Ex-Murdoch editor Rebekah Brooks launches phone-hacking defence, acquitted on one charge

Brooks acquitted over alleged payment for Prince William photo, denies four other charges and claims never to have heard of phone hacking at the News of the World paper

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 February, 2014, 8:37pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 10:36am

The jury trying Rebekah Brooks over phone-hacking charges should not hold her role as a former Rupert Murdoch editor with huge political influence against her, her lawyer said, as the former British newspaper boss took the stand on Thursday.

Brooks, a friend of Prime Minister David Cameron, answered questions in court for the first time on the hacking scandal which has convulsed Britain’s elite and forced Murdoch to close the 168-year-old tabloid at the centre of the scandal, the News of the World.

It is time for you to see Mrs Brooks as she is, not as she is described or spoken of, but as she is
Jonathan Laidlaw

Opening Brooks’s defence within a packed court room on day 62 of the trial, Jonathan Laidlaw urged the jury to forget the myth that had built up around one of the most famous women in Britain, and to focus on the specific charges.

He was speaking shortly after the judge ruled that Brooks had been acquitted on one of the five charges she was facing, relating to one charge of authorising an illegal payment for a picture of Prince William in a bikini. She denies all the other charges.

“It is time for you to see Mrs Brooks as she is, not as she is described or spoken of, but as she is,” Laidlaw told the jury, adding that the time had come for them “to begin the process to work out if there is any truth in the allegations made against her”.

Laidlaw said he would have more to say later in the trial about Brooks’s treatment “at the hands of the police and the prosecution and about the approach that has been taken to her case”.

Prince picture

He told the jury Brooks was not on trial for her role as a senior editor to Murdoch, or the influence that this gave her.

“She is not being tried, is she, because she was the editor of a tabloid newspaper,” he said.

“Neither is she on trial for having worked for Rupert Murdoch’s company or for having worked her way up literally from the bottom through that organisation.”

Laidlaw said Brooks was not being tried for her political views or the stance of News International, News Corp’s British newspaper arm which she ran until 2011.

“She’s not being tried for News International’s strategy, for its policies, its influences or its corporate views.”

Brooks took the stand for the first time on Thursday, wearing a blue dress and white cardigan, and appeared apprehensive as she started answering questions about how she had got into journalism.

She occasionally cast glances at her husband who is in the dock accused of helping her to hide evidence from police.

“My mum says I told her when I was eight I wanted to be a journalist,” she said, before noting to the judge that mothers tend to say that sort of thing.

The jury was told she moved to the News of the World to work on its magazine as a researcher in 1989, and later as a writer. Asked how good she was at interviewing people for stories, she said: “Well I kept my job so I must have been alright.”

Despite a lack of experience and only basic journalism training, the court heard how she rapidly rose through the ranks. By March 1994, she was deputy features editor and the following September, at the age of just 27, was made acting deputy editor of what was then Britain’s biggest selling newspaper.

Brooks, 45, is still accused of four other offences relating to conspiracy to hack voicemail messages on mobile phones, authorising illegal payments to public officials and then plotting to hinder a subsequent police investigation.

Before she began her defence, the jury were instructed by the judge overseeing her trial at London’s Old Bailey court to return a verdict of not guilty on one of two charges against her of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.

This related to an allegation that Brooks had approved an illegal £4,000 (HK$52,000) payment for a picture of Prince William dressed as a “James Bond girl” and wearing a bikini while at a military academy party in 2006.

“I have decided there is no case for Mrs Brooks to answer on count four, that is the charge relating to the picture of Prince William in a bikini that was acquired by The Sun newspaper,” the judge, Justice John Saunders told the jury.

In the dock

Brooks told the jury how, in seven years, she had risen from a post as junior researcher on the News of the World’s Sunday magazine to become deputy editor of the paper in December 1995, aged 27. Along the way, she said, she had encountered “a bit of old school misogyny”.

