'Can we hack their voicemail? That's kind of how journalism worked in those days' - extract from Beyond Contempt

Peter Jukes covered every day of the eight-month hacking trial in copious detail on Twitter backed by crowdfunded donations. His book, Beyond Contempt, captures the drama of the trial in a way that 140-character Tweets never could and also reveals much that could not be reported at the time because of restrictions. This first extract focuses on former Sunday Mirror and News of the World reporter Dan Evans, who gave evidence against colleagues and admitted phone-hacking whilst at both titles. It also looks at the case against former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks. Beyond Contempt is available to buy as en e-book and order in paperback format.

“Can we hack their voicemail? Oh, there they are… let’s go along with a photographer. That’s kind of how tabloid journalism worked in those days – that was life.” Former News of the World reporter Dan Evans said management referred to phone-hacking during conferences as “special checks,” and unlike the Mirror group, News International wanted everything on email.

During his four years at the News of the World Evans admitted doing thousands of hacks to 100-plus mobile phones, but his most important testimony was about a single hack in September 2005.

Evans claimed he was depressed at not doing proper investigative journalism, and getting “bullied” and “monstered” over getting a front-page scoop. The journalist who recruited him told him: “As far as I’m concerned your USP is the phones. And I suggest you get on with some more.” Evans then hacked all the numbers he could until he got to Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, and heard a message: “Hi it’s me. Can’t speak. I’m with Jude at Groucho’s. I love you.” The name ‘Jude’ would have probably been enough to give Evans a clue, but he also said he checked out Sienna Miller’s number from a list in his Palm Pilot: “It was almost the next instalment of a soap opera.”

When he brought it into work the following Monday, Evans claimed in court, he played a Dictaphone recording of the message to the journalist who recruited him, who got “very excited”, started writing copy and “started an operation on it,” with the help of the showbiz columnist Rav Singh. He then played it to Coulson, the editor, who got “very animated” and told the assembled journalists: “I told you so!” Evans said another newspaper executive shook his hand and congratulated him: “You’re a company man now.”

Then there was a last little bit of tradecraft. Evans said the News of the World editor told him to make a copy of the tape and make it look like it was delivered anonymously. Evans replicated the tape, put the new tape in a Jiffy bag (careful all the while to use a handkerchief to avoid fingerprints) and had it delivered to the front desk. He said Rav Singh picked up the Jiffy bag, and said: “Look what I’ve found.”

I’m not a court expert, forensic psychologist or expert interrogator, but after years in drama, I have a strong sense of what is fiction and what is hard to make up. We’ll get to the classic Brooks/Carter MI5/MFI joke later, but the scenario Evans described did not change significantly between his witness statement and appearance at the Old Bailey. It also had the merit of being vivid and believable.

Another journalist in the annex, who knew some of the personalities involved, said he could imagine all of them saying these things. 

I’d never met Dan Evans before we passed and nodded to each other outside Court 12, though I know someone who worked with him and counted him as a friend. In person, you could still sense the wild, fun-seeking tabloid journalist who liked being in the centre of events, addicted to adrenaline and a memorable phrase. No doubt, given the clannish nature of newspaper journalists (and though I’ve enjoyed working with them I’ve never met quite such a tribal profession) Evans will be seen as a Judas and a traitor. Other former senior tabloid editors mentioned in evidence were quick to disparage him on Twitter for his drinking habits (despite the looming contempt threat) but true journalism should celebrate whistle blowers.

I know many reporters in commercial and public service television and radio and I’ve never heard any of them ever express the kind of groupthink and loyalty repeatedly uttered by print journalists. A reporter who became a good friend during the trial told me, the first rule of the press “you never betray your own.” Admirable sentiments in one sense, especially if you’re in a tight corner, and the amount of co-operation among the press in the Old Bailey was heartening. Nevertheless, taken to the limit, “Never betray your own” could mean covering up crimes for a colleague. 

The 'circumstantial' case against Rebekah Brooks

Given the absence of any direct communication with Glenn Mulcaire, or an incriminating email about hacking, the phone-hacking charge against Rebekah Brooks was described by other journalists from the beginning of the trial as circumstantial. There were few confirmed hacks during her editorship of the News of the World between 2000 and 2003. Justice Saunders described one of them – the targeting of Milly Dowler – which did so much to shape public attitudes towards the paper and for which there was much evidence – as “the high point” of Count 1 against Brooks.

Milly Dowler disappeared on 21 March 2002, and the story of her disappearance appeared in editions of the newspaper over the next three weekends when Brooks was editing the paper. The following weekend, 14 April 2002, Brooks was away in Dubai, but the judge said that because of her campaign for Sarah’s Law: “The jury could properly infer that Rebekah Brooks would have been interested in this story which was ongoing when she went on holiday. It must have been a possibility to her even at that stage that Milly had been abducted and murdered.”

The admissions or “agreed facts” had established that Mulcaire was put on the Dowler story by Neville Thurlbeck on 10 April. Sometime between 10 and 12 April, Mulcaire hacked Milly’s phone and picked up a message, intended for someone else, left on 27 March by Monday’s Recruitment Agency inviting Milly to an interview with a firm in Telford. Up to nine reporters, photographers and desk editors were put on the story, to run on 14 April. In the end Milly wasn’t found, and the paper splashed on actor Michael Greco’s claims about the BBC soap EastEnders. “Despite the large following of EastEnders,” Justice Saunders wrote: “the jury might infer that the return of a missing 12-year-old to her family through the efforts of the News of the World despite a large police operation might have taken priority.”

