Following the conviction this week of the News of the World's (and later the Sunday Times's and Sun's) "fake sheikh" investigator Mazher Mahmood, it's worth looking at the trial of another senior News International figure, Rebekah Brooks.
Unlike Mahmood, Brooks, who had been chief executive of News International, gave evidence in her defence from the witness box. And unlike Mahmood, she was acquitted of the charge they separately faced: conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, along with additional charges she alone faced: conspiracy to hack phones and corrupt public officials.
While Mahmood is now facing imprisonment, Brooks is chief executive of News UK, Britain's biggest newspaper group.
Click Read More below for Extract from Beyond Contempt
This is an extract from Peter Jukes's book Beyond Contempt: The Inside Story of the Phone Hacking Trial (Canbury Press), about the "trial of the century" which put Brooks, her fellow former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, and other staffers in Rupert Murdoch's UK newspaper group in the dock of the Old Bailey for eight months in 2013-2014.
In February 2014, cameramen and photographers massed outside the Old Bailey. Suddenly the annex was busy again, with glamorous TV news anchors and foreign reporters swelling the ranks of bloggers and court reporters. Rebekah Brooks, formerly head of News International and uncrowned queen of Fleet Street, was unequivocally a crowd puller. Along with Milly Dowler, she was the iconic image of the hacking scandal. Little of this had to do with evidence, and much to do with her personality, and the optics of the media she’d done so much to shape…
The notion of a trial as a contest of narratives was confirmed as soon as Jonathan Laidlaw QC opened his defence case for Brooks. In place of the often chaotic prosecution bundles, he gave the jury stacks of beautifully presented, laminated files. Handing them out, Laidlaw apologised for the chaos of [prosecutor] Edis’ case. “As the order was lost, as we jumped around from topic to topic, it must have been difficult,” he said, waving at prosecution files and timelines: “They aren’t of much great help at all…. Indeed they’re in something of a mess.” Much of the mess was of course down to the tactics of the six-privately funded defence teams. But as Nick Davies later pointed out in a piece for the Guardian, the Crown were hampered by a lack of resources for photocopying and arranging bundles. (When, in the teeth of defence objections, Edis received approval for jurors to have an electronic version of the evidence to look at in retirement, funds were so short he offered to pay for it himself.)
In contrast, Laidlaw had prepared what Davies called “a Rolls-Royce” defence. Given the outcome, Brooks’ three-week appearance at the hacking trial will probably be studied by lawyers and advisers for years to come as an epic narrative. At the time, to many in the annex, the point of this great narrative seemed pretty obvious, often skirting over key elements, and with an emotive overtone which verged on the manipulative. (One former Murdoch employee quipped it was about as unscripted as Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear). The jury might have seen it differently. A friend of mine, who became my regular spy in the public gallery around this time, began to see the chemistry between several of the jurors and Brooks. She smiled at several of the female jurors on the front row and they smiled back.
Indeed, except for a few odd days when she looked worn out or stressed, Brooks was nearly always engaged with everyone: judge, jury, lawyers, and journalists. She made jokes, she shed tears, she looked harassed at times, but she never lost attention... If it was a carefully scripted performance, as Andrew Edis QC later implied, it was the performance of her life.
During his two-week examination of Brooks, Laidlaw made constant reference to the former chief executive of News International as a likeable if flawed human being: young female features writer in the macho world of Fleet Street; then a campaigning editor who took on the establishment of the police and military; above all, a daughter; and now, a mother. Whether any of these emphases was influenced by the fact the jury was composed of nine women and three men, we may never know. Given the millions of pounds spent of her defence and PR advisers (Bell Pottinger were reportedly paid £1 million for the first year alone) it seems likely that her team would have considered the makeup of the jurors.
Though Laidlaw was the narrator, the star of the show was indubitably Brooks. Laidlaw’s legal narrative was as insistent, sometimes incessant as a 19th century moralist. But it merely provided a backdrop against which his colourful and empathetic client would stand out. For it was Brooks – her character, humour, likeability, foibles, anti-establishment campaigning – that was the central theme. Her defence was essentially the story of how she battled against misogyny, corrupt patriarchal institutions like the prison, army and Parliament, was ultimately hounded by baying mobs and paparazzi, and persecuted by the police. As a work of fiction, it would be like Vanity Fair, rewritten to make Becky Sharpe an innocent victim.
Rooted in personal biography, Brooks’ defence had to begin at the beginning, and so the first days were like an episode of This is Your Life. Brooks explained how she was born in 1968, the only child of a father who was “basically a gardener,” her mother a PA in an engineering firm. Her grandmother wrote poetry for a local newspaper, giving her granddaughter the idea of becoming a journalist. Her parents divorced when she was in her twenties. Then she started working, part time, at Eddie Shah’s Warrington Post. When the Post closed she followed other journalists who went to work at News International, and after a three-month probationary period, got a staff job at the News of the World in 1989.
Asked by Laidlaw how common it was to be a woman in Fleet Street, Brooks explained that the News of the World was unusual because it had a female editor, Wendy Henry. Brooks worked for the magazine department, referred to as a “Pink Parlour” by the male news hacks because of its focus on human interest and celebrity. She became a features writer and then executive. One day she found the news desk had compiled a list of her stories headed Twat 1, Twat 2, Twat 3. “I was unusually young, and a woman,” Brooks said. “There was a bit of old school misogyny added in to competition.” In 1995, she was promoted to deputy editor – at the age of 27. “Because of my age and lack of experience,” she told the jury “I was given the job of acting deputy editor.” Her skill was in “buy ups” of celebrity stories. Brooks said: “The News of the World had a very strong relationship with Max Clifford. I dealt with him a lot.” Her “buy-ups” included Paul and Cheryl Gascoigne on domestic violence, and Divine Brown, the prostitute who had an encounter with Hugh Grant in Los Angeles. Though interested in celebrity, Brooks was also interested in “campaigning journalism.”
