Queen Elizabeth II set up traps to make sure palace guards weren’t taking her cashews. Prince William once left voice mails for his future wife Kate Middleton, calling her “babykins” and telling her he’d stumbled into a military exercise where he was almost hit by plastic bullets.
Such is the level of detail to emerge in almost two months of daily proceedings in the U.K. trial of News Corp. journalists accused of hacking into voice mail and bribing public officials. The trial, on a two-week break beginning yesterday, digs into tabloid journalists’ alleged abuses as they pursued intimate details about public figures. In so doing, the proceedings have thrown still more private nuggets into the public sphere.
While U.K. and international media have feasted on the results -- at the expense of the British royals and other public figures the British law is aiming to protect -- the trial has also turned the tables by scrutinizing the lives of several tabloid journalists.
Prosecutors allege that defendants Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive officer of News Corp.’s U.K. unit, and Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor, engaged in a six-year affair. Details of the relationship are germane, prosecutors say, because they show that the two shared a level of trust necessary to conspire to hack phones and pay bribes.
For all the personal details it has churned up, the trial in Court 12 at London’s Central Criminal Court, known as the Old Bailey, is only about one-third of the way toward its expected April conclusion. In the new year, the prosecution is expected to conclude its case against Brooks, Coulson and five other defendants. The defense will then begin arguments.
Brooks and Coulson both deny charges that they hacked phones and paid bribes to public officials. Brooks also denies charges that she obstructed justice by destroying evidence.
On the trial’s busiest days, more than 30 journalists from around the world have packed into the courtroom along with dozens of lawyers, police and the defendants. Media analysis of the case has been minimal thanks to U.K. reporting restrictions that seek to avoid prejudicing juries. That leaves reporters with little to report but the facts.
The trial has given up “titillating details” with little depth, said Claire Enders, chief executive officer at Enders Analysis Ltd. in London, which specializes in media. “It puts the story into a framework -- it’s only newsworthy because of the personalities involved, because of their wealth and their power.”
The royal family hasn’t commented on the disclosures from the trial.
So far the satirical magazine Private Eye and a Labour party politician have come in for criticism from Judge John Saunders. The former put a picture of Brooks on the cover of its November issue, which came out around Halloween with the cover line “Horror Witch Costume Withdrawn From Shop.”
Judge Saunders told the jury to ignore it. It’s a “joke in especially bad taste,” he told them. “It’s meant to be satire. You ignore it.”
More than 100 journalists and public officials have been arrested in investigations of News Corp. (NWSA:US) newspapers which started in 2011. Prosecutors’ charges of hacking phones relate to News Corp.’s now-closed weekly News of the World. Bribery charges mostly involve its daily Sun tabloid.
The police probe was sparked in 2011 after News Corp. handed over e-mails with private details about lawmakers and members of the royal family.
News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch closed the News of the World in July 2011 in an effort to defuse a growing scandal following the revelations that the tabloid had hacked into the phone of a murdered schoolgirl. Murdoch told a U.K. Parliament committee looking into practices at the paper in 2011 that it was “the most humble day of my life.”
With the use of witnesses, thousands of e-mails and handwritten notes, prosecutors gave insights into how they said the tabloids were operated.
As part of News of the World’s appetite for stories on the royal family, Coulson and then reporter Clive Goodman conspired to pay staff members of Queen Elizabeth II for in-house royal phone directories, prosecutors allege. The so-called green books contained phone numbers the queen used get in touch with her family. Prosecutors said police found 15 of the books, dating to the 1990s, in Goodman’s home in 2006.
Goodman denied the bribery charges.
The books had numbers for all members of the royal household who were arranged like “ranks in the army,” Sir Michael Peat, the private secretary to the Prince of Wales, testified at the hacking trial. They included a Keeper of the Privy Purse, The Lord Warden of the Stannaries, equerries, ladies-in-waiting, gentleman ushers and the Swan Warden.
The phones of royal aides were hacked as many as 104 times a month by a private investigator and Goodman, prosecutors said in the trial.
The files of reporter Goodman included the transcript of a 2005 message from Prince Harry left on the voice mail of his former special services private secretary, prosecutors said. Harry, then in military college, asked for information about a 1980 siege on the Iranian embassy in London for an essay.
A private investigator also hacked the voice mail of Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, the jury was told. In one message, the transcript of which was found at Goodman’s home and read in court, William addressed her as “Babykins” and said he’d love to meet up with her.
Another transcript has William, then training at Sandhurst military college, leaving a message for Kate to call him.
“I’ve been running around the woods of Aldershot chasing shadows and getting horribly lost and I walked into some other regiment’s ambush, which was slightly embarrassing because I nearly got shot,” the jury was told. “Not by live rounds but by blank rounds, which would be very embarrassing.”
The story appeared in the News of the World in January 2006, jurors were told, under the headline “William shot in ambush.”
The future Duchess of Cambridge was among 18 “target” names found in the notes of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who was paid 100,000 pounds a year by the weekly tabloid to investigate a list of targets, prosecutors said. Others on the list included Boris Johnson, who is now the mayor of London, and celebrity publicist Max Clifford, the jury was told in November by Andrew Edis, the lead prosecution lawyer.
Mulcaire pleaded guilty to all hacking charges at a court hearing earlier this year.
Goodman told Coulson in a 2005 e-mail that the queen was “irritated” because palace police had been eating her snacks.
“Queen furious about police stealing bowls of nuts and nibbles left out for her in apartments,” Goodman said in the e-mail, read by Edis. “She has a very savory tooth and staff leave out cashews, Bombay Mix, almonds etc.”
“She started marking the bowls to see when the levels dipped,” he said.
Judge Saunders reminded the jury that these were “unfounded allegations.”
In November, a witness told the court that Brooks had described phone hacking as “so easy.” Eimear Cook, the ex-wife of golfer Colin Montgomerie, said that at a 2005 lunch, Brooks told her it was “ludicrous” that famous people didn’t protect their voice-mail messages. Brooks’ lawyer denied those allegations.
On the third day of the trial, prosecutors revealed that Brooks and Coulson, both 45, had a six-year affair ending in 2004. A letter found in Brooks’s house, intended for Coulson, detailed the relationship’s break-up.
“The fact is you are my very best friend, I tell you everything, I love you, care about you, worry about you, we laugh and cry together,” prosecution lawyer Edis read from the letter in October. “In fact without our relationship in my life I am not sure I will cope.”
Brooks’s current husband, Charlie, is also on trial in the case for perverting the course of justice, for his part in an attempted disposal of personal laptops and documents in the aftermath of his wife’s arrest, prosecutors said. Charlie Brooks denies the cover-up allegations.
Brooks married him in 2009, the same year that she divorced actor Ross Kemp after a seven-year marriage. Coulson has been married since 2000.
Brooks and Coulson have attended court every day, sitting side by side watching the proceedings from the dock.
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