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Sunday 2 March 2014

   

Separating distaste from actual illegality

Rebekah Brooks is not on trial for her tabloid career (or personal life), her jury is repeatedly told, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

The softly-spoken Jonathan Laidlaw QC, Rebekah Brooks's barrister, was sympathetic when he opened the defence case 10 days ago, concerned that the jury might have found the trial hard to follow. "You're not kidding," they might justifiably have answered. "We've been here for 14 weeks, we're drowning in defendants, witnesses, lawyers and documentation, our heads hurt and we see no end in sight." But of course the nine women and three men did no such thing. Jurors are supposed to keep quiet and pay attention.

Despite the allegations and excitements of the trial so far, he reminded them, Brooks is not on trial for editing a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, for having worked her way up from the bottom to the top of News International, or for her political views.

What she is on trial for are four counts of conspiracy: one (with her ex-lover and successor as editor of the now-defunct News of the World, Andy Coulson, and seven others) to intercept communications without lawful authority, ie phone hacking; one (with four others) to commit misconduct in public office, ie unlawfully to pay public officials for information; and two to pervert the course of justice by (with her then personal assistant) having seven boxes removed from the News International archive and (with her husband and five others) concealing documents and electronic devices from the police.

The judge ordered the jury to acquit her on an additional charge of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office by paying for a picture of Prince William when he attended a fancy dress party as a Bond girl. On "a matter of law", Mr Justice Saunders had decided there was no case to answer concerning "the picture of Prince William in a bikini acquired by the Sun".

It's that mixture of legal formality, farce, tabloid vulgarity, human interest and star-studded celebrity that continues to make this case so arresting. The previous week, Brooks had described her fast ascent to the top under the patronage of Rupert Murdoch, the "car crash" nature of her personal life, and her battles with infertility, and had had to leave the court briefly to wipe away tears and recover her composure. Last week was mostly about her saying no to a raft of questions.

She hadn't, she said, known phone hacking was illegal, but she would have considered it a serious breach of privacy and wouldn't have sanctioned it. She hadn't known her news editor had commissioned the paper's specialist phone hacker, Glenn Mulcaire, to access the voicemail of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, and when she heard that News of the World reporters had deleted voicemails (thus giving the Dowlers false hope) she experienced "shock and horror". (One of the oddities of this case is that it was this allegation, made by the Guardian newspaper, that caused the public backlash which made Murdoch close down the News of the World, yet it later turned out not to be true.) Indeed, she didn't know the paper had Mulcaire on a £92,000-a-year (€111,620) contract. She was herself, it had turned out, among Mulcaire's victims.

She denied the prosecution's allegation that she and Coulson had had a six-year affair: they had merely had periods of "physical intimacy". There were problems in their relationship because with her editing the Sun and him the News of the World, they were in competition for stories and had to keep a "Chinese wall" around their professional lives. He, for instance, didn't give her notice he was breaking a story about an alleged affair of David Beckham's, because "he wouldn't know that the day he mentioned it I might have had dinner with Victoria [Beckham] where she mentioned it".

It was a demanding world. Brooks received a message at 5.30am from the News of the World executive chairman to take over the Sun immediately and make it funny, softer and "add a bit of light".

Looking back, she deplores such mistakes as branding Clare Short MP a "killjoy" and "fat and jealous" for denouncing the Sun's Page Three topless photos as "degrading pornography".

But she's not charged with that – and she's not apologising for occasionally sanctioning payments of public officials for information she considered in the public interest. She is, however, ashamed that she refused to buy at great expense the material that became the Telegraph's MPs'-expenses scoop, which has incurred no prosecutions.

And that, of course, is the nub of the conspiracy charge relating to "misconduct" and a central problem for the jury. What is in the public interest? Who decides? And what is the view of the judge, who sent several parliamentarians to jail as a result of the evidence of the stolen material?

Brooks asked that the session end at Friday lunchtime as she was tired. The jurors must have been thrilled.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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