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.

Only 15 reporters could squeeze into the lawyer-packed court; the rest watched CCTV pictures of proceedings in a grubby-carpeted basement. Over four days, Edis set out the prosecution’s case. Brooks, Coulson and Kuttner were charged with conspiring to hack voicemails between 2000 and 2006. Coulson and Goodman were charged with conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office by bribing officers from Scotland Yard’s Royal and Diplomatic Protection squad to obtain the palace phone directories found in 2006. Brooks was also charged with authorising payments, not to the police, as she’d admitted doing to the select committee, but to a Ministry of Defence official, when she was editor of the Sun. She, her husband Charlie, her PA, Cheryl Carter, and News International’s head of security, Mark Hanna, were also accused of plotting to pervert the course of justice by hiding evidence.

Even if much evidence was missing, the fragments that remained were startling enough. For the first time, the correspondence about the palace phone directories was made public. Goodman emailed his editor at 1.38 p.m. on 24 January 2003:

Andy – one of our royal policemen (St James’s Palace) has obtained the brand new Green Book, the telephone directory with all the phone numbers of the royal family and their household staff. Incredibly useful … The standard price is £1000. So far so good. But I had a heck of a time getting cash creds signed off by Stuart [Kuttner] earlier this week to pay a Kensington Palace copper … I think that we should have the book and the goodwill that goes with it but I am keen to avoid round two with the Man Ed … I’m not criticising Stuart at all, but these people will not be paid anything other than cash because if they’re discovered selling stuff to us they end up on criminal charges, as could we.

Three minutes later, Coulson replied: ‘This is fine. Didn’t I sign off on purchase of Green Book quite recently?’ These emails – and a similar exchange between the pair in 2005 – exist only because a solicitor working on Goodman’s subsequent claim for unfair dismissal happened to print them out. Otherwise they, like thousands of others, would have been deleted.

Emails were also central to the bribery case against Brooks. In a series of 11 emails, a Sun reporter asked for payment to a source who’d given him a number of scoops about the deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan and army sex scandals. One of them reads:

Morning boss,

I wonder if you could please approve the following payments for my number one military contact which are paid via Thomas Cook. Your email okaying them is all the paperwork necessary. The stories are:

Recruit speared by drill sergeant – £3000

Drunken Sandhurst instructor sacked – £1000

Woman squaddie killed in Iraq – £500

‘Of course,’ Brooks had replied. Edis told the jury that the person who collected the cash was Bettina Jordan-Barber, a Ministry of Defence official. No witness was produced to demonstrate that Brooks knew this. The emails were the only evidence, aside, perhaps, from her willingness to sign off £38,000 so blithely.

As for the conspiracies to pervert the course of justice, one was straightforward: on 7 July 2011, the day Coulson was arrested, Carter, Brooks’s PA, had removed seven boxes of her own notebooks, from the period between 1995 and 2007, from News International’s archives. The second was that on 17 July that year, Brooks and her husband tried to thwart a police search. The jury was shown CCTV pictures of Charlie Brooks carrying a jiffy bag and another bag down to the car park beneath their flat at Chelsea Harbour, where he stowed them behind some bins. News International security guards retrieved them and took them to Wapping while detectives searched the flat. The security guards then returned the bags to the car park, stashing them behind the bins along with a pizza. One of the guards, borrowing from Where Eagles Dare, texted his colleague: ‘Broadsword to Danny Boy. Pizza’s delivered and the chicken is in the pot.’ Another text complained they should have used a dead letter box. Edis suggested the whole exercise was so fishy as to be criminal. But he had to admit a flaw in the Crown’s case. The bags were discovered behind the bins by a cleaner, who handed them in, but they contained nothing of interest to the police, just Charlie’s collection of 1970s lesbian porn, which he claimed had prompted his ‘rash’ decision to conceal the bags in the first place.