There was only a small percentage of women in the newsroom. The features department had more women and was, therefore, known internally to some as the “pink parlour”, and when she became a founder member of Women in Journalism, to promote the role of women in Fleet Street, she was aware of WIJ being referred to as “the whingers”.

She told the jury about some of the stories that had helped her career. She had befriended the England footballer Paul Gascoigne after he broke his leg in the FA Cup final in 1991. As a result, in July 1994, he had agreed to give her an interview about incidents of domestic violence in his marriage. The paper had paid him between £50,000 and £80,000 for doing so. “It’s a good story,” she said, “but also it’s a way of highlighting these issues.”

A year later, when the actor Hugh Grant was arrested in Los Angeles with Divine Brown, who at the time was a prostitute, Brooks’s editor, Phil Hall, had said that they must secure Brown’s story. With the help of a US-based freelance journalist who had previously been a private investigator, they had found Brown. “The News of the World got there first and she agreed to do a deal with us.” She said they had paid Brown US$100,000 for an interview, and then spent up to US$150,000 more to hide her from rival newspapers.

They had arranged to move Brown to an “oasis resort” in the Nevada desert, but Brown was “very smart” and insisted she be accompanied by her whole family, including cousins. The News of the World had hired a plane to transport them to the resort and then, fearing that the Daily Mail or the Sun might be on their trail, they had moved them to a second resort.

At the time, Brooks had been features editor of the paper and the operation had “blown” her weekly spending limit. That could cause tension, she told the jury, but she had been moved by “the thought of not getting the story and of having to face the editor”.

During this time, she said, Rupert Murdoch had come into her office for the first time and given her “kind advice” to take her time and to learn as she went. He had told her he did not like editors who sought publicity, “going on Radio 4 and spouting forth about their opinions”. She added: “I think I made the fatal error of telling him that Woman’s Own wanted to interview me, and the reaction was extremely grim.”

As deputy, she would sometimes stand in for the editor of the News of the World and take calls from Murdoch on a Saturday evening, asking always: “What’s going on?” She said the proprietor was “obsessed with news”.

She told the jury there was intense competition between the news and features departments at the paper. As features editor, she said, she had run a story about the relationship between the Conservative MP Alan Clark and a judge’s wife. The story had ended with an appeal to readers to supply more information. When she had come into the office at the beginning of the next week, she had found her phone lines cut. “No one owned up to it, but I always suspected it was the newsdesk.”

On another occasion, she discovered that the newsdesk had compiled a file of “any perceived mistakes or stupid stories I had done”. The entries in the file had been labelled Twat 1, Twat 2, Twat 3.

She said she had got to know Tony Blair in 1996. Her then partner, the actor Ross Kemp, was “a card-carrying member of the Labour party” and had taken her to a rally in Nottingham or Sheffield where she had met Blair and “the original New Labour crew”. The following year, the Sun and News of the World had switched their support from Conservative to Labour.

Editor unaware

After two years as deputy editor of the Sun, she had returned to the News of the World as editor in January 2000.

Laidlaw asked her whether, during the two and a half years she held that job, she had heard the name of Glenn Mulcaire.

“No,” she replied.

“Did anybody speak his name in your presence?”“No.” “As for phone-hacking – accessing voicemail messages – was any involvement he had in that practice ever drawn to your attention?” “No. Not at all.”

She said that on taking over as editor, she had appointed as investigations editor Greg Miskiw who, the jury have been told, has pleaded guilty to conspiring with Mulcaire to hack phones. Brooks said she had ordered Miskiw to return from a new posting to New York because she thought it was a waste of money for the paper to have a New York bureau. She had a professional relationship with him, she said, but “he was quite insular”.

Asked if Miskiw’s investigation unit had been set up to hack voicemail, she said: “It’s just not correct.”

Rebekah Brooks denies conspiring to intercept voicemail, one remaining count of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office and two counts of perverting the course of justice.

The trial continues.