The Spectacle of Impunity: Phone-Hacking Cover-Up Claims Cross the Atlantic

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 22/05/2024 - 9:43pm in

This article was first published in the June 2024 print edition of Byline Times

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It’s nearly exactly 10 years since I sat in the hushed court 12 of the Old Bailey to hear the jury forewoman read out the verdicts in the eight-month-long phone-hacking trial of Rebekah Brooks, then CEO of News International, on charges of conspiracy to hack phones and pay public officials for stories, and – along with her assistant Cheryl Carter, head of security Mark Hanna, and her husband, Charlie Brooks – charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. All were found not guilty.

The verdict felt momentous.

An estimated £100 million had been spent on the legal teams, police ­investigations, and court costs – more than 70% of that privately by Rupert Murdoch. I’d also been told that, if senior News International executives had been convicted, the police and Crown Prosecution Service were considering ­corporate charges against the company and its ‘controlling mind’. However, all that was swept away by the verdicts.

Minutes later, Brooks’ Deputy Editor at the by then defunct News of the World, and close companion, Andy Coulson, was found guilty of conspiracy to intercept voicemails.

The majority of the other Murdoch journalists in Coulson’s position, with such clear evidence against them, had pleaded guilty before the trial began. But by staying in the trial, Coulson had helped Brooks – the strength of the case against him, made that against her seem ­comparatively weak and more inferential.

Coulson had gone from the News of the World to Downing Street, where he was David Cameron’s head of communications at No 10. Minutes later, the then Prime Minister had to answer questions in the House of Commons from the then Labour Leader Ed Miliband. Cameron said he had given Coulson a “second chance” and regretted it.

It could have been a defining moment.

Boris Johnson, Tony Gallagher, and Rebekah Brooks at the 2020 The Sun Military Awards 2020. Photo: PA

The trial, and the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press – launched following the full exposure of the phone-hacking scandal by the Guardian in 2011 – had unleashed a torrent of information about the ‘merry-go-round’ of clandestine social contacts between senior news editors and newspaper proprietors and top politicians: Rupert Murdoch meeting prospective British Prime Ministers as if he were the ultimate power in the land, and then being invited through the back door to Downing Street when they succeeded, as if in benediction.

It was as if a light had suddenly been turned on in a dark room.

We saw Brooks herself partying with Tony Blair and David Blunkett, and ­enjoying ‘country dinners’ and horse-­riding trips with her Oxfordshire ­neighbour David Cameron. We glimpsed the plush interiors of an elite political-media class that manipulated the public through a series of back-door deals and revolving-door appointments.

But then the light turned off and we were in the dark again.

The Restoration

At the time of the phone-hacking trial verdicts in 2014, it would have been fair comment to suggest that, though Rebekah Brooks was found innocent of several criminal charges, she was guilty of being one of the most incompetent editors and CEOs in recent history – somehow not noticing what the lead prosecutor called the “criminal enterprise” ­operating beneath her.

People speculated that she would have to find another career. So it was almost as great a shock that, within a year, Brooks was back in her old job as head of the now-rebranded News UK, and one of the most influential figures in British media.

And that is how the spectacle of ­impunity became embedded in our lives.

Thanks to a decade of dogged and detailed civil litigation since, we now know much more about the things the media wasn’t punished for.

News UK had started claiming that phone-hacking was the product of a ‘rogue reporter’ and then, by shutting the News of the World, suggesting that it was a ‘rogue’ newspaper – and the criminal news-­gathering operation had nothing to do with Murdoch’s flagship daily tabloid The Sun, which Brooks also edited.

This turned out to be bunk.

More than 1,600 privacy cases have been settled by the company, many of them claims against The Sun, and News UK has paid out about £1 billion to date. Nor was ‘unlawful information-gathering’ limited to voicemail interception. Many of the settled claims involve blagging, theft, landline phone-tapping, surveillance, and unlawful access to private medical and financial records.

On the corporate scale, the evidence of systematic cover-up has only increased during the last decade. My live tweets from the Old Bailey were the basis of ­lawyers seeking disclosure about News UK’s ‘email deletion policy’ (clever Murdoch lawyers tried to rename this their ‘email retention policy’) and it now appears, according to a ‘concealment and destruction’ claim, that the company destroyed vital evidence every time it was asked to preserve it. Some 31 million emails were deleted as civil and criminal cases loomed.

The journalist Nick Davies, who first reported the phone-hacking scandal in the Guardian in 2009, has come out of retirement to dig deeper into the new evidence lodged in these civil claims for Prospect magazine, now edited by his former Guardian Editor, Alan Rusbridger. He reports on the concerted cover-up by News UK, and how journalists or investigators who might have blown the whistle were rewarded with jobs, or cash payments, and required to sign NDAs (non-disclosure agreements).

Davies reveals that it was not only emails that went missing.

Following Brooks’ arrest in July 2011, 125 items were seized by the police and placed in a secure area at the ­company’s Wapping HQ under the supervision of two Murdoch executives, Simon Greenberg and Will Lewis. When ­detectives returned to complete a detailed search of all the equipment, they ­discovered only 117 items remained. Eight filing cabinets seized from the offices of the Editor and the Managing Editor had been removed. They have never been recovered.

But the sense of lawlessness and ­impunity goes further.

Escalation to Espionage

In an account that sounds more like the actions of the East German Stasi secret police, Davies suggests that News UK continued its unlawful news-gathering even as Parliament was investigating it – and that it was using criminal methods to hack the phones of MPs, not for tittle-­tattle or tabloid sleaze, but for “political and commercial espionage”.

From the payments and phone logs ­disclosed by News UK to the civil ­claimants, Davies reports that News UK “employed numerous private investigators to hack private individuals, and also MPs – including Cabinet ministers”. These criminal methods were used to target politicians of every rank including the Attorney General, Business Secretary, and up to the Chancellor, and Prime Minister.

