On October 14, Rupert Murdoch tweeted: “Big media trials in London in 2 weeks. Remember, everyone innocent until proven guilty, entitled to fair trial in most countries.” Murdoch was referring to the criminal trial related to phone hacking at his now defunct News Of The World tabloid. This morning, eight defendants including former Murdoch employees Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson made it to court amid a media frenzy for what some are calling the “Trial of the Century.” It may feel like a century once the proceedings wrap sometime around Easter 2014 and after an expected 100 witnesses have been called. Jury selection began today with the prosecution starting later in the week.
While Murdoch, Brooks and Coulson are no longer linked professionally, the outcome of the trial has the potential to impact the mogul’s business going forward. Even the News Corp-owned Wall Street Journal wrote that the courtroom drama “could further embarrass both the media giant and the British government.” One of the lines of questioning during the Leveson Inquiry into UK media ethics, the probe hatched by Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of the News Of The World scandal, focused on the relationships between politicians and newspaper proprietors and editors. With Brooks and Coulson now standing trial, this could put News Corp’s relationship with the UK government back into the spotlight. Brooks was head of News Corp‘s UK press arm, News International (now News UK), until the phone-hacking scandal first exploded at the News Of The World in July 2011. She has denied the five charges against her including conspiracy to hack phones, conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office by paying officials for stories, and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Coulson was formerly editor of News Of The World. He went on to become Cameron’s spin doctor, a post he vacated in 2011. He is facing three charges related to phone hacking and conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office. They are joined by six other defendants who have all pleaded not guilty, including Brooks’ husband Charlie, a longtime Cameron friend.
In August, it was reported that News International was being actively investigated by Scotland Yard for possible criminal violations related to the phone-hacking scandal as well as allegations of illegal payments to public officials by journalists. It’s likely investigators will keep an eye on the current trial for any new revelations that could emerge.
However, it may take a while for the public to know what’s going on inside the Old Bailey courthouse. The Guardian notes that that UK bans comment on active trials until the verdict has been given. The judge in the case and the attorney general have issued warnings to the local media reminding them not to stray from the Contempt of Court Act’s reporting rules. Because of Coulson’s former role in Cameron’s cabinet, there are particular concerns that MPs will comment on the trial, The Guardian says, and so the three main political parties have been advised to refrain from comments that could be perceived as prejudicial. Also in an effort not to prejudice the outcome, the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport postponed an interview with Murdoch about secretly-recorded comments he made to staff at The Sun which were uncovered this summer. That move came following the intervention of both the attorney general and Murdoch’s own lawyers. It will be interesting to see what role Twitter plays going forward. Some high-profile UK individuals have been asked to delete tweets about Brooks after complaints were made by her legal team and to the attorney general. The judge today warned potential jurors: “You are not to talk about it, do not look anything up on Google, search engines; tweeting,” he said, per The Guardian.