As well as call data showing Brooks was in regular contact with her office, and her deputy Andy Coulson, the jury had evidence from [witnesses] Keyworth and Hennessey that Brooks was constantly on the phone which he assumed to be work related, with Hennessey saying she talked of a "missing Surrey schoolgirl". So the jury “could infer that she was told of the search going on in Telford and the reason for it”. The jury could also conclude, because her managing editor, Stuart Kuttner, had spoken to Surrey Police about it the day before she returned from holiday, that she might have been told about that. (He was also in contact with Surrey Police the week she was back, we would later learn.)

Moving right up to the time of her arrest, nine years later, Justice Saunders also said the jury might decide Brooks had not given “truthful accounts” in a letter to the Chief Constable of Surrey on 5 July 2011. In that letter Brooks said she’d only been aware of the News of the World’s hacking of Milly Dowler on 4 July, when it was reported by Nick Davies and Amelia Hill in the Guardian. “Prior to that date she had been requesting that her 2002 diaries were found and also emailing her previous husband Ross Kemp wanting a discussion about phone-hacking,” the judge ruled. “The jury could infer that those enquiries related to Milly Dowler,” and therefore she knew about the hacking back in 2002.

Justice Saunders then went on to look at the other twelve occasions where there was existing firm evidence from Mulcaire’s notes that he was hacking during the period of Rebekah Brooks’ editorship: three before Milly Dowler, and nine afterwards. The defence had already admitted the hacking of Andy Gilchrist – “a person who was of great interest to the editor of the News of the World which was running a strong and personal campaign against the leader of the fire brigade union’s strike action.”

Beyond that, there was the story about Sir Paul McCartney and the ring in the News of the World on 2 June 2002 which, according to Eimear Cook, Brooks had implied came from a phone-hack. “Her credibility has undoubtedly been dented as part of her account has been proved to be inaccurate,” Justice Saunders said of Cook, “but Mr Laidlaw accepts that it does constitute some evidence.” Though there was already Annette Witheridge’s evidence that the ‘Feud of the Rings’ story came from a tip-off “the fact of a human source does not exclude the possibility that there was also a phone hack,” he said. If the evidence against Brooks had relied solely on Cook, the submission of “no case to answer” might have succeeded, Justice Saunders said. But it didn’t rely solely on that. So he still ruled Brooks should continue standing trial. 

Rebekah Brooks in the witness box

Except for a few odd days when she looked worn out or stressed, Brooks was nearly always engaged with everyone: judge, jury, lawyers, and journalists. She made jokes, she shed tears, she looked harassed at times, but she never lost attention. (An eight-month trial preceded by two years of preparation is a kind of prison sentence in itself). She is wealthy and has powerful friends, but in Court 12 she was in the dock alone. It’s a lonely place, where you cannot seek legal advice, hide from the cameras or rely on PR advisors. Brooks’ strengths and weaknesses were on display in the three weeks she gave evidence. If it was a carefully scripted performance, as Andrew Edis QC implied, at the end of an epic cross examination, it was the performance of her life.

Indeed, this emphasis on Brooks’ personal background was no accident. Everything about the defence case was constructed to insert her character, attitudes, foibles and fearlessness. During his two-week examination of Brooks in front of the jury, [defence barrister Jonathan] Laidlaw made constant reference to the former chief executive of News International as a likeable if flawed human being: young fluffy female features writer in the macho world of Fleet Street; then a campaigning editor who took on the establishment of the police and military; above all, a daughter; and now, a mother. Whether any of these emphases were influenced by the fact the jury was composed of nine women and three men, we may never know. Given the millions of pounds spent on her defence and PR advisors (Bell Pottinger were reportedly paid a £1 million for the first year alone) it seems likely her team would have considered the make-up and apparent characters of the jurors. 

Given the outcome, Brooks’ three-week appearance at the hacking trial will probably be studied by lawyers and advisers for years to come as an epic narrative. At the time, to many in the annex, the point of this great narrative seemed pretty obvious, often skirting over key elements, and with an emotive overtone which verged on the manipulative. (One former Murdoch employee quipped it was about as unscripted as Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear). The jury might have seen it differently. A friend of mine, who became my regular spy in the public gallery around this time, began to see the chemistry between several of the jurors and Brooks. She smiled at several of the female jurors on the front row and they smiled back.

Though Laidlaw was the narrator, the star of the show was indubitably Rebekah Brooks. Laidlaw’s legal narrative was as insistent, sometimes incessant, as a 19th century moralist. But it provided a backdrop against which his colourful and empathetic client would stand out. For it was Brooks – her character, humour, likeability, foibles, anti-establishment campaigning – that was the central theme. Her defence was essentially the story of how she battled against misogyny, corrupt patriarchal institutions like the prison, army and Parliament, was ultimately hounded by baying mobs and paparazzi, and persecuted by the police.

By the end of his cross-examination, Edis called this “a carefully scripted performance” – a line Laidlaw took great exception to in his closing speech, because he claimed it was an accusation of professional misconduct (barristers are not allowed to coach clients). But any coaching would not have needed the input of Brooks’ QC. It could have been done with the help of other advisors, or indeed many PR agencies. As we heard in evidence, Brooks had gathered a dozen or so people, including lawyers, in the large grounds of Enstone Manor to help her rehearse for the Commons media committee on the weekend she was arrested in July 2011. 

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