Hacking trial: How the case was won and lost

It was a terse, three-word instruction preserved in an email that swung the jury against Andy Coulson. James Cusick explains why the former editor was convicted, and his fellow defendants acquitted

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The Independent Online

The son of football legend George Best was far from the most prominent – or interesting – person the News of the World hacked. Cabinet ministers, Hollywood stars and royalty all had their voicemails intercepted on a regular basis. But it was the hacking of Calum Best that was central to the case against Andy Coulson.

Feeding off the fame of his father was Best’s job. Night clubs were often his work place. In early 2006 he met Lorna Hogan in a club. She became pregnant with Best thought to be the potential dad-in-waiting. Who would she tell? The NOTW was one option and a deal was set up.

To check the safety of the information the paper was getting, the NOTW’s go-to hacker, private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, was tasked to target the couple. In April 2006 the NOTW ran a story headlined “I’m having Calum Best’s baby.” Hogan even showed the newsdesk at the paper a scan of her womb.

Video: The aftermath of the hacking trial

But how would the NOTW keep further exclusives on this story secret? A month on, with the concern still high, Andy Coulson emailed his paper’s newsdesk. As the former Mirror journalist, Dan Evans, who later joined Coulson’s team as a specialist hacker, told the jury: “The truth is that Andy Coulson knows exactly what went on on his watch.”

This time Coulson wanted to know what Best was up to. His email read: “You think Calum a leak?” Coulson was told Best was bragging about his contacts inside the NOTW. He was a risk.


Coulson’s solution – “do his phone” – was simple. But his decision to put it in an email, which was read to the Old Bailey jury, proved fateful.

The newsdesk knew exactly what “do” meant – intercept voicemails.

Evans, who cut a deal with the Crown Prosecution Service to provide evidence in return for a reduced sentence, wasn’t an ideal witness to rely on. He was also caught in 2009 hacking the phone of designer Kelly Hoppen. But his account of the culture inside the NOTW under Coulson was graphic and extraordinary.

Coulson met Evans for breakfast at the Aldwych Hotel in 2004. His selling point was hacking. “Want an exclusive story?” He delivered cheaply. Coulson knew exactly what the shorthand meant.

Another senior journalist heard Evans was joining. “I know you can screw phones, but what else can you do?” he asked. “Screw” or “do”. The terminology didn’t matter. Evans claimed that “even the office cat knew” that hacking was by then part of the DNA of the NOTW.

Throughout the eight-month trial, the key question asked of the jury wasn’t whether hacking had happened, it was – who knew? Office cats don’t provide evidence at the Old Bailey, but the jury had other places to look.

Evans said that after hacking the actor Daniel Craig in 2005 and hearing Sienna Miller declare her love for the James Bond actor, he played a recording of the intercepted voicemail to Coulson in the editor’s office. Was the editor shocked? No, why would he have been.

David Blunkett

A year into Coulson’s editorship of the NOTW, Mulcaire was tasked by the newsdesk head, Greg Miskiw, to target the then Home Secretary. David Blunkett’s phones were high-risk; so friends, associates, were hit instead.

When Mulcaire was arrested in 2006, hundreds of recordings were found at his home and in the safe of an in-house News International lawyer. They included hacks from Blunkett’s then lover, the publisher Kimberley Quinn, and a draft story about the affair written by Thurlbeck, then the NOTW chief reporter.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett (Getty)

Coulson claimed to be “shocked” and told Thurlbeck to stop. The reality was different. Success in accessing Quinn’s voicemails was also the result of work done by Mulcaire. Blunkett’s name, mobile and landline numbers, the numbers of his political adviser, his sons, an old address where his ex-wife lived, were all over Mulcaire’s logs – the operation was extensive.

In August Coulson travelled by train to Sheffield to confront Blunkett. He told the Home Secretary he was very confident of the information, saying “It is based on extremely reliable sources.” This was deception, a lie. Coulson’s “sources” were hacks. He admitted “misleading” Blunkett.

