Brooks becomes tabloid fodder

JEREMY HODGES
Last updated 05:00 15/03/2014
brooks standard
SUZANNE PLUNKETT / Reuters
Rebekah Brooks arrives at court Thursday.

UK phone hacking trial begins

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Rebekah Brooks, the former editor at the centre of the five-month-old trial over alleged phone hacking and bribery at News Corporation tabloids, led jurors through more than 60 hours of testimony discussing examples of checkbook journalism, celebrity gossip and her own rocky love affairs.

As a features editor, she'd overseen payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars to pursue a story linking actor Hugh Grant to a prostitute. She approved a News of the World reporter getting closer to a royal-family source by posing as a sheikh.

"All our entrapment and subterfuge must be justified 110 per cent," Brooks, 45, said in a 2001 email introduced as evidence at the trial. "We have to be so careful and make sure everything we do is inside the law."

The former editor of News Corp.'s Sun and News of the World repeatedly distanced herself from the "abhorrent" hacking of a slain teenager's phone and denied "cooking the books" to pay a private investigator 92,000 pounds (NZ$179,000) a year to intercept voicemails. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Brooks is among seven people on trial for phone hacking and bribery at News Corporation newspapers. Rupert Murdoch, chairman of New York-based company, closed the News of the World in July 2011 after the discovery that the weekly tabloid accessed the voice mails of the schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, years earlier.

Brooks wrapped up 13 days of testimony Wednesday at the trial, which began in October. The other six defendants, starting with former News of the World reporter Clive Goodman, will now start their defence arguments and the case could go to the jury for deliberations by the end of May.

In testimony that started February 21, Brooks had her life deconstructed in tabloid form by her own lawyers to tell her side of the story. At one point she had to explain a love letter she wrote, but never sent, to Andy Coulson, her former fellow editor at News Corporation's British newspapers, who is also a defendant in the case.

"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."

The opening days of the case in October were punctuated by the letter that described how Brooks had a six-year affair with Coulson, which prosecutors argue is crucial to proving the close collaboration between the pair in their personal and professional lives. She returned to the issue under questioning from her lawyers during her second day of testimony.

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The affair was exaggerated by prosecutors, Brooks said, describing the relationship as periods of "physical intimacy".

Judge John Saunders allowed a previously undisclosed portion of the letter to Coulson, who followed her as editor of the News of the World, to be read to jurors.

"I've waited for you for six years," Brooks said in the 2004 note.

She told the court the tryst was more a sign of the "car crash" of her relationships before she met her current husband, Charlie Brooks.

After the relationship with Coulson ended, she "got married," bought a house and "tried to have a baby," Brooks said. "I wasn't sitting around like Miss Havisham" for Coulson, she said, referring to the Charles Dickens character in Great Expectations.

When Brooks wasn't discussing her own life, she revealed secrets of British tabloid journalism with fake sheikhs running investigations and garbage men and detectives hunting for stories.

Brooks told the jury about a man called "Benji the Binman" who went through the trash cans of lawyers and celebrities and sold any material he found to newspapers. She was responding to questions about an invoice titled "binology."

On another occasion, a reporter on the News of the World's investigative team posed as a rich Arab to try to uncover a story about a countess offering her public-relations clients access to the royal family.

The reporter "would live the true life of a wealthy sheikh," Brooks said. He would have a Bentley and a penthouse suite. "He always told me it was imperative."

She said that while she was features editor at the weekly tabloid she spent NZ$292,000 on a 1995 story about actor Grant and a prostitute, Divine Brown.

Brooks said that she never knew about phone hacking at the News of the World or any payments made to the private investigator who has pleaded guilty to the crime.

"It is impossible for an editor to know every source of every story," she said. One issue of the News of the World would have about 200 stories in it.

Brooks's testimony also provided a glimpse into how Murdoch ran his four newspapers in the UK. The editors of each publication, including the Times and Sunday Times in London, had to make annual pitches directly to the company chairman for budget increases, she said.

"You had four editors trying to get the biggest cut of the pot," Brooks said, describing 48-hour round trips to New York or Los Angeles to make presentations to Murdoch.

Brooks recalled her early days as a senior journalist at the company and her first meeting with Murdoch. He advised her to keep her head down and work hard.

"He was particularly keen for me to take a strict path on any kind of publicity," Brooks said. Murdoch doesn't like his "editors spouting forth their opinions" on TV or radio, she said. "I made the fatal error of telling him" a magazine wanted to interview her and "his reaction was very grim".

Murdoch isn't the only famous associate of Brooks to make a cameo appearance during the trial.

The jury was shown former Prime Minister Tony Blair's offer to be an unofficial adviser to Brooks and Murdoch at the height of the hacking scandal.

An email from Brooks to Murdoch's son James detailed a conversation she had with Blair in July 2011, six days before she was first arrested.

"Keep strong and definitely sleeping pills," Blair said, according to the email. "Need to have clear heads and remember no rash short-term solutions as they only give you long-term headaches."

Prosecutor Andrew Edis returned to Blair during Brooks's last day of testimony Wednesday, showing the jury messages the former prime minister sent to help prepare her for an appearance in front of lawmakers.

"Everyone panics in these situations and they will feel they have their reputation to recover," Blair replied one day before Brooks was arrested, signing his texts with an "X."

Brooks's mother gave evidence Thursday. Deborah Weir said he often called her daughter because she was "worried about her".

Brooks said on her first day of testimony, she was born in northwest England in 1968 to a gardener father and a personal-assistant mother. She cared for her grandparents growing up.

"My mum says that I told her when I was eight that I wanted to be a journalist," she said.

The defendants in the case include not only Coulson, who later became a media aide to Prime Minister David Cameron, but also her husband. Prosecutors say that Brooks directed a conspiracy to destroy evidence at the height of the scandal along with her husband and colleagues.

-Bloomberg News

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