well as showing the political bullying of the Murdoch press and the timidity of the political class.
‘Over the next few years, the Leveson Inquiry exposed the British tabloid press’s trade in human misery with a precision and authority that had never been done before’
Davies was at the forefront of these turbulent three years. But his role before then was even more important. In August 2006, Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were arrested for tapping phones to obtain information on the royal princes. They were sentenced to jail the following January; both careful not to implicate anyone else, with, in Goodman’s case, the promise that his employment would continue on release. The company, however, fired him soon after he went to prison. The editor, Andy Coulson, resigned, taking formal responsibility while at the same time denying all knowledge that the hacking had occurred. Some months later he joined the staff of Conservative leader David Cameron.
The issue of the Murdoch tabloid’s phone hacking then entirely disappeared from the public agenda for more than two years, until in July 2009, Davies published an article that News had paid £1 million to gag phone hacking victims. This remarkable settlement, reached a year earlier, with the Football Association’s Gordon Taylor, involved such a huge sum precisely because News was so determined to avoid disclosure in open court.
The next two years, recorded in this book with fresh and fascinating detail, were enormously difficult, as Davies, convinced of the scale of the scandal at the Murdoch tabloids, met stonewalling, denials, and lies. He was also the target of opprobrium from the police, from the Murdoch press, and even from the Press Complaints Commission. The list of lies and threats by News International senior personnel would fill several pages. Their attitudes can be encapsulated in two examples. Brooks told colleagues that the whole affair would end with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (who showed great courage and judgement throughout) ‘on his knees begging for mercy’. Their arrogance is captured by an unannounced visit Brooks and James Murdoch paid to the editor of the Independent. That paper had run an advertisement saying ‘Rupert Murdoch won’t decide this election. You will.’ The two stormed into the editor’s office, James beginning the tirade with ‘You’re a fucking fuckwit.’
Davies cooperated with other journalists, with lawyers pursuing civil litigation on behalf of hacking victims, with courageous politicians, with police officers determined to make up for their earlier failures. Eventually, all the pent-up pressures exploded after the publication of the Dowler story, and the scandal acquired an unstoppable momentum.
Questions of criminal conduct aside, these pages also give an insight into the sordid world of the London tabloids, of their ‘casual treachery’ in bribing people to break confidences, their relish in exposing people’s weaknesses to public scorn and shame, bringing more unhappiness than enlightenment to the world, and all the time justifying their hypocrisies and ruthlessness with noble rhetoric about the role of a free press.
In contrast to their squalid efforts, Davies’ book records his own investigative efforts over many years, a pinnacle of journalistic achievement, that performs the press’s most important role of holding power to account, even if, in this instance, the abusive power comprised sections of the press itself.
Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch
by Nick Davies
Chatto & Windus, $34.99 pb, 447 pp, 9780701187316