Entirely predictably, the verdicts in the hacking trial were taken by most British papers as confirmation that the whole three-year process from the Leveson Inquiry to Scotland Yard’s Operation Weeting to the trial itself had been both a colossal waste of public funds and a draconian threat to press freedom.
‘£100m phone-hacking trial ends in Brooks walking free’ was how the Telegraph headlined its front page story (in which Coulson’s conviction wasn’t mentioned until the fifth paragraph). ‘The phone hacking trial cost more than £100m, much of it taxpayers’ money, and resulted in just one conviction’, complained The Sunday Times. A Mail editorial suggested that the not guilty verdicts had exposed ‘the baselessness of [Cameron’s] decision to call the Leveson inquiry – which has cast such a chill over press freedom’. The Times headlined its front page story ‘Brooks Not Guilty’, and an editorial argued that her acquittal ‘shows that a rush to implement a draconian regime to curb a free press was a disaster’. ‘We face unprecedented danger from Islamic terror’ warned the Sun, pointing out that the money spent on the trial could have been used by a Foreign Office counter-terror unit facing £15m in cuts. And, of course, for that paper, it was ‘A Great Day for Red Tops’. But was it?
Such has been the grotesque misreporting of the outcome of the trial by much of the press that we really are in urgent need of a reality check.
In 2013 two former news editors of the News of the World, Greg Miskiw and James Weatherup, chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck and reporter Dan Evans pleaded guilty to plotting to hack phones. Private investigator Glen Mulcaire, who had already been imprisoned in 2007 for hacking, admitted to three more counts of conspiring to hack phones, plus a fourth count of hacking the Milly Dowler’s voicemail. At the conclusion of the trial, former NoW editor Andy Coulson was found guilty of conspiracy to hack phones, and he and the paper’s former royal editor, Clive Goodman, are to face a re-trial over allegations that they conspired to commit misconduct in public office by paying police officers at Buckingham Palace for two royal phone directories. Rebecca Brooks, her husband Charlie, her former PA Cheryl Carter, NoW head of security Mark Hanna, and the paper’s former managing editor Stuart Kuttner were found not guilty of phone hacking and walked free.
So, contrary to the impression given by most of the press, Coulson was by no means the only guilty party. At this point it’s worth remembering that when on 8 July 2011 Rebecca Brooks told NoW staff that their paper was to be closed down, she said she had ‘visibility’ of revelations of more criminal activity yet to come, and added: ‘I think in a year’s time every single one of you in this room might come up and say “OK, well I see what you saw now”’
At the conclusion of the trial, Prosecutor Andrew Edis QC stated that:
‘Anyone who has ever suggested or believed or been told that phone-hacking that was revealed in 2006/7 was the work of a single rogue reporter needs to look carefully at this dock in which there are four employees of the NoW and only one of them can be described as a reporter, Thurlbeck who was chief reporter’.
‘Between them these defendants utterly corrupted this newspaper which became at the highest level a criminal enterprise. This was systemic misconduct approved and participated in by the editor himself’.
Weatherup’s QC, Charles Bott, strongly suggested at his client’s pre-sentencing hearing, that the criminality extended much further than the four defendants, stating that Weatherup had instructed Mulcaire to hack phones only because it was the ‘standing policy’ of the NoW at the time. Senior staff at the newspaper encouraged and actively condoned the practice as an ‘expedient and cost effective’ way of gathering stories. He concluded:
‘At the time of Mr Weatherup’s offending we say phone-hacking was endemic. Secondly we say the ultimate responsibility for that lay at senior editorial levels. Thirdly the suggestion that phone-hacking was the responsibility of a small clique of news editors is falsely misleading. We have gone from rogue reporter to rogue reporter-plus but neither of those reflect the truth’.
Thurlbeck’s pre-sentencing hearing contained rather more specific revelations, since he had refused to testify against ‘former friends and colleagues’ at the trial itself. His QC, Hugh Davies, told the court that phone hacking at the NoW was sanctioned by managing editor Stuart Kuttner and three other top executives. Davies also said that it was Kuttner and Coulson who took the decision not to inform the police of the suspected whereabouts of Milly Dowler for 24 hours, while the paper tried to find her themselves and get an exclusive story. One really cannot help but wonder if the verdict in Kuttner’s case would have been different had Thurlbeck actually testified against him.
Thus for anyone willing to listen, the phone hacking trial has, if not fully revealed, then at least raised the curtain on, the sheer extent of criminal activity at the former NoW, and this in spite of the epic deletions of 10m pre-2010 e-mails at the paper, and the five-year failure of the police to deal with allegations of criminal behaviour at the NoW until Operation Weeting was finally set up. But this is by no means the end of the story.
Eleven more trials are due to take place involving twenty current or former Sun and the News of the World journalists, who are accused variously of making illegal payments to public officials, conspiring to intercept voicemail, and accessing data on stolen mobile phones. On 7 July Coulson was served with an indictment to face perjury proceedings at the High Court in Glasgow on 6 August, having been charged with the offence in 2012 after being questioned in connection with his evidence at the 2010 Tommy Sheridan perjury trial.
