Inside the showdown between Murdoch, the Cameron government and the media

All the news fit to hack: Britain’s tabloid trial gets under way

Neil Hall / Reuters

The trial of the century.

This is what the British media, in typically hyperbolic fashion, have dubbed the ongoing trial of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks. The two high profile former News of the World executives are being criminally tried this week at London’s historic Old Bailey in the latest instalment of the U.K.’s phone hacking scandal.

The show got off to a quiet start on Monday in London with jury selection slowed by a storm that roared over the south east, crippling commuter train lines. Despite this, banks of photographers gathered on the courthouse steps while an additional 70 reporters waited inside. There in the grand and imposing courtroom—housed in the same building where Oscar Wilde spoke from the defendant dock of the “love that dare not speak its name,” and where both the Yorkshire Ripper and the Moors murderers were convicted—the jury was selected over two days from a pool of eighty.

Once the pre-trial media blackout was lifted, Justice John Saunders warned potential jurors that they must avoid all news of the trial, including on the Internet. By Tuesday things had picked up with the prosecution’s opening statements While eight people will be tried in all, the two highest profile defendants, Coulson and Brooks—the first a former a Director of Communications for Prime Minister David Cameron, the other a close personal friend of Cameron’s—make up the axis of power and influence in a trial that will be a bloody public showdown between Rupert Murdoch’s News International, the Cameron government and the British media.

Like the phone hacking scandal and its ensuing (both of which the lowest gutter press to the country’s highest office) the Coulson-Brooks trial promises to reveal a tangled web of influence and cosiness among a surprisingly tight-knit coterie of political and media elite. Many unprintable rumours have been swirling in British media circles for weeks now about the “shocking revelations” the trial may bring about the personal lives of those involved. More shocking than the Fleet Street gossip, however, is the fact that, if convicted, two of the most powerful people in British media and politics may end up serving significant jail time for their crimes—a reversal of fortune so great it seems ripped from the pages of Shakespeare.

There is no doubt that Coulson and Brooks are the stars of this play within the broader phone hacking drama. Together, the pair are charged with conspiracy to intercept mobile-phone voicemail messages and conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. Two other former News of the World executives, Ian Edmondson and Stuart Kuttner, the now-defunct tabloid’s former news editor and managing editor respectively, are also charged with phone hacking. Brooks faces two further charges of perverting the course of justice. Charged alongside her are her former assistant at News International, Cheryl Carter, fellow News International executive Mark Hannah and her husband, the race-horse trainer and Cameron school-buddy, Charlie Brooks. Clive Goodman, a former News of the World Royal Correspondent, is charged alongside Coulson on two counts of conspiracy.

The trial is not just a spectacle of schadenfreude, but an event that promises to have significant emotional impact on the ongoing debate over statutory press regulation in the wake of Leveson. The controversial plan was hammered out and agreed upon by all major political parties. While many high profile celebrities such as Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant, as well as the bereaved parents of Milly Dowler, vocally support such legislation, the vast majority of British newspaper groups strongly oppose it. Opponents of regulation argue that any statutory underpinning represents a direct threaten threat to freedom of the press because it allows parliament to intervene at its own discretion. Or as Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne recently pronounced of the royal charter, “it is the thin end of a wedge that is hurtling down a very slippery slope across a Rubicon which everyone will in due course regret.”

If Brooks and Coulson are convicted, it will demonstrate one of the strongest arguments against statutory regulation—namely that it is unnecessary because the allegations of misconduct, conspiracy and phone hacking were already illegal to begin with. And if they walk free, one can only imagine the noise of the British press howling.