Phone-hacking scandal: Tabloid trial set to hit the front page

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Jane Croft, Rob Budden, and Kiran Stacey report:  Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie have arrived at the Old Bailey as one of the most long-awaited criminal cases for many years is due to get under way.

They faced dozens of photographers and camera crews who had been waiting from early on Monday morning outside the court to catch a glimpse of them.

More than 60 press including media from as far afield as the US and Australia are expected to cover the start of the trial which will last six months. The press will be housed in a special annex with proceedings televised from the court with a limited number of reporters allowed in court 12 where the trial will take place.

Ms Brooks, the former head of News International and a former editor of the defunct News of the World, will stand trial, along with Andy Coulson, the prime minister’s former head of communications and another past NotW editor, and six others.

The prosecution of two people who until recently were among the most powerful agenda-setters in Britain is likely to shine a light on the relationship between the media – particularly Rupert Murdoch’s empire – and the heart of the UK establishment.

Ms Brooks, 45, of Churchill, Oxfordshire, is facing five charges of criminal wrongdoing, including one charge of conspiracy to intercept mobile phone voicemail messages and two charges of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office.

She also faces two charges of perverting the course of justice, including one count that she conspired with Cheryl Carter, her ex-secretary, and a second charge alongside her husband Charlie Brooks, the racehorse trainer, and Mark Hanna, the former head of security at News International.

Mr Coulson, 45, is accused of conspiracy to intercept mobile phone voicemail, along with other former News of the World journalists Ian Edmondson, the former news editor, and Stuart Kuttner, the former managing editor. Mr Coulson also faces two charges along with Clive Goodman, a former reporter at the NotW, of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.

All eight defendants deny the charges against them. Downing Street is likely to be watching closely as the trial unfolds.

Presiding over the complexities of the case is Mr Justice Saunders. As with any jury trial in Britain, the case will be covered by strict rules about what the media can report, to avoid any potential prejudice to the jury, and to ensure a fair trial.

This is one of the first trials of international interest to be heard in Britain since the explosion of social media, such as Twitter, which are based outside the UK. It may prove more of a challenge for a British judge to regulate using English court orders.

The case also comes at a sensitive time for press regulation. On Wednesday, the Privy Council is due to meet to consider approving a cross-party charter for regulation of newspapers and magazines. But some media lawyers believe that this decision could be delayed, following moves by the newspaper industry group Pressbof to seek a judicial review of privy councillors’ rejection of an alternative charter it had proposed.

A delay would give newspapers more time to tweak their own rival charter for press regulation to make it more palatable to politicians. But some newspaper executives also fear that months of court testimony about phone hacking could embolden proponents of tougher regulation, such as the campaign group Hacked Off.

However, the trial may take the heat off Number 10 as far as press regulation is concerned. Labour is unlikely to push harder on the post-Leveson deal during the coming weeks, for fear of appearing to be trying to influence the trial’s outcome.

Further ahead, there are also potential ramifications for the recently split 21st Century Fox and News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s publishing division, depending on the revelations that come out of the trial.

The biggest risk relates to US federal investigations into whether News Corp violated anti-bribery laws under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

If the trials reveal any direct involvement by News Corp in press abuses or any illegal activity on US soil, financial sanctions could be even larger than the $382m in legal fees and civil claims the group has paid out over the past two years.

FT.com


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