In the high court, Murdoch has been mired in civil litigation. News UK has already paid damages of £250m to 718 of Mulcaire’s victims, but the settlements involve less than 15% of the suspected 5,500 victims. Now News UK faces a new round of litigation from victims of Dan Evans, the former Sunday Mirror showbusiness writer recruited by the News of the World specifically on account of the hacking skills. As noted above, he pleaded guilty in 2013, and he also co-operated with police in the hope of receiving a lighter sentence. According to one source, detectives have recently been warning up to 90 people a week that they were targeted by Evans, whose final total of victims may amount to 1,600. His former employer, Trinity Mirror, is currently facing phone-hacking claims from at least thirty public figures, including Alan Yentob, Peter Andre, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Gary Flitcroft, Cilla Black, Christopher Eccleston, Davina McCall, Sheryl Gascoigne and Shane Richie. These are being investigated by Operation Golding
Furthermore, Operation Weeting detectives are understood to have found evidence that Mulcaire hacked the voicemail messages of officers from Scotland Yard’s highly secret witness protection programme. These officers have access to the new identities and current whereabouts of witnesses, victims of crime and offenders whose safety could be in jeopardy – information that is often the subject of a high court order prohibiting its disclosure, a breach of which could be ruled to be a contempt of court. Any action would be brought by the attorney general’s office, which was informed of the possible breach by the Metropolitan Police in April 2012. Absolutely inevitably, among those targeted by Mulcaire were the tabloid hate objects Robert Thomson, Jon Venables and Mary Bell.
Martin Hickman has very usefully summarised the various continuing police enquiries into illegal data gathering (). In all, Hickman has revealed, the Met is carrying out ten separate inquiries into the use of various illegal data-gathering techniques. Among them are three hitherto un-announced inquiries examining ‘allegations of computer misuse act offences’: Operations Sabinas, Carrizo and Kerville. In total, detectives have carried out 210 arrests and interviews under caution, including 96 of journalists, 26 of police officers and thirteen of private investigators. So far these have led to 71 charges, nineteen guilty pleas, seven acquittals, and fifteen journalists and public officials being sentenced for offences ranging from phone hacking to misconduct in a public office. The total cost of the investigations so far is £32.7m.
The ten Scotland Yard inquiries are:
- three inquiries into phone hacking (Operations Weeting and Pinetree, both of which concern the NoW, the latter involving Evans’ activity; and Golding, which concerns the Mirror Group)
- three into ‘computer misuse offences’ (Sabinas, Carrizo and Kerville)
- two into computer hacking (Tuleta and Kalmyk)
- one into corruption of public officials (Elveden. The most significant and potentially damaging case arising out of this concerns a Ministry of Defence official, Bettina Jordan-Barber, alleged to have been paid nearly £100,000 by the Sun for stories);
- one into allegations of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice (Sacha)
And there’s more.
In August 2013, the Independent revealed that lawyers for the Metropolitan Police had identified News International as a ‘corporate suspect’ in October 2011. In May 2012 Scotland Yard warned the parent company, News Corp, that News International was under ‘active investigation’. In September 2012 detectives interviewed under caution Les Hinton, the former chairman of News International and Mr Murdoch’s right-hand man for decades. Then, during the hacking trial, but barely reported in British papers, it emerged that Brooks and Coulson too had been interviewed under caution, in May 2012, for corporate charges concerning hacking and bribery.
Although this too has been reported almost nowhere in the UK press, apart from the Guardian, Murdoch has now been officially informed by Scotland Yard that detectives want to interview him under caution as a suspect in their inquiry into allegations of criminal behaviour at his British newspapers. The guilty verdict on Coulson increases the possibility that News UK could be charged as a corporation, which could potentially lead to the prosecution of members of the UK company’s former board of directors, which included Rupert and James Murdoch, under section 79 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. This makes directors liable for prosecution if their company breaches the Act as a result of their consent, connivance or neglect. Such a prosecution can occur only if the ‘controlling minds’ of the company are found to be guilty of a crime. Following the guilty verdict on Coulson, Operation Weeting is expected to submit a new file of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service.
In the US, News Corp is being investigated at the corporate level by the Department of Justice, and Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation, is known to be waiting to launch a formal congressional investigation into the company. Nor should one forget that the cases being investigated by Operation Elveden leave hanging over the Murdoch empire the shadow of the Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act, US legislation that prohibits American companies from bribing foreign officials. Brooks actually admitted before the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee in 2003 that her newspaper had paid police officers, although she was restrained by Andy Coulson, who was sitting beside her, and Murdoch himself effectively made such an admission too.
Successful corporate charges would be an absolute nightmare for the Murdoch empire, in that they could lead to a revolt on the part of non-Murdoch shareholders, and, at worst, mean that Rupert and James Murdoch could be debarred by law from holding any position within it. That this threat is being taken extremely seriously is demonstrated by the way in which Murdoch split his global business in July 2013, when the highly profitable television and film assets were hived off, as 21st Century Fox, from News Corp, the newspaper group, in what was at least partly an attempt to isolate any possible contagion from the phone-hacking scandal.
So, for those concerned with press reform, there’s everything still to play for, and the topics which we now need to consider as a matter of urgency will be the subject of a future article.
Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media in the School of Arts at Brunel University, chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, and a member of the advisory board of Index on Censorship and of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review.
An earlier version of this post appeared on The Conversation. It is reproduced with permission and thanks.