More than 1,500 suspicious calls from the generic number of Murdoch’s Wapping HQ targeted 16 Liberal Democrat MPs and many MPs from other parties. There were suspicious calls to Dominic Grieve, then Attorney General, when as Director of Public Prosecutions he was considering possible prosecutions against journalists.

Five members of the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee – perceived to be hostile to Murdoch’s commercial interests – received hundreds of “inexplicable” calls.

One MP who was hacked told the High Court that the pattern of behaviour was a “cynical and outrageous attempt to ­subvert the legitimate process of ­parliamentary scrutiny”.

Both as Chancellor and then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was targeted 24 times from the Wapping “hub”. He is now considering joining the civil ­claimants against News UK and has written to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley requesting a meeting as a precursor to a new “criminal ­investigation” into these allegations of espionage. He is also asking the police to look at the ­corporate cover-up at News UK.

Whether the police will reopen its ­investigations remains unclear. There is a civil trial against News UK scheduled for next year.

In the meantime, this spectacle of ­impunity of the last decade has served as a stern lesson to the entire political-media class: if they can lie and cover-up vehemently and shamelessly enough, they can get away with it.

It’s not just Rebekah Brooks. For many prominent parties in the phone-hacking scandal, it seems to have helped rather than hindered their careers.

Will Lewis, the News Corp ­executive who should have been overseeing the disclosures to the police, was recently elevated to the role of CEO at The Washington Post – the newspaper once famed for exposing Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up with the fearless reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Former Sun Editor Tony Gallagher, now Editor of The Times, faces civil claims of ‘unlawful information-­gathering’ for ­allegedly commissioning private ­investigators during his time at the Daily Mail as a senior editor.

So too, does Victoria Newton, now Editor of The Sun.

Piers Morgan, who a judge last year concluded ‘must have known’ about phone-hacking when he was Editor of the Mirror, was given a reported £15 million a year three-year contract by Murdoch as a host on Talk TV. No bad deed goes unrewarded.

And it’s not just the media figures.

The example of impunity embodied by these press luminaries shines out over the entire political landscape and goes a long way to explaining the forces underlying many of the disasters of the last decade.

The Rot Spreads

It is surely no accident that the media figures and newspapers involved in ­covering up the ‘dark arts’ of Fleet Street were key players in the lies, dirty data, and electoral dark arts of the EU Referendum campaign in 2016.

Nearly all of these papers pushed the propaganda and disinformation of the official Vote Leave campaign, fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, or its unofficial rival Leave.EU led by Nigel Farage. The Sun even registered itself as a campaigning organisation with the Electoral Commission in its fervent ­support for a leave vote in the referendum.

The owners of the Telegraph, having previously been fined for sharing readership data with the Conservative Party during the 2015 General Election, were invited to meetings with the infamous Cambridge Analytica data harvesting company and Leave.EU.

After David Cameron resigned in the wake of the shock result, his successor Theresa May became the next focus of the emboldened political-media class. She was pressured into dropping the overdue second part of the Leveson Inquiry, into the relationships between journalists and the police, which could only take place after the criminal cases had concluded.

Sunday Times columnist Michael Gove and former Telegraph columnist and Spectator Editor Boris Johnson on the Vote Leave campaign bus in Lancashire, during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign. Photo: PA

Her then Culture Secretary Matt Hancock suggested to the House of Commons that Lord Justice Leveson ­himself did not want part two of the inquiry to go ahead – when in fact he had said no such thing, merely that he could not be the presiding judge.

In 2018, when Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer revealed massive data harvesting and misuse, unlawful electoral overspends by Vote Leave, and a riot of meetings between Russians and Leave.EU, these same newspapers did their best to mock or minimise them.
And so the rot spread from Fleet Street to Westminster, undermining all of the norms of political life, both written and unwritten.

The same political-media class went on to topple May and foist Boris Johnson (who called phone-hacking “left-wing codswallop”) on the country.

They applauded his unlawful prorogation of Parliament (the Mail branded the Supreme Court judges who ruled on it ‘enemies of the people’) and his hard exit from the EU. They lauded his handling of the pandemic as ‘following the ­science’ (when Johnson was in fact resisting it).

And, for two years, they ignored the ­multiple breaches of the Ministerial Code, the conflicts of interests with hedge fund donors, and the billions wasted in crony Covid contracts through a ‘VIP’ lane.

During this time, the newspaper cartel benefited from what Johnson’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings referred to as “bungs” that were “dressed up as COVID relief” – hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidies from the Government in the form of pandemic adverts and VAT relief, as circulation figures dropped during the early days of the crisis.

The rot has not stopped. The impunity lives on.

When Johnson’s self-serving lies and complete lack of standards became too much, the Mail, Telegraph and The Sun boosted his even worse replacement, Liz Truss, whose short tenure in Downing Street caused a run on gilt-edged securities, a near collapse of pension funds, and a massive hike in interest rates.

But both Johnson and Truss are regularly still heralded as ‘true Conservatives’; their historically bankrupt ideas paraded in the pages of the right-wing papers as worthy of our attention. Their past mistakes and misdemeanours papered-over by a press that has too many mistakes and misdemeanours of its own to know the difference.

Who is really ‘blackmailing’ whom? Who is really the client and who is the provider? Or have media and politics so merged that they have become a single entity, corrupting both representative ­politics and the politics of representation?

As we head towards a general ­election, expect this spectacle of impunity to ­intensify and accelerate. Both politicians and the media are like a couple in a danse macabre, locked in an embrace of ­complicity and guilt they cannot escape.

Until the music stops.

Beyond Contempt, Peter Jukes’ account of the phone-hacking trial, is published by Canbury Press