As an example of her early campaigning style, jurors were shown a feature by her about the release on licence of prisoners serving life sentences. As the jury read the article, Brooks said: “The prison service felt it was right for the rehabilitation of people [imprisoned] for murder to go out into the community and work. Some members of the public didn’t think that was right. I was trying to use the News of the World for a debate.” Justice Saunders, looking a little sceptical, pointed out the headline was: Killer’s Day Out. “Doesn’t look like much of a debate,” he observed wryly. Quick-wittedly, Brooks replied: “It provokes a debate.”
In 1998, Brooks was promoted to deputy editor of the Sun, because management wanted to make the paper less “blokey.” By then, she had helped found “Women in Journalism” (dubbed by some colleagues the “Whingers”). “It was just the redtops that had female editors,” she told the court: “The broadsheets hadn’t come even close.” During her time at the Sun, she worked alongside Andy Coulson, the showbiz editor, and in the frenzy of the dotcom boom they set up an online celebrity site for News International, Exclusive.com – and their near decade-long on-off affair began. After they presented their news site to Murdoch and senior management, Brooks was told there was a “change of plan” and in 2000 she was made editor of the News of the World. As the youngest ever editor of the Sunday tabloid, Brooks was in charge of the hardened journalists like Greg Miskiw who had dissed her past work on features as “fluffy.” She immediately brought Miskiw back from New York where he had opened an office, and made him head of a short-lived Investigations Unit. It was then that Miskiw drew up the “research” contract for Glenn Mulcaire, the paper’s phone hacking private detective.
Throughout her editorship of the News of the World, Brooks claimed she had no idea about hacking. The Investigations Unit, she said, was expected to use legal subterfuge – with an especial reliance on Mazher Mahmood, the “Fake Sheikh” who carried out expensive and elaborate stings. She listed some of Mahmood’s scoops: a hospital throwing dead babies out with the rubbish, doctors who sold diet pills, and a breach of air force security. She cited a headline claiming the Fake Sheikh had “collared” 105 crooks.
While editor she continued to oversee “buy ups.” One article shown to the jury was about Siamese Twins: “I remember it being Max because it was always expensive,” Brooks told the court. “£40,000 or £60,000 for a one-off payment… I often dealt with Max Clifford myself, so I might have negotiated directly with him.” To avoid the £50,000 limit an editor could authorise, Brooks said she might change the figures, so that £40,000 went to the parents and “£10k to Max.”
Brooks had given desk heads (news editor, features editor etc.) authority to run their own budgets “like a small business,” with bonuses if they filled their pages and kept within their spending limits. Greg Miskiw’s re-combined News and Investigations department had £25,000 per week for outside contributors and expenses, with authorisation to spend up to £5,000 on individual contributors without prior approval. Mulcaire was paid in weekly amounts which kept him under these limits.
Lest the jury become too bored with technicalities, Laidlaw asked Brooks about her affair with Coulson. She said: “It wasn’t until 1998 Andy and I became close,” saying she became “intimate” with him again in 2003-2005, and again briefly in 2006. Exploring the unsent love letter, Laidlaw established it was written in February 2004, and pointed out that while the prosecutor Edis had drawn only on a brief passage, the jury had it all. Brooks now turned the prosecution case inside out, and transformed the letter into a weapon for the defence. “I seem to remember sometimes I would write things down to myself,” she said, with insight into the unsent missives of a troubled lover. She laughed: “In a time of hurt, after a few glasses of wine, you shouldn’t get on the computer.” In the morning she thought better of it. “I’ve read it a lot, since I knew this was to be used in evidence,” she added, making a reference to a line – “waiting for six years” – that had not been said in open court before.
The jury were spellbound. Brooks, the prosecution’s wicked witch, who had run a multi-million pound business and been friends of prime ministers, was vulnerable. She seemed to be speaking from the heart, but her words also bore the imprint of her years as a features writer. The spell was only broken by Laidlaw’s clumsy formulation: “You were describing a time there was intimacy upon you?”
Brooks, who knew both audience and confession better than any silk, got back to the heart of the matter. “Any affair by its nature is dysfunctional,” she said. “It added complexity to our friendship.” Sighs of recognition were almost audible through the speakers. She told the court: “Everyone now knows my personal life has been a car crash for many years. It’s probably easy to blame my work.” Before anyone could also process the fact Brooks was married to Ross Kemp during most of her affair with Coulson, she was ahead of them: “Ross is a great man, but the two of us weren’t meant to be”.
Then she met Charlie Brooks. Brooks smiled: “I was happy for the first time. We knew quite quickly we wanted to be together.” For years Brooks had tried, but failed to start a family with Kemp, and now she warned Charlie of the situation. She told the jury: “I told him of failed fertility trials. I told him that if he wanted kids I wasn’t the right person. But Charlie said ‘let’s try anyway’.” (By this point most people in Court 12 probably wanted to have kids with Charlie). The couple tried IVF, then surrogacy was suggested. Brooks mother Deborah Weir, out in Warrington one day, had bumped into a cousin who then offered to be the surrogate. Brooks was with her cousin at a fertility clinic in July 2011 when the Milly Dowler story broke.