The Day I Spent at the Phone Hacking Trial Felt Like an Eternity
Thank god it's finally over.
Charlie and Rebekah Brooks (Screen grab via)
In the 1970s, eight anarchists from The Angry Brigade were tried for bomb-making in a grungy part of London. The case of "The Stoke Newington Eight" took five months. And that, so far as anyone has bothered to research, was the longest criminal trial in the recent history of UK law.
Until the phone hacking odyssey, which finally came to a close yesterday after 138 days. The final verdict: Rebekah Brooks, her husband Charlie and three former members of her staff were cleared of all charges, while Andy Coulson – former News of the World editor – was found guilty of one charge of conspiracy to hack voicemails..
The morning I turn up it's day 127 of the trial, somewhere in the middle of June. The proceedings are a sentence in themself; 127 days that Rebekah Brooks – née Wade, ex-Mrs Ross Kemp – has stood in the dock and thought about all the better things she could be doing than watching the 16 barristers, QCs, solicitors and assorted periwigged flunkies in front of her argue over how close she sat to a nightclub owner on her 2002 holiday to Dubai with Kemp. A third of a year she could have instead spent within the soothing-green walls of a minimum-security prison.
She could have read Ulysses 12 times. She could have become fluent in Urdu, proficient in Taekwondo and decent at Candy Crush in that time. Instead, she has spent months sitting inside a walled glass box alongside her husband and her ex-lover, Andy Coulson (awk), and a few other folks she mainly wishes she’d never clapped eyes on, absorbing their physical tics, the way they breathe, the way they smell, the way they just sit there waiting for their exceptionally long trials to end. Doesn’t Rebekah understand that Britain’s jail cells are far more humane than its docks? You get Sky TV in jail; you only get steam-cleaned carpets and lawyers in the courts.
Originally, the day I turn up is initially expected to be the second-last. It isn’t. Today, the closing arguments are over, the evidence is over, the judge now needs to sum up. That’s his job. But things get interrupted by things, which get crashed by the sheer tendency-towards-entropy of the universe. He has already been summing up for a day. Today, he will sum up some more. Then for another day… and, as it turns out, an unintended extra day, plus lots of minor legal cud-chewing and talky-talk in-between.
It may be the trial of some-or-other century, but at this length the sag is palpable. Up in the public gallery the three rows of seats contain less than a third of their potential. There is me. There is a lovely bloke from the Sunday Times. There is a smiley German reporter in a cheap suit. There is a US law student day-tripper in a formal black skirt. Then there are a couple of what I can only describe as law-groupies (though "legal-trainspotter" might be more appropriate for the bearded guy in the grey raincoat who compares the sound quality here to that at the Rolf Harris trial). There is a middle-aged couple who are clearly parents or relatives of one of the Wapping Six. They get ushered in first and sit alone in a special row at the front, reserved for family.
For the rest, no one is here to cheer them on to HM Leisure Camps. “Am I the only one without a raft of supporters in the public gallery?” the judge quips, glancing up. Sixteen perriwigged legals giggle dutifully. On Day 127, you can’t expect even your dear old mum to keep coming to your trial, especially if you’re only being tried for diddling a few 121s. No one’s getting the firing squad here. At worst, they’re just getting a bit of HM EasyJail In Association With Serco, and then an electronic tag to wear while they write their tell-all memoirs in bed. I imagine Brooks & Brooks, tagged-up in their Chipping Norton four-poster, working feverishly on rival Macbook Airs to make their publishers’ strict deadlines.
Why did we all decide this was so important anyway? They closed a newspaper because someone pressed zero four times on their telephone keypad? It was 2011. I think we’d all gone a bit news-mad after the tsunami and whacking Osama. I think we must have all decided: 'These things come in threes’.
Andy Coulson arriving at the Old Bailey
After all, as the judge reminds everyone in the second hour of summary, the crucial bit of knavery on the day the NOTW went skiing into the garbage can of history was factually incorrect. The Guardian had alleged that NOTW hackers had deleted voicemails on Milly Dowler’s phone. The implication being that this had hindered the investigation. That News International had effectively prioritised their filthy snooping over the search for a missing child. The Graun later ran a correction. Too late to save Rupe’s baby. Too late to stop the chain of events that climaxed in an 80-year-old being hit with a pie. Too late to stop this trial. Too bad.
News comes through that one of the jurors has a migraine, and is late as a result of that. The whole day could now be cancelled. In the end, she arrives, a few paracetamol later, wearing dark glasses, intent on soldiering onwards. She feels a loyalty to her fellow jurors to see this through, one long day at a time.
Once, these people probably had jobs and lives to go back to. Now? What can you really hope to go back to if you’ve spent upwards of seven months on legally mandated sabbatical? Will you even be the same person after all that? You’re going to have to go back to brokering mortgages, to being VP of client services, to answering the phones at TfL’s information hotline, or whatever, and see if you can actually remember what it is you used to do. Before you had to stare at Rebekah Brooks all day.