But this was a sideshow: the trial was primarily about phone hacking, and Edis focused on thirty individual cases, including those involving three cabinet ministers, Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Prescott. Edis told the court that while their papers were busy hacking to find evidence of other people’s affairs – in January 2003 the Sun ran a story calling Andy Gilchrist, then leading the Fire Brigade Union in a series of strikes against the Blair government, a ‘lying, cheating, low-life fornicator’ – Coulson and Brooks had been having one themselves for eight years. Police had found an unsent letter from Brooks to Coulson on an old computer at the bottom of a cupboard. The defence barristers tried to halt the reading of the letter on the grounds that it would breach the human rights of Coulson’s children but the judge let Edis read a paragraph: ‘The fact is you are my very best friend, I tell you everything, I confide in you, I seek your advice, I love you, care about you, worry about you, we laugh and cry together.’ Edis said the letter was relevant because the jury would need to decide whether the conspirators were likely to share work confidences.

Their relationship was certainly relevant in the Milly Dowler case. At the time of Dowler’s abduction in March 2002, the News of the World was edited by Brooks, who had orchestrated the paper’s ‘For Sarah’ campaign against paedophiles. Within three weeks of Dowler’s disappearance on her way home from school, Thurlbeck had commissioned Mulcaire to hack her messages. Most were what you’d expect to be left on the phone of a missing girl, but one was different. A recruitment agent called Jo Hanson had left a message: ‘This is Jo from Mondays Recruitment Agency. We are ringing because we have some interviews starting today at Epson. Please ring.’

Brooks said she knew nothing about the hacking: she was on holiday in Dubai at the time and Coulson was editing the paper. On 12 April, six reporters and photographers were sent to Telford to stake out Mondays Recruitment Agency and the factory. Phone records show that Brooks spoke to the editor’s office at the News of the World that day. William Hennessey, who was with her in Dubai, told the court that she went off to make a phone call, saying something about ‘a missing Surrey schoolgirl’. By Saturday morning, the paper had found no trace of Dowler (Hanson had misdialled while trying to leave a message for someone else). The reporters told the recruitment agency they were working for the Dowler family and with the police. Kuttner called the agency’s owner, Mark Hancox. By late afternoon on Saturday the search had been called off and the paper finally told the police its theory about Dowler’s whereabouts. The following week, Kuttner emailed the police, challenging their suggestion that the voicemail was a hoax, complaining: ‘We passed on information about messages left on Amanda Dowler’s phone … We offered a copy of a tape-recording of the messages.’

As for Blunkett, a search of a safe at Wapping in 2011 uncovered recordings of 330 of his voicemail messages. Before and after Coulson confronted Blunkett, Edis told the court, Coulson and Brooks phoned each other. On the day of the News of the World splash they exchanged 12 phone calls or text messages. This, he suggested, was important because while Coulson kept his promise not to publish Kimberly Fortier’s name, she was named in the Sun, edited by Brooks, the following day. But we don’t know what she and Coulson said to each other, only the timing of the calls.

The defence QCs tried to tear apart such scraps of evidence, claiming that they didn’t constitute proof, and repeatedly delayed proceedings by objecting to witnesses on the grounds that they didn’t have long enough to prepare. Aware that Brooks and Coulson’s lawyers took on their cases at the last minute (after the original barristers had been forced to withdraw during the pre-trial hearings), the judge usually agreed to delay the witnesses’ appearances. This damaged the Crown: Edis was seeking to establish a narrative but the elements were in the wrong order. The jury looked bored and bewildered. It was hard to blame them: the laborious defence interventions, the endless poring over Mulcaire’s notes and the phone data were all tedious. Aside from the Bettina Jordan-Barber emails, there was a noticeable lack of direct evidence against Brooks.

There were, however, two witnesses who did claim that she had demonstrated knowledge of phone hacking. The first, Eimear Cook, ex-wife of the golfer Colin Montgomerie, told the court that at a lunch with Brooks in 2004 at the home of mutual friends in Knightsbridge, she ‘said that it was so easy to do and she couldn’t believe all those famous people who have all these advisers and they don’t know they need to personalise their PIN codes to make their voicemails secure’. But Cook also stated that Brooks had laughed about being arrested for assaulting her then husband, Ross Kemp. As Laidlaw pointed out, the assault had happened six weeks after the lunch. He accused Cook of telling lies.

