An empire on trial

Print edition : August 24, 2012

Eight high-profile figures in Rupert Murdochs British media empire have been criminally charged over the NoW hacking scandal.

in London

Rupert Murdoch. His resignations have triggered intense speculation about the future of his newspapers.-LOUIS LANZANO/AP

ONCE they were the movers and shakers of the British media wooed by successive Prime Ministers, who crafted policies tailored to their agenda. Being invited to their summer parties and Christmas dos was regarded as a badge of honour.

But that was then.

On July 23, some of the most high-profile figures in Rupert Murdochs once mighty British media empire were criminally charged over the News of the World ( NoW) hacking scandal. In all, eight people were charged and they face a total of 19 offences relating to the illegal interception of voicemails of some 600 people, including the Hollywood actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, between 2000 and 2006.

The list, which reads like a whos who of the Murdoch group (Murdochs Finest Brought to Trial, said a front-page headline in The Independent), is topped by Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, both former editors of the defunct NoW and personal friends of Prime Minister David Cameron.

Others are former NoW managing editor Stuart Kuttner, former news editor Greg Miskiw, former assistant editor Ian Edmondson, former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, former assistant editor James Weatherup and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. If convicted, they could face up to two years in jail or a fine or both. And the Crown Prosecution Service believes there is a realistic prospect of conviction.

A September 2010 picture of Andy Coulson, former "News of the World" editor who later became Prime Minister David Cameron's Director of Communications. He is among those who have been criminally charged.-BEN STANSALL/AFP

Camerons proximity to Rebekah Brooks is well documented: how he used to spend weekends with her and her husband, Charlie Brooks, a horse trainer and a close friend of his since their days at Eton; how their families went on picnics together; and how he famously used to sign off his text messages to Rebekah Brooks with LoL, thinking it meant lots of love until she told him it stood for laugh out loud.

The admiration was mutual. She was instrumental in persuading Murdoch to switch his newspapers support from Labour to the Tories in the 2010 elections. In a message to Cameron on the eve of his big speech at the Conservative Partys annual conference, ahead of the elections, Rebekah Brooks wrote: I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a personal friend but because professionally were definitely in this together. Speech of your life? Yes he Cam!

Perhaps less well known outside the Westminster village are details about his relationship with Coulson, a rather dour figure who seldom smiles in public. He was Camerons right-hand man and by his side 24/7 for four years. He left NoW in 2007 after its royal editor and a private investigator were jailed for hacking into the phones of, among others, members of the royal family on his watch.

Cameron, then the Leader of the Opposition, hired him to become director of communications of the Conservative Party. On becoming Prime Minister in 2010, he took Coulson with him to Downing Street as his communications chief despite being warned that there were questions about his role in the hacking scandal.

There was much hand-wringing in the Conservative Party and Downing Street when Coulson was arrested in January 2011 over hacking allegations. His arrest forced him to quit Downing Street. Cameron still defends his decision to employ Coulson, arguing that no charges have yet been proved. His party, though, is less sure, and many Tories have questioned his judgment.

Not surprisingly, the opposition Labour Party is wallowing in Camerons and his partys discomfiture, forgetting its own record of servile relationship with the Murdoch media: Tony Blair flew halfway round the world to meet Murdoch to seek his newspapers support for Labour in the 1997 elections, and Gordon Browns wife invited Rebekah Brooks to sleepover parties at Chequers. Chris Bryant, a senior Labour Member of Parliament and a hacking victim, called the charge-sheeting of Rebekah Brooks and Coulson a blow to Cameron. I think that every Prime Minister gets nine lives this one has already lost two or three [over hacking] but maybe he lost another one today, he chuckled.

Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and her husband, Charlie Brooks, arriving at Southwark Crown Court, London, on June 22. She is another high-profile figure who was charged.-LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

Forget the Labour Party, though. There are many in the Prime Ministers own party who believe that the criminal prosecution of two of his closest associates is not only personally embarrassing to him but politically damaging to the government at a time when it is floundering, with opinion polls showing that in the event of an election tomorrow the Tories would lose.