Coulson’s explanation was “preposterous” according to Andrew Edis QC, the lead prosecution counsel.

The love letter

The jurors were read an unsent letter that Rebekah Brooks had drafted to Coulson in 2004. In Ms Brooks’s eloquent letter, Coulson is described as “my very best friend”. She told him “everything”, sought his advice, cared, discussed work with him. “I love you” she wrote. The letter forecast a struggle about how she would cope when the clandestine, physically intimate affair ended.

Rebekah Brooks described Andy Coulson as her 'very best friend' (PA)

Ms Brooks said she trusted Coulson enough to reveal “any confidence”. Coulson later claimed their relationship continued on past  2004 – for another three years. Edis asked the jury “Is it fair to say that these two people were so close that whatever she knew, he knew; and whatever he knew, she knew?” The jury’s answer was no.

The scale of hacking

In the final years of Coulson’s editorship, during 2005 and 2006, Edis said “the lights were well and truly on and the amount of hacking that can be proved was absolutely phenomenal.”

Mulcaire emailed Miskiw using the alias “Paul Williams”. When Coulson took over from Ms Brooks, Mulcaire’s remuneration, which started in 2001 at £92,000 a year, increased to £105,000.

It was big money – £16,000 more than the executive news editor was getting. But the NOTW had a £32m annual budget, and did, as Coulson told the court, pay its astrologer twice as much as Mulcaire. The difference was that the astrologer was not hacking phones.

Go-to hacker: private investigator Glenn Mulcaire (Getty)

The scale of what Mulcaire did for his money inside the NOTW was known before the trial started. The Metropolitan Police’s deputy assistant commissioner, Sue Akers, who ran the force’s phone hacking investigation, estimated in 2011 a potential victims list of 4,000. The private investigator, as Coulson and others knew, was doing more than just surveillance.

The case against Brooks

Very little evidence of phone hacking taking place during the editorship of Rebekah Brooks between 2000 and 2003 was presented to the hacking trial. But there was one exception. The hacking of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, though given very little prominence in a couple of editions of the NOTW in 2002, would – when fully revealed – lead to the closure of the Rupert Murdoch-owned title.

Although the key edition of the paper that initially contained details hacked from Milly’s voicemail took place in the Brooks era, she was on holiday in Dubai with her then partner, the actor Ross Kemp. at the time. Coulson, then deputy editor, was in Fleet Street terminology “acting up”.

Milly Dowler

While Ms Brooks was taking a break from hectic pace of the NOTW in the Arab emirate, her newsdesk underlings Neville Thurlbeck and Greg Miskiw were running “Project Dowler”.

The hacking of Millie Dowler's phone sparked public outrage

This involved the private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, gathering information linked to a story the NOTW had been interested in for weeks – the disappearance of the Walton-on-Thames schoolgirl, Milly Dowler. Stuart Kuttner, had made notes on Milly and written a leader – the paper’s editorial view – on her case.

Thurlbeck “tasked” Mulcaire to target the Dowler family. He hacked into Milly’s voicemails and found messages, one interpreted wrongly, as showing she had been contacted by a recruitment agency in Telford. Given the prospect of a massive “Milly found alive!” exclusive, journalists and photographers were dispatched to Shropshire.

Who made the decision not to immediately tell the police about the Telford connection for 24 hours? And when a story was written that included direct quotes from the hacked voicemail, why were they edited out of a later edition? Ms Brooks said she had no knowledge of Mulcaire and didn’t know of the Dowler hacking till it was revealed by The Guardian in July 2011. She “took an interest” in Milly, but it was nothing like the intense campaign for residence notification of paedophiles, “Sarah’s Law”.

The prosecution said Coulson, as the acting editor that week, must have been told about the phone hacking carried out to obtain the Dowler story. Had he, in turn, mentioned it to his boss while she was away? In acquitting her, the jury found no.

The alleged corruption of a public official

In the witness box Rebekah Brooks often sounded like a campaigning editor, racked with ethical dilemmas, at the helm of a morally-incisive New York Times rather than The Sun or the NOTW.