The second witness, Ambi Sitham, a former media lawyer, said that in 2004 she’d gone to a restaurant in Balham with Brooks, Coulson and Piers Morgan, then editor of the Mirror. At the end of the meal, when Brooks and Morgan were finalising the next day’s front pages, Morgan ‘said to Rebekah that he already knew what her splash was going to be. He said something along the lines of: “I already know what your splash or cover is because I’ve been listening to your messages” … She came back to him and retorted: “Been hacking into my phone again, Piers?”’

In January, the Crown’s star witness showed up. In 2009, Dan Evans, a features writer at the News of the World, used his own mobile phone to intercept the voicemails of the designer Kelley Hoppen. Vodafone told Hoppen about the hack and she traced the number. Evans was arrested and started to negotiate with the Crown Prosecution Service. He was offered time off his sentence if he testified against Coulson. He claimed that Coulson poached him from the Sunday Mirror because of his skill at hacking and that he played his new editor a voicemail hacked from the phone of the actor Daniel Craig. According to Evans, after hearing the message, left by Sienna Miller, Coulson exclaimed ‘Brilliant,’ while another executive told him: ‘You’re a company man now.’ For days, Langdale pounded Evans: he was a liar, a drug user, and his account of the Miller hack couldn’t be true. ‘I didn’t see you there,’ Evans responded. Langdale waved a copy of Evans’s expenses showing that in the week of the Miller story, Evans had claimed for a ‘meal with Daniel Craig contact’. ‘What’s that?’ Langdale demanded. Wearily, Evans said that he was fiddling his expenses: ‘It was a routine part of tabloid life.’

*

All the defendants went into the witness box but time had dimmed their memories. Kuttner, the News of the World managing editor between 1987 and 2009, told the jury he’d had a stroke and couldn’t remember much. He made out that he was just an old-fashioned reporter at heart, the kind who believes in knocking on doors. He couldn’t really remember agreeing to Mulcaire’s £100,000-a-year contract, but claimed he’d been shocked when he found out about Mulcaire’s activities. A memo shows that he tried to cut Mulcaire’s budget in half, which the Crown suggested was proof that he knew what Mulcaire was up to. His counsel, Jonathan Caplan, asked him: ‘Can you remember the circumstances in which you might have been persuaded about that?’ Kuttner replied: ‘I’m afraid I don’t.’

Wearing no make-up and talking softly, Brooks spoke in the witness box about her working-class roots and her dizzying ascent through the ranks of ‘probably’ misogynistic News of the World journalists. Tears welled up as she admitted that her personal life was ‘a car crash’ for years, but that after failed IVF treatment, she had a baby, born to a surrogate mother, in 2012. She knew nothing about phone hacking, she said, and didn’t realise Mulcaire had a contract with her newspaper. She didn’t learn of the Dowler hack until July 2011, when her response was: ‘Well, you know, shock, horror. Everything.’ When it came to Blunkett, Fortier’s identity wasn’t really a secret and she wouldn’t discuss exclusives with Coulson: they were rival editors, after all. She claimed she had no idea that her reporter’s ‘top military contact’ worked at the Ministry of Defence and never felt the need to ask him because News International’s reporters knew they had to follow the law.

So what was the explanation for the corporate cover-up of the phone hacking? On 13 April 2007, Brooks went to the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall to meet Clive Goodman. Newly released from jail, he was pursuing his unfair dismissal claim against News International, on the grounds that its senior management had known about hacking and encouraged it. Brooks offered him a job on the Sun. She told the court she’d been worried he would make ‘unfounded allegations’ against the company. Edis asked her whether as chief executive of News International between 2009 and 2011, she had ever inquired into the extent of phone hacking. She said she hadn’t because she thought the company’s previous investigations had been successful.

