A trial that was all about power

The Guardian, June 25 2014

This was no ordinary trial.

It was unusual in its sheer scale: more than three years of police work; 42,000 pages of Crown evidence; seven months of hearings; up to 18 barristers in court at any one time; twelve defendants facing allegations of crime spreading back over a decade.

But what made it most unusual was what it represented. First, this was a long-delayed showdown between the criminal justice system and parts of Fleet Street, in which the reputation of both was at stake. Beyond that, however, this was a trial by proxy, in which Rebekah Brooks stood in the dock on behalf of a media mogul and Andy Coulson acted as avatar for the Prime Minister – with the reputations of both Rupert Murdoch and David Cameron equally in jeopardy. Officially, the trial was all about crime. In reality, it was all about power.

And just as the main players were absent from the dock, so the real issues which for years had inflamed public opinion were not mentioned on the indictment – the perception that some news organisations were all too happy to invade privacy and ruin lives in order to sell more papers; that they regarded themselves as not only above the law but above the government, which would do their will or suffer for it; that they had poisoned the mainstream of public debate with a daily dripfeed of falsehood and distortion.

Back on the afternoon of Wednesday October 30 2013, as the prosecuting counsel, Andrew Edis QC, first rose to his feet, I looked across at the twelve jurors who had just been empanelled – mixed gender, mixed race, mixed age – and I thought that they represented arguably the most ancient form of democracy (centuries older than the practice of voting), that this was the moment when all the wealth and influence of the Murdoch network finally confronted a form of popular will which they could not compromise. It was not as simple as that.

Somebody called it the trial of the century. That worked well enough as an indication of its scale and of the highly unusual status of some of those in the dock. But it was more accurate in another sense, that, as the weeks went by, this trial came to embody the peculiar values of this particular century – its materialism and the inequality which goes with it, the dominance of corporation over state.

As trials go, this was a good one. The judge, Mr Justice Saunders, was outstanding – clever, considerate, surprisingly comic, displaying never a flicker of fear or favour towards the ambassadors of the power elite who sat before him in the dock. The jurors were a tribute to the jury system. Their facial reactions each day showed that their concentration scarcely wavered during the marathon (though one had the initially alarming habit of listening with her eyes shut). Often, they sent written notes to the judge which were extraordinarily astute, spotting glitches in the evidence which had been missed by every single one of the highly-paid counsel in front of them. But…

Rupert Murdoch’s money flooded that courtroom. It flowed into the defence of Rebekah Brooks and others, because he backed them; and to the defence of Andy Coulson, because Coulson had sued and forced him to pay. Lawyers and court reporters who spend their working lives at the Old Bailey agreed that they had never seen anything like it, this perfectly tuned Rolls Royce engine purring through the proceedings. Soon we found ourselves watching the power of the private purse knocking six bells out of the underfunded public sector.

In the background, for sure, there was a huge publicly-funded police inquiry, forced by the stench of past failure to investigate thoroughly the crime which had been ignored and concealed for so long. But when it came to handling the police evidence in court, Brooks and Coulson had squads of senior partners, junior solicitors, paralegals and IT support as well as a highly-efficient team monitoring all news and social media. The cost to Murdoch ran into millions. Against that, the Crown Prosecution Service had only one full-time solicitor attached to the trial and one admin assistant. They worked assiduously but they struggled. One prosecution source said it was surprising that they had not simply collapsed under the strain. The effect was clear.

Defence barristers would pause, turn and find a solicitor to feed them information while Crown counsel often found an empty seat. The defence produced neatly laminated bundles of evidence to support their case, while the Crown hastily photocopied material into files which sometimes proved to be incomplete. Towards the end of the trial, Andrew Edis decided the jurors needed an electronic index to be installed on a computer in the jury room to help them find their way through the avalanche of paperwork which had descended on them. With the CPS struggling for cash, Edis offered to pay for it out of his own pocket, and, in the absence of CPS manpower, two junior Crown counsel had to create the index themselves. Over and again the defence teams had the resources to find some helpful stick with which to beat a potentially dangerous witness – a misremembered date, a forgotten detail, even on one occasion the fact that the witness had once had coffee with Nick Davies from the Guardian. So they were able to create complication, confusion, doubt.