Eventually, we begin. The judge spraffs on for over an hour, then we get a break for 15 minutes. I make friends with the man from The Sunday Times during the break. “Yesterday…” he says. “The highlight of yesterday was probably watching a 60-year-old man in ermine trying to get his mouse to work. He was trying to read his summary. But the outboard mouse wasn’t doing anything. So two of the jurors passed messages along the line, suggesting various fixes he might employ… Of course, in the gallery, we’d spotted what was wrong. He needed new batteries inside the mouse itself. But we couldn’t say anything, could we?”
Coulson and the Brooks leaving court
This spectacle apparently took a good half-hour to unfold. Half an hour that a rugby squad’s worth of the most expensive legal minds – now buried under boxes, cartons, stacks and reams of paper – in Britain duly chalked up to their fees.
For the longest trial in modern British criminal history, is it any wonder the place looks like a Channel 5 hoarders documentary? These lawyers are drowning in boxes. They stack vertically. Then spread horizontally. They span the length of benches like documentation Lego. The judge has personally instituted some kind of system for indexing, but it’s barely working, as he now concedes. Next to him is a three-level carousel rolodex of fat ring-binders, a Lazy Susan of law. But when the moment arrives to consult one, it ain’t there, and he has to borrow the relevant passages from one of his classroom of learned counsel.
By midday, Justice Saunders finally gets to the important bit about Dubai: torturously involved accounts of how Ross Kemp negotiated for him and his wife to change hotels, then Brooks went off and took a phone call at dinner, and then they went to a nightclub, and then and then and then and then… So many details of trivial afternoons from long ago that it makes you wonder what would happen if your own idle Tuesdays suddenly became significant evidence 12 years later.
Daily life is mainly made up of stuff that’s no one’s business. And as the Pistorius trial has taught us – and Charlie Brooks’ red-faced testimony confirmed – the first thing that happens when a human male goes on trial in the 21st century is that the world gets to sift through your belongings and find out exactly what kind of porn you're into. The effluvia of life – the stuff that’s meant to drift to the bottom of the pile – gets churned up and picked over and prodded by Oxbridge men and women in periwigs.
Rebekah Brooks at the Leveson inquiry (Screen grab via)
While Mr Brooks has a lantern-jawed pleasantness to his face, she’s the rare beauty of the two. In the press, née Wade is normally made out to be some cross between Louis XIV, Cruella Deville and an open sewer-pipe full of 70s pornography, oozing a snail-trail of evil wherever she walks. In the flesh – well, no jury composed of red-blooded males could hope to convict. She’s Elizabeth I as played by Cate Blanchett. She’s Venus as composed by Botticelli. She makes Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly look like Phil Jupitus playing Levi Bellfield. She’s got such lovely, lovely posture. You can tell she rides lots of horses. You can tell why Murdoch trusted her, raised her up and ultimately staged a doomed rear-guard action to keep her onboard, even if it meant throwing entire chunks of his organisation to the wolves. He was in love. Who wouldn’t be?
As for Coulson. Well, I’m sorry, Andy, but you look a bit down in the mouth, son. Heavier than in the pictures from his Downing Street glory days, there’s a tuned-out quality to him that’s more than just the froideur of a slick operator who plays his cards close to his chest. Andy, Rebekah – they’re type AAA personalities. They need to be busy, they need to feel involved, they need to be jabbing fingers in your chest and telling people they’re shit down their BlackBerrys. Remove that and put them in a goldfish bowl for eight months, and they can easily bloat like corpses in the Thames.
But to the left of the menage à trois of Coulson and The Brookses, the hidden star of all this is the PA who took the bullet for her boss: Cheryl Carter. “They're as close as sisters. They adore each other,” Carter’s QC said of her relationship to Brooks. “They've been shoulder to shoulder for the last 16 years – she will not say a bad word about Rebekah.” The woman who managed Brooks’ diary – who knew all her worldly confidences – now accused of destroying boxes of evidence to help her bessie. That’s the hidden love story here: not Coulson-Brooks, but two self-made working class girls who went all the way to the top side-by-side. Then all the way down. But who’d still kill for each other if the need ever arose.
Just after 1PM, following another session of summing-up, the judge decides we’re done for the day. The juror with the migraine must get some rest. We’ve been here barely three hours, yet everyone’s brains are more than a little irradiated by this stream of facts. Brooks 1 and 2, and Coulson, leave together, locked in intent discussion. Carter trails just behind, then Goodman, then the other one… It’s a sad life in the dock. But how much easier it is to bear Justice Saunders dry voice if you are surrounded by lovers and friends all day. If only Daddy Rupert had been able to join her, Rebekah’s happiness would surely be complete.
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