The Ballad of Andy and Rebekah

Martin Hickman on the phone hacking trial

For three years David Blunkett, then the Labour home secretary, had an affair with Kimberly Fortier, publisher of the Spectator. The affair came to an end in the summer of 2004. A few weeks later, on Friday 13 August, Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World, showed up at Blunkett’s office in Sheffield to ask whether he was having an affair with a married woman. Blunkett recorded their conversation. The tape became the most important single piece of evidence in the phone hacking trial that has just come to an end. Blunkett avoided confirming Coulson’s story, saying that he was entitled to a private life. But he had a question of his own: how did Coulson know he was having an affair? ‘People do talk,’ Coulson said. He claimed that the story could be managed, that he didn’t want to ‘damage’ the secretary of state and that there was no need to name his lover. ‘What I am saying to you,’ he told Blunkett, ‘is that I am prepared to run the story … That will obviously give the News of the World a fairly prominent piece – I don’t think necessarily a splash but probably a page one story with a spread inside. And I think that will bring it to an end.’ The following Sunday, the News of the World splashed the story. Four months later, Blunkett resigned from the cabinet.

We now know the answer to Blunkett’s question. The News of the World – first when Rebekah Brooks was editor, then under Coulson – hacked the phones of hundreds of people. In July 2011, after a long cover-up collapsed, Rupert Murdoch closed the paper in an attempt to limit the damage. That same month Brooks, Coulson and six other figures linked to News International were charged with breaching the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – which deals with the interception of communication – and related offences. Their trial began in October 2013.

Murdoch’s centrality to UK power was vividly illustrated. Brooks, his schmoozer-in-chief, popped into MI5 for briefings and hobnobbed with generals and chief constables. She went to David Cameron’s birthday party at Chequers. The day before her arrest, she got friendly texts from Tony Blair (‘I’m no use on police stuff but call me after that because I may be some help on Commons’). Blair also offered advice to Rupert and James Murdoch. Peter Mandelson offered to prep Brooks for an appearance before the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. Two Conservative peers gave glowing character references: Baron Black of Brentwood, a former director of the Press Complaints Commission, for Stuart Kuttner, managing editor at the News of the World, and Baroness Warsi, a minister of state in the Foreign Office, for Coulson. The influence of News International had helped Coulson become Cameron’s director of communications, in which capacity – according to another character witness, the Evening Standard columnist Matthew D’Ancona – he had restored ‘public values’ damaged by the Labour government’s ‘culture of spin’.

Exposed too were the failures of the original police investigation. It’s worth going back over this story. In 2006, Clive Goodman, the royal editor of the News of the World, then edited by Coulson, intercepted the voicemail messages of Princes William and Harry. Goodman was arrested, and the police found 15 confidential palace phone books at his house in Putney. They also found five thousand names mentioned in 11,000 pages of handwritten notes at the home and in the office of Glenn Mulcaire, the private eye employed by the paper. One of those names was David Blunkett. Another was Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who was murdered in 2002. In the top left-hand corner of each page, Mulcaire had written the name of the journalist who had asked him to investigate a person: the names ‘Clive’, ‘Greg’, ‘Neville’ and ‘James’ appeared hundreds of times. But Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck and James Weatherup – all news editors at the News of the World – were not prosecuted. Only Goodman and Mulcaire were charged; the princes, Blunkett and Dowler were kept out of the case. No one mentioned the phone directories.

By the time the proper hacking trial began seven years later, the detectives running Operation Weeting, the Met’s latest attempt at investigating the matter, had charged the three news editors, who all pleaded guilty to hacking. Mulcaire also pleaded guilty to intercepting Dowler’s voicemails. The evidence against them was incontrovertible: they were all over Mulcaire’s notes. The evidence against their bosses was patchier. Since the first, botched investigation, millions of News International’s emails had been deleted, purposefully or otherwise. Operation Weeting had available to it Mulcaire’s notes, some phone records and the occasional chance survival – like Blunkett’s tape recording. But there was very little from inside News International. Parliament prevented the prosecution from making use of Brooks and Coulson’s testimony to the Select Committee – during which she admitted to paying police officers and he blamed Goodman for all the hacking.

The defendants’ astronomical legal bills were footed by News International (now called News UK). Brooks was represented by Jonathan Laidlaw, a reedy-voiced, courteous attack dog, on £6000 a day. Coulson had Timothy Langdale, the plummy doyen of the Bar, at a cost of £7000 a day. Andrew Edis, whose crisp, untheatrical delivery made you feel he was telling the truth, acted for the Crown on £570 a day.

Before the case began, the fifty randomly selected jurors crowding Court 12 were trimmed to a dozen. Anyone self-employed, with children, a critical job, or working for a small employer could be excused from a case scheduled to last as long as this one. One barrister remarked – out of earshot – that few of the selected jurors had jobs.

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