Rebekah Brooks was cast as the chief villain in the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal for three years. Her supporters cheered when she was cleared of all charges after an eight-month trial that pored over her life as a tabloid editor, executive, wife and mistress.
Brooks, the 46-year-old former head of News Corp.’s U.K. unit, was found not guilty of phone hacking, bribery and perverting the course of justice after a trial triggered by one of the biggest media scandals in British history. Her husband, a former personal assistant, and two other current and former News Corp. officials were also acquitted.
“YEEEEESSSSSS Rebekah Brooks CLEARED take that,” Louise Mensch, a former U.K. Conservative lawmaker, said in a series of Twitter postings after the verdict yesterday. “I cannot wait to work with Rebekah Brooks I hope I get the opportunity very soon. Literally could not be happier.”
The verdicts are the climax of a scandal that erupted amid the discovery that reporters at News Corp.’s News of the World tabloid hacked the phone of a murdered teenager, Milly Dowler. Chairman Rupert Murdoch closed the newspaper in 2011 in a bid to temper public outrage over the hacking of Dowler’s phone.
Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World tabloid who went on to become a media adviser to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, was found guilty of one count of phone hacking. The jury is still deliberating on two charges of bribing public officials against Coulson, 46, and Clive Goodman, a former reporter at the newspaper.
Brooks, who had edited both the News of the World and News Corp.’s daily Sun tabloid, resigned her position at the company’s London unit at the height of the scandal in 2011.
The jury’s decision to clear Brooks and her husband of all charges will be a boost for Murdoch, who largely stood by her and in July 2011 called her his top priority.
Brooks is “free to resume her career and she should go back to being treated as a highly experienced media executive,” said Alex DeGroote, a media analyst at Peel Hunt in London.
A job either back at Murdoch’s U.K. operation or in New York would make sense, he said.
“Murdoch talent-spotted her from an early age so why not go back to a senior role there,” DeGroote said.
The company paid a high price for the scandal. In addition to closing the News of the World, the U.K.’s biggest newspaper, it also dropped a 7.8 billion-pound bid ($13.2 billion)bid to take full control of British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc to contain the public backlash.
News Corp.’s U.K. unit said in a statement after the verdicts that the company has paid compensation to phone-hacking victims and has cooperated with investigations.
“We said long ago, and repeat today, that wrongdoing occurred, and we apologized for it,” News UK said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “We made changes in the way we do business to help ensure wrongdoing like this does not occur again.”
Brooks, her husband, Charlie, and their lawyers left the courtroom and went to a private room at the courthouse. Neither commented to the press as they left the building.
Brooks, wearing a cropped white sweater and black trousers, smiled and lowered her head as the first not guilty verdict was read out, and again once she and her husband were cleared on all charges. Charlie Brooks, wearing a white button-down shirt, and Coulson, in a navy blue suit, both remained stoic as the verdicts were read.
While Brooks received plaudits from her admirers, Coulson’s conviction put his former boss, Cameron, in the spotlight.
Cameron apologized yesterday for hiring Coulson as a media adviser shortly after the editor stepped down from his post at the News of the World when the phone-hacking controversy first emerged in 2007.
“I’m extremely sorry that I employed him,” Cameron said. “It was the wrong decision. I’m very clear about that.”
Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World in 2007 after Goodman was sentenced to prison for listening to messages on the phone of employees of the royal family.
Within months, Coulson had been hired by Cameron as a media adviser to the Conservative Party. In 2010, he followed Cameron to Downing Street after he was elected prime minister.
Stuart Kuttner, 74, the former managing editor of the News of the World, was found not guilty of phone hacking. Mark Hanna, a News Corp. security guard, was also cleared of hiding evidence.
“The dedication, and perhaps above all the passion of my lawyers over the last three years has been extraordinary, most remarkable,” Kuttner said outside the court yesterday. “It is to them that I owe the huge and enduring thanks for the result, the unanimous verdict of the jury.”
In the opening days of the case last year, prosecutors told jurors that Coulson and Brooks had a long-term affair during their tenures at the News Corp. newspapers.
Other days included testimony about reporters’ attempts to listen to voice-mail messages left by Prince William on the phone of his future wife, Kate Middleton.
Members of the royal family, politicians, people from the world of show business, and Brooks herself were all victims of hacking and bribery practices which spanned a decade, prosecutors said during the trial. Prosecution witnesses included the actress Sienna Miller and her former boyfriend, Jude Law, whose phones were hacked for details of their relationship.
But the tragedy of Dowler, the 13-year-old schoolgirl murdered in 2002, had a bigger role in the media scandal and the trial than any celebrity. Prosecutors said that Coulson, who was running the News of the World in Brooks’s absence, and Kuttner knew that her phone had been hacked by a private detective at the paper.
While Brooks was on holiday in Dubai at the time, prosecutors said she was aware of the hacking and was part of a conspiracy to access the schoolgirl’s voice mails.
The early days of the trial were dominated by a love letter written by Brooks that was never sent. Brooks and her lawyers had to explain the note time and time again, as did its intended recipient, Coulson.
“At the time I wrote this I was in a great deal of emotional anguish as you can see,” Brooks said in the witness dock at London’s Old Bailey criminal court. “In a time of hurt, after a few glasses of wine, you shouldn’t get on a computer.”
Much of the legal arguments before the trial focused on adverse publicity, particularly the online abuse that both Brooks and Coulson were subjected to since 2011.
“It is times like this you really appreciate the simplicity of torches and pitchforks,” said a YouTube comment read out by Jonathan Laidlaw, Brooks’s lawyer, before the trial began.
The pursuit of Brooks as a witch or storybook villain was a theme of Laidlaw’s throughout the trial.
“Without a doubt, this case has not been a witch trial but the prosecution approach has been that of a witch hunt,” Laidlaw said May 21 during his closing arguments.
While most of the defendants were cleared, critics of News Corp. still hailed the verdicts. Hacked Off, a group that was formed in the midst of the scandal in 2011 said the Coulson verdict contradicted the defense the company used until 2011 that phone hacking was the result of a rogue reporter.
“For years the Murdoch press clung to the story that one rogue reporter was responsible for phone hacking,” Brian Cathcart, executive director of Hacked Off, said in an e-mailed statement. “We now know this was a lie. Far from being an isolated incident involving a few ‘bad apples,’ the trial has shown that the entire orchard was rotten.”
After the Dowler revelations, Cameron announced a public inquiry into press ethics that was chaired by Judge Brian Leveson. The hearings, which cost 5.4 million pounds ($9 million), featured more than 100 days of testimony from journalists, politicians and celebrities.
Leveson’s report, published in November 2012, called for an independent regulator to be set up with the power to issue a 1 million-pound fine. More than half the national newspapers, including News Corp.’s Sun and Times, refused to sign up to the new regulator and instead are backing their own media watchdog.
Murdoch and his son James, who was then head of the company’s European operations, never appeared at the trial, but testified in front of Parliament and the media inquiry about the scandal. Murdoch’s questioning by lawmakers in July 2011 was interrupted when a comedian threw a foam pie.
News Corp. has settled more than 700 civil claims related to phone hacking. Previous civil trials were canceled as News Corp. reached deals with celebrities, politicians and athletes who said their voice-mail messages were intercepted by the News of the World.