Hacking trial: Closing NOTW was ‘considered’ before Milly Dowler phone hack was revealed

 

News International considered closing the News of the World in the belief it had become a “toxic brand” due to phone hacking allegations months before revelations that voicemails of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been accessed, the hacking trial at the Old Bailey has heard.

Details of the internal concern circulating among executives, which pointed to a “shut-down option” being examined months before the paper was actually closed in July 2011 in light of the Dowler case, were described on Monday by Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s UK print division.

Mrs Brooks, appearing in the witness box for the seventh day of her defence evidence, said the discovery of three emails alleged to connect a senior journalist at the NOTW to phone hacking had substantially shifted the company’s perception of their legal position.

The emails, the court heard, related to the former Labour cabinet minister, Tessa Jowell, royal family member Lord Frederick Windsor and Joan Hammel, an adviser to former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

Mrs Brooks said that following the discovery of the emails around New Year 2010 in NI’s IT archive, the police were notified because “in any view it was evidence of criminal misconduct”.

Mrs Brooks told the court of a “discreet” meeting at the Halkin hotel in Victoria that she arranged with Andy Coulson, who was then in charge of communications at 10 Downing Street, to inform him of the new potentially incriminating information against the company.

She said that Mr Coulson, a former editor of the NOTW before being appointed to head the Conservatives’ communication operation, told her that he was “becoming the story” and it was becoming “impossible” for him to do his job. Mr Coulson resigned from his Downing Street post less than a week after the Halkin meeting.

The court heard that civil claims connected to phone hacking were mounting, and that fear of commercially “sensitive” information leaking from NI’s London’s headquarters, including News Corp’s bid to take control of all of the satellite broadcaster, BSkyB, had led to a high level of “paranoia”.

The unease, the court was told, extended to having the offices of senior staff “swept” for listening devices.

With further arrests of senior journalists, including a raid on the desk of one journalist by police officers, Mrs Brooks said that company lawyers had told her there was “a growing concern” that she could be arrested.

Focusing on events in June 2011, Mrs Brooks told the court of email exchanges involving NI executives who had been put in charge of responding to, and dealing with, emerging phone hacking revelations.

She said the NOTW “brand” according to one executive, was “too toxic” and that shutting down the Sunday tabloid was being considered. An apology the company issued was designed to show that “we [News International] get it”, she said.

Mrs Brooks, along with Mr Coulson and five others, are facing charges including conspiracy to illegally access voicemails, bribing public officials, and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. All deny the charges against them. The case continues.

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