As Rebekah Brooks ran the gauntlet of photographers outside the Old Bailey and bounded up the street at the end of the third day of jury deliberations in the News Corp. phone-hacking trial, at her side was one of London’s top fraud and business-crime lawyers, Jonathan Laidlaw.
Laidlaw, 54, dressed in the sleeved black waistcoat of a Queen’s Counsel, walked Brooks to the curb, helped her flag down a cab and put her safely inside. His reputation as a zealous advocate who can adapt to any situation will only be enhanced by the verdict 11 days later that cleared Brooks of phone hacking, bribery and obstruction of justice charges.
“He is incredibly committed, driven,” said Craig Ferguson, a lawyer who has worked with Laidlaw for 22 years at London-based firm 2 Hare Court. “He has an extraordinary energy about him and resilience. It marks him out from all others.”
During Brooks’s trial, Laidlaw fought off allegations that she had known reporters at the News of the World were intercepting messages on the phones of celebrities and royalty and bribing a government official. The 46-year-old Brooks, her husband and two News Corp. employees were also cleared June 24 of charges they conspired to hide evidence at the height of the media scandal in 2011. Andy Coulson, another former editor of the tabloid, was the only person convicted in the case.
Laidlaw’s job was to reverse any negative perceptions that jurors may have held about Brooks, whom he said had been portrayed as a hate figure in news reports and subjected to a witch hunt by prosecutors. From his table in Court 12 of the Old Bailey courthouse, he lambasted prosecutors.
“It is beyond ridiculous that the prosecution are trying to make you buy the fantastic tale of what she did and the people she corrupted,” he said during his closing arguments on May 21. “The prosecution’s story is less of a novel and more of a pantomime. The cast of villains is extraordinary.”
Laidlaw said in court there was little proof that Brooks was involved in intercepting voice-mail messages while she was the top editor of the weekly News of the World from 2000 until 2003. There were just two incidents where there was evidence of phone hacking out of 550 requests made by reporters to a private investigator during her tenure, he said.
“There was no smoking gun in the evidence said to be suggestive of Mrs. Brooks’s guilt,” Laidlaw said on May 20.
One bribery charge against her was dropped in February when the judge decided there was “considerable uncertainty” about where a photo of Prince William at a party in a bikini, purchased by the newspaper, had originated.
Brooks’s fate on the other charges rested on whether the jury believed her testimony, lawyers said. Before her 13 days of testimony in February and March, Laidlaw would have prepared her for prosecutors’ cross-examination as well as his own queries.
“They must have found her very believable and compelling,” said John Black, a London lawyer who handles criminal and corruption issues and wasn’t involved in the trial. “They must have found her attractive” in her testimony.
Laidlaw came late to the case, replacing John Kelsey-Fry, another top London trial lawyer, just three months before the trial began.
Brooks came across as thoroughly prepared, said Nick Davies, a journalist at the Guardian newspaper who has covered the phone-hacking scandal since 2009, when he was first to report that the interception of voice-mail messages went beyond a rogue reporter at the News of the World.
“I don’t think once during that time did she ever put a foot wrong,” Davies said. “She always knew the answer to the question. I would think that Laidlaw would’ve had a great deal to do with preparing her to perform as well as that.”
Laidlaw, who lives in west London, sought to humanize a defendant who he said had been subject to “cruelty and vitriol” in news coverage. He apologized to her when he asked her about her private life, such as her effort to have a child with husband Charlie Brooks using a surrogate mother and her on-off affair with Coulson, her successor at the News of the World.
Laidlaw’s job was made easier by the fact that no former colleagues testified against Brooks. Her husband Charlie, former assistant Cheryl Carter and other News Corp. employees all stood by her under questioning from prosecutors and defense lawyers.
Coulson, in contrast, came under fire from former reporters Clive Goodman -- another defendant in the case -- and Dan Evans during the trial.
“The problem with Mr. Coulson is that he and Clive Goodman probably were blaming each other,” Black said. “It’s what we call a cut-throat defense. Coulson got caught in the crossfire of that. No doubt the jury found that unattractive.”
The jury was unable to return a verdict on bribery charges against Coulson and Goodman yesterday. Prosecutors have until the start of next week to decide whether they will refile the case.
Like many barristers, as U.K. trial lawyers are called, Laidlaw has worked on both sides of the criminal bar, including working as a treasury counsel, who advise prosecutors, with a top-level security clearance.
He won the 2011 conviction of “Night Stalker” Delroy Grant, who committed a series of rapes and assaults on elderly women throughout south London, Kent and Surrey. He also prosecuted two men accused of a 2007 terror attack on Glasgow airport.
He has defended the Football Association and the Metropolitan Police Service. Laidlaw now devotes his time to defense work.
“Over the past 15 years, he will have been involved in the principal cases of our time,” Ferguson said.
Like his latest client Brooks, Laidlaw, who is married with three children, rose to the top of his profession from a modest background. He went to a state high school, then studied at the University of Hull in northern England before training at the Inns of Court School of Law and 2 Hare Court.
“He’s not from an Oxbridge background, which coming into a leading set of chambers as he did was not a usual thing” in the 1980s, Ferguson said.
He is a fan of international rugby and attends matches at Twickenham stadium, Ferguson said. He also helps students through the Social Mobility Foundation, a U.K. charity that aids ambitious young people from poor areas.
Kawsar Zaman, a student from east London who Laidlaw and his firm helped attend the London School of Economics, said the barrister has been a “very good mentor.” Zaman, who has gone on to study at Oxford University and Harvard Law School, says he still speaks to Laidlaw several times a year.
“He’s always been very open about ensuring that people with talent succeed at the bar,” Zaman said. “It’s a mark of Jonny that I only shadowed him for one afternoon and we’ve kept in touch for six to seven years.”