The final edition of the News of the World (Getty)

But on the 11 occasions she said “Yes” to payments made to a source who turned out to be a Ministry of Defence official, she gave her approval within minutes of being asked. She said she was not alive to the possibility that the cash was going to a public official. saying she relied on the judgements of an “experienced and trustworthy” reporter that everything was legal.

The senior reporter, who cannot be named for legal reasons, appeared to take it for granted his “ace military contact” or his “number 1 military contact” would receive Ms Brooks’ stamp of approval. Payments totalling £38,000 allegedly made to Bettina Jordan Barber made between November 2006 and August 2009, were authorised by Ms Brooks. The MoD official received a total of £100,000 for information she sold to The Sun between 2004 and 2011.

Ms Brooks said she’d never heard of the official, but admitted she made no effort to find out who the cash was going to. Looking at the stories Jordan Barber was charged with selling, Ms Brooks, retrospectively, said some may have been justified in the public interest. But the cash wasn’t going to an ethically-driven MoD whistleblower. Jordan Barber is said to have wanted sizeable sums of money, and she was charged with misconduct in public office .

The central issues for the jury were: did Ms Brooks know when she authorised the payments, that the money was going to a public official? Was the sold material confidential? Was there any reasonable excuse for Jordan Barber selling the information? And similar to the judgement over the royal directories, was there an abuse of the public trust? The answers, wrapped in the jury’s unanimous verdict of not guilty on the charge of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office, were a clear no as far as Brooks' involvement is concerned.

The alleged cover-up

Ms Brooks, her former personal assistant, Cheryl Carter, her husband, Charlie Brooks, and News International’s former head of security, Mark Hanna, were all accused of perverting justice in elaborate operations to hide information that involved removing notebooks from archives, and keeping phones and computers from falling into the hands of Scotland Yard detectives investigating phone hacking.

Cheryl Carter, Ms Brooks' former personal assistant, was also found not guilty (Getty)

The jury decided that Ms Brooks was not involved in a conspiracy to hack, and that therefore the issue was – covering up what?

Phone hacking: The legal gladiators

The Hon. Mr Justice Saunders

Sir John Saunders was parachuted into the so-called “trial of the century” late last year after Mr Justice Fulford was promoted to the Court of Appeal. His credentials were evident – he was the presiding judge in the prosecutions that followed from the parliamentary expenses scandal, passing prison sentences on four MPs and two Tory lords. Although he said that he was “intimidated” by the number of lawyers in front of him in court 12, they all knew who was in charge. Media-savvy and witty, he was pragmatic in the guidelines issued for social media and reporting  restrictions that could prove to be landmark. He seriously underestimated the length of the trial – but then so did everyone. 

Andrew Edis QC (Prosecution)

The complexity and scale of the trial evidence was marshalled by seven defence teams. Their opponent was primarily Andrew Edis, the lead prosecutor. Unafraid of sound-bites, he once told the jury, with brilliant simplicity, that “there was an awful lot of phone hacking going on at the News of the World.” Drew upon his remarkable stamina and natural authority to dominate such a marathon trial. 

Jonathan Laidlaw QC (Brooks) 

A late  appointment as Rebekah Brooks’s  counsel, after the withdrawal of her original QC John Kelsey-Fry.  His closing speech was a dramatic, highly personalised attack on the prosecution case. He went after Edis, saying his colleague from 2 Hare Court chambers  had questioned his “professional conduct” by effectively claiming he had helped script Brooks’s performance.

Timothy Langdale QC (Coulson)

Like Laidlaw and Edis, Langdale was previously a Treasury Counsel before turning to criminal defence, specialising in serious fraud. As a replacement for Clare Montgomery QC after it became clear the trial was going last well beyond January, over the eight months Langdale barely raised his voice, even though he faced a joint barrage from Edis and the evidence of Clive Goodman, which acted like a second-line prosecution.