John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Culture Select Committee, which inquired into the hacking row, admitted that the development was embarrassing for the government and not a great day for the media or politics. Financial Times described it as the most significant stage yet in the nearly two-year-old hacking scandal, which has seen more than 70 people including journalists, and police and other public officials arrested, brought down the once seemingly invincible Murdoch empire to its knees, and raised questions not just about media ethics but about the toxic relationship between journalists, politicians and the police.

The most serious charge against Coulson and Rebekah Brooks relates to illegally accessing phone messages of the schoolgirl Milly Dowler, who went missing in March 2002 while on her way back home from school and was found murdered in September 2002. It was the Milly Dowler case that led Rebekah Brooks to quit as chief executive of News International last summer after she was arrested and investors warned that her continued presence was becoming a liability for the company. It also led to the closure of the 164-year-old NoW, which had been the Murdoch stables fattest cash cow.

Recently, Rebekah Brooks and her husband were charged in a separate case relating to tampering with evidence relevant to the hacking inquiry.

Predictably, both Rebekah Brooks and Coulson have protested their innocence, focussing their denials on allegations about accessing Milly Dowlers voicemail. The charge concerning Milly is particularly upsetting, not only as it is untrue but also because I have spent my journalistic career campaigning for victims of crime, Rebekah Brooks said in a statement.

David Cameron speaking in Parliament about the phonehacking scandal, in July 2011. Both Coulson and Rebekah Brooks are close friends of the Prime Minister.-REUTERS/PARBUL TV

Coulson was equally angry, claiming that anyone who had worked with him would know that I wouldnt, and more importantly, that I didnt do anything to damage the Milly Dowler investigation. At News of the World, we worked on behalf of the victims of crime, particularly violent crime, and the idea that I would then sit in my office dreaming up schemes to undermine investigations is simply untrue, he claimed.

The latest twist in the hacking saga coincided with another important development: Murdochs dramatic decision to quit the boards of his British companies, including News International, NewsCorp Investments and Times Newspaper Holdings. He also stepped down from the boards of a number of subsidiaries in the United States, Australia and India. It followed a similar move by his son James Murdoch, who resigned as executive chairman of News International a few months ago following widespread criticism of his handling of the hacking crisis.

Media observers interpret these moves as a prelude to Rupert Murdoch selling his British newspapers The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun and leaving Britain. Speculation has been raging since he shut down NoW, but his surprise resignations have fuelled the sense that the tumultuous Murdoch era in British journalism could finally be about to end. One leading media analyst described it as part of a controlled fade-out of Rupert and James from the U.K. and speculated that they would now concentrate on their American business.

News International tried to play down the significance of the resignations, describing them as a corporate house-cleaning exercise prior to the company split. It assured the staff that Rupert Murdoch remained fully committed to the company. But that has done little to dampen speculation about the future of the Murdoch newspapers.

Rupert Murdochs decision is seen as part of a larger plan, which includes splitting his U.S.-based flagship company News Corporation into two distinct publicly traded companies by separating its publishing and broadcasting businesses following a backlash from shareholders in the wake of the NoW hacking row. Murdoch is expected to chair both companies but be the chief executive of only his television business in what experts interpret as a move to distance himself from his tainted newspaper group. Experts say it would protect News Corps television operations such as Sky TV, in which it has 39 per cent stake, from the fallout of the hacking scandal. Murdoch is thought to be under pressure from investors to let go of his loss-making newspapers and focus on his broadcasting interests.

The frustration [of investors] is that Rupert Murdoch has maintained his enthusiasm for newspapers despite abundant evidence that they are in decline; they are not a growth business any longer, and in investment terms that is not where you want to be. The other thing, of course, that a separation like this does is it attempts to draw a very clear line, produce real blue water if you like, between the infectious potential of News International and the newspapers, and the rest of the business, the leading media analyst Steve Hewlett told the BBC.

The headlines in recent weeks have been all about Bye, bye Mr Murdoch and Au revoir, Mr Murdoch? suggesting that what was once hailed as his love affair with Britain may finally be over. A more considered view is that he is too much of a newspaper man at heart to let go of them easily. But after him (and he is 81), it is anybodys guess what will happen. The fact that his son apparently loathes newspapers provides a clue to what might happen to them once the old man is gone.

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