Split Verdict in British Tabloid Phone-Hacking Trial

June 24, 2014
Watch Murdoch’s Scandal, FRONTLINE’s look inside Britain’s phone-hacking scandal.

A jury in Britain has found Andy Coulson, a former tabloid editor and onetime spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron, guilty in the nation’s long-running phone hacking scandal, but acquitted Rebekah Brooks, a former top lieutenant to Rupert Murdoch at his News Corp media empire.

The verdicts capped an eight-month trial that brought worldwide scrutiny to the sometimes-murky corners of tabloid journalism. The scandal forced the closure of Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid — once the largest-selling paper in Britain — and sparked a national inquiry into how journalists were able to eavesdrop on celebrities, government officials and even members of the royal family.

Brooks and Coulson were among seven defendants to face charges for the scandal. Coulson was found guilty of conspiracy to intercept phone voicemail messages, while Brooks was found not guilty on conspiracy to hack voicemails, two counts of conspiracy to pay public officials and two counts to pervert the course of justice.

Also acquitted were Brooks’ husband, Charles Brooks; her former assistant, Cheryl Carter; Stuart Kuttner, a former managing editor for News of the World and Mark Hanna, a former security director. The jury has yet to return a verdict for Clive Goodman, the paper’s royal correspondent.

The scandal erupted in July 2011 after The Guardian reported that a News of the World investigator had hacked into the voicemail of Milly Dowler, an abducted teenager who was later found murdered. At the time of the alleged incident, Brooks served as editor of the tabloid, but would go on to become chief executive of News Corp’s U.K. newspaper division.

Coulson worked as Brooks’ deputy at The News of the World. He would eventually become the paper’s editor, before leaving to serve as a top media adviser to the prime minister.

Coulson’s ties to Cameron added a political dimension to the scandal, prompting Cameron to tell Parliament in 2011 that if Coulson had known about phone hacking and lied about it, “that would be the moment for a profound apology.” On Tuesday, Cameron made good on that pledge, saying he takes “full responsibility” for employing Coulson.

“I always said that if they turned out to be wrong that I would make a full and frank apology and I do that today,” Cameron said. “I am extremely sorry that I employed him. It was the wrong decision and I’m very clear about that.”

Coulson faces as many as two years in prison and a fine for phone hacking.

Murdock, who did not appear at the trial, has repeatedly denied any knowledge of phone-hacking at The News of the World. His assertions led a Parliamentary committee in 2012 to conclude that Murdoch was “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.” According to the committee, Murdoch “did not take steps to become fully informed about phone-hacking … and exhibited willful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications.”

Six months later, a national inquiry into the British press extended the blame to the nation’s entire media culture. In a damning report, the panel concluded that the ultra-competitive environment that helped fuel that scandal “can only be described as outrageous.”

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