Of all the defendants, Coulson had been the most studious, ever present in the dock. But even for a spin doctor, skilled at talking his way out of trouble, Dowler, Blunkett and Evans presented formidable obstacles. In the witness box, he said he thought the theory that Dowler was working in a factory was ludicrous and although he vaguely recalled reporters being in Telford he didn’t remember sending them there. He hadn’t, he made out, really noticed the story at all. Nor did he listen to the voicemail Sienna Miller left on Daniel Craig’s phone. But Blunkett presented him with a real problem. His paper had 330 voicemails from Blunkett and he had personally confronted the home secretary, telling him he had ‘extremely reliable sources’, though he didn’t say what they were. How could he not have known? His answer, to the shock of Court 12, was: I did know. But, he went on, he didn’t approve the hacking. When he was on holiday in July 2004 he’d got a call from Thurlbeck, who told him that the home secretary was having an affair, and that he knew this because he’d heard Blunkett’s voicemails. ‘I was shocked,’ Coulson claimed. He said he told Thurlbeck to stop immediately, because ‘on the face of what Neville was telling me there was a clear breach of privacy.’ A few weeks later, Thurlbeck popped into his office and said that news of the affair could be claimed to be in the public interest because in his messages Blunkett mentioned a terrorist arrest and a visit to GCHQ. Coulson decided he was right. He published a front-page story but omitted all the public interest elements because they would embarrass Blunkett, who was supposedly ‘a friend’ of the News of the World and News International.

A year later, the News of the World hacked the phone of Blunkett’s successor as home secretary, Charles Clarke. An email casually set out the tip that prompted the paper to unleash its powers of surveillance on Clarke:

From: [Redacted]

Sent: 25 May 2005 17:34

To: Coulson, Andy

Cc: Weatherup, James

Lewis has had a tip that Home Secretary Charles Clarke is having an affair with his blonde, attractive special adviser Hannah Pawlby. He got this from a Westminster insider who fancied Pawlby, was going to ask her out and was told, ‘Don’t bother wasting your time – she’s with Charles.’

I spoke to [political editor] Ian Kirby about this, who mentioned that news have been working on this for a while through Neville. Our tip gave us Pawlby’s mobile, which I imagine Neville already has. Ian was pretty wary of the tip, as no doubt you’re aware – they do come along a lot. Lewis trusts his tipster and has a pretty good track record, but cannot get any further info.

Thurlbeck and a private investigator called Derek Webb, from a company called Silent Shadow, watched Pawlby’s flat; Mulcaire hacked her phone. Coulson even called Pawlby himself, asking Clarke to call him back urgently (ironically, she never heard the messages because Mulcaire accidentally deleted them). Coulson said he wasn’t going to ask the home secretary whether he was having an affair; he may, he said, have intended to ask whether Ronnie Biggs was about to be released from prison. As it turns out, Clarke and Pawlby were not having an affair. As for the emails about the royal phone directories, Coulson didn’t really believe that Goodman was bribing the police; he was an embellisher. And in any case, he just ‘rubber-stamped’ the payments.

Goodman responded that under Coulson the News of the World was ‘extraordinarily competitive, quite bullying, menacing’. Other journalists had supplied the phone books, he admitted; he only said they were police officers because he thought the News of the World would pay up quicker. Langdale, Coulson’s lawyer, who wanted to portray Goodman as a shifty character, forced him to admit that he’d hacked the phones of Prince William, Prince Harry and Kate Middleton – Middleton’s 155 times, including on Christmas Eve and Valentine’s Day. Goodman said that during the last two years of Coulson’s editorship – Coulson resigned in 2007 after Goodman’s conviction – every story was a result of hacking. (In a memo to a manager in April 2004 listing his hacking targets, Mulcaire wrote: ‘Overload. NO MORE PLEASE.’)

In his closing speech, on 7 May, Edis told the jury that the defendants’ insistence that they didn’t know about hacking was fanciful: ‘It’s a little like you had a murder case, and three people had spent a week in the house where the body was, and they came out and told the police: “We never smelled anything. We were in the kitchen or in the attic.”’ Laidlaw said that Brooks was a victim of a ‘witch-hunt’ and that Edis was the witch-finder general.

After deliberating for eight days, the jury came back on 24 June, unable to reach verdicts on the ‘palace cops’ corruption charges. They returned just one guilty verdict, on Coulson for conspiring to hack voicemails, which the forewoman delivered with a trembling lip. Rebekah Brooks, Stuart Kuttner and the others were found not guilty. What have we learned? That, as the News of the World knew, if you want to prove somebody has done something wrong, you need good evidence. And that QCs earn every penny.