Former tabloid editor Rebekah Brooks, a close confidante of Rupert Murdoch and once one of Britain’s most influential women, was acquitted Tuesday on charges of phone hacking, bribery and obstruction of justice in a case that shook this country to its core and exposed uncomfortably close ties between politicians, police and the press.
Brooks’ former deputy, Andy Coulson, was found guilty on charges connected to hacking into cellphones and accessing private voicemail messages when he worked at the now-defunct News of the World. Coulson went on to become the top communications aide to Prime Minister David Cameron, who immediately faced tough questions about his judgment in hiring a man who is now a convicted criminal.
Cameron had promised to make a public apology if Coulson was convicted. Hours after the verdicts were delivered, the British leader fulfilled that pledge.
“I am extremely sorry I employed him,” said Cameron, who faces a tough reelection battle next year. “I gave someone a second chance and it turned out to be a bad decision.”
The jury also cleared Brooks’ husband, Charlie Brooks; her former personal assistant, Cheryl Carter; and the director of security at Murdoch’s News International, Mark Hanna, of charges that they tried to cover up wrongdoing and conceal evidence as police launched an investigation into widespread phone hacking.
Authorities believe that the News of the World tapped into the voicemail boxes of hundreds of people, including famous actors, politicians and sports figures. The scandal exploded in July 2011 with revelations that the paper had tapped into the messages left on the cellphone of a kidnapped 13-year-old girl who was later found killed.
Amid the public revulsion that followed, Murdoch shuttered the 168-year-old tabloid, and Brooks, 46, resigned as chief of his British newspapers. The head of Scotland Yard stepped down over accusations of too-cozy relations between police and the media, and a controversial bid by Murdoch to expand his broadcast holdings in Britain sank into oblivion.
Tuesday’s verdicts came after a week of jury deliberations in one of the longest criminal trials in British history. Over seven months, the panel heard from dozens of witnesses, examined thousands of documents and listened to salacious details of the defendants’ personal lives that were worthy of the tabloids under scrutiny.
Besides the Brookses, Carter and Hanna, a former senior editor at the News of the World, Stuart Kuttner, was acquitted on phone-hacking charges.
Verdicts were still outstanding on charges against former reporter Clive Goodman, who admitted on the witness stand that he had hacked into the cellphones of Prince William and his wife, the former Kate Middleton, nearly 200 times.
Coulson was also still awaiting the jury’s decision on charges he paid a member of the royal family’s security detail for a directory of phone numbers of the royal household. Coulson’s phone-hacking conviction could alone land him in prison for up to two years.
The scandal shone a light on the tight web of connections that link members of Britain’s elite and its power structure. Politicians came in for grilling over their closeness to Murdoch and to journalists at his British titles, such as the Sun and the Times of London, which wield great influence in public life here. Scotland Yard was also found to have a cozy relationship with news outlets, which paid for tips and scoops and provided flattering coverage of police operations.
Murdoch was summoned before Parliament to answer questions on what he called “the most humble day of my life.”
A judge-led inquiry into journalistic ethics exposed a variety of unsavory practices on Fleet Street, including reporters who dug through trash cans, misrepresented themselves, hacked phones and hired private eyes to look for dirt on the rich and famous. The inquiry has spawned a new government-sanctioned system for regulating the media, although some prominent publications have declined to participate for fear of state censorship.
Some of the worst excesses at Britain’s scandal sheets have been curbed, said Roy Greenslade, a media expert at City University in London.
“There’s still lots of bad behavior ... but I don’t think it’s anything like as bad as it was prior to the hacking case,” he said. “The dark arts may return in future, but right now, those tools have been put in the cupboard.”
He said that the difference was particularly marked at the Sun, one of Britain’s bestselling newspapers, which has long been notorious for its daily photos of topless women and its jingoistic, xenophobic stories.
“The Sun is less vicious, less vulgar, and there’s no kiss-and-tell stories, which were appearing on a daily, weekly basis [as] part of the staple diet of the news agenda,” Greenslade said. “The paper is friendlier, kinder, nicer, and I think that’s a very clear calculating move by Rupert Murdoch.”
Murdoch has tried to stay out of the limelight in Britain, and high-ranking politicians who once clamored for invitations to his parties and feared to criticize his business interests now shun any public association with him.
“We said long ago, and repeat today, that wrongdoing occurred, and we apologized for it,” said a statement from News UK, the new name of Murdoch’s News International. “We have been paying compensation to those affected and have cooperated with investigations. We made changes in the way we do business to help ensure wrongdoing like this does not occur again.”
Since the scandal broke, scores of journalists and public officials have been arrested in a multi-pronged investigation by Scotland Yard into phone hacking, computer hacking and bribery. Three senior News of the World journalists have pleaded guilty to phone hacking and await sentencing.
After their acquittals Tuesday morning, the Brookses left London’s Old Bailey courthouse without comment. Whether Rebekah Brooks returns to Murdoch’s publishing empire remains to be seen.
Her lawyers had argued that she was unaware of the hacking at the News of the World during her editorship. Although she admitted to paying some public officials for information “half a dozen” times during her career, for stories of “overwhelming public interest,” she denied the specific bribery charge against her.
At the trial, her personal life came in for the kind of embarrassing examination that her publications had previously subjected others to. She and Coulson were revealed to have conducted a years-long affair when he was her deputy editor at the News of the World and when both were married to others.
Coulson acknowledged that he knew information gleaned from a hacked phone was the source of a story he published after succeeding Brooks as editor; he said he was shocked but ran the story anyway. He denied ever authorizing his reporters to intercept voicemail messages, but the jury was presented with an email in which Coulson had written to one underling: “Do his phone.”
Prosecutors also tried to show that the Brookses had tried to conceal evidence from police, with the help of Carter, Rebekah Brooks’ assistant, and Hanna, the director of security at her office.
Charlie Brooks was caught on a closed-circuit security camera apparently stuffing a laptop and other items behind trash cans in the parking structure of the London apartment he and his wife shared. But his lawyers said it was a crude attempt to avoid having police discover pornographic movies he owned.
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