An expert witness claimed to be able to track the movements of defendants by analysing their use of mobile phones: the prosecution failed to notice that his conclusions were contradicted by his own data; he was chopped to pieces by the defence and admonished by the judge. The jury were told that the News of the World had hacked phones to obtain a story about Paul McCartney having a row with his then wife Heather Mills and throwing their engagement ring out of a hotel window: the prosecution failed to take account of evidence in the possession of the police which indicated that they had bought the story from somebody who worked in the hotel.

These weaknesses were exploited by the kind of high-octane cross-examination which could raise reasonable doubt about whether the witness is breathing. (“When did you start this breathing?… You can’t remember?.. How often do you breathe?.. You don’t know!”). Here the disparity in funding was striking but not so important. There were masterclasses in the skills of advocacy from Andrew Edis as well as from some of those acting for those in the dock. It simply stuck in the craw that Edis was earning less than 10% of the daily fees enjoyed by some of his opponents.

Finally, the Crown were hampered by the rules of court which allow them to make an opening statement but require them then to present items of evidence without any comment as to why they matter, a rule which was policed with ferocious efficiency by the Rolls Royce defence teams. In a normal case, where the prosecution might spend only three or four days presenting their case, that would not matter: the evidence would be relatively simple; it would be clear how each piece fitted into a picture. In a seven-month trial, the rule combined with the Crown’s scarce resources to produce a kind of chaos.

When Rebekah Brooks’ barrister, Jonathan Laidlaw QC, rose to open her defence after nearly four months of prosecution evidence, he told the jury with his trademark combination of gentle delivery and vicious effect, that it had not been “the easiest case to follow.” The Crown had jumped from topic to topic, he said. They had made ‘something of a mess’ of timelines for the sample of 26 hacking victims, which were incomplete and potentially misleading. They had flashed up documents on the courtroom screens and forgotten to give them to the jury: “If there is a sense of confusion about the evidence and what it is supposed to relate to, that would be entirely understandable… There are categories where we simply don’t know or understand the point that is being made.”

It may have been patronising. But he had a point. The Crown had spent months effectively throwing random bricks at the jury with little or no explanation as to how they fitted together. Laidlaw set about building the prosecution’s house for them, attempting to persuade the jurors that, when they saw it in its final form, they would discover that it was full of holes.

This is not to say that the defendants had no problems. In pre-trial hearings, Rebekah Brooks lost her lead barrister, John Kelsey-Fry QC, because the former royal editor, Clive Goodman, said he wanted to call him as a witness to the cover-up at his own trial for hacking in 2007. The judge agreed to delay the trial for seven weeks while she instructed Laidlaw – and that meant Coulson lost his barrister, Clare Montgomery QC, because the new timing overlapped with a case she had to conduct in Hong Kong. The trial opened against a backdrop of public hostility to Brooks and Coulson not only because of the high-profile hacking saga but also because of their tabloid careers. Brooks’ lawyers tried and failed to persuade the judge to ban all trade union members from the jury on the grounds that they were bound to be antagonistic. Throughout the trial, the defendants were thrown off-course as the Crown, struggling to keep up, served new evidence which should have been presented before the trial started. Even as the final evidence was being put to the jury in April, the prosecution suddenly announced that they had thousands of email messages which the FBI had obtained from News Corp in New York: they had been with police in London for 16 months.

All this made the trial a peculiarly unpredictable contest. From the start, the Crown case was weak, particularly against Rebekah Brooks. There was no direct evidence at all to implicate her in phone-hacking. Indeed, there was simply a shortage of any direct evidence about her of any kind. That was partly because of the passage of time: she stopped being editor of the News of the World in January 2003, and so naturally paperwork and other evidence had been lost. Some had been destroyed. Over the years News International had deleted some 300 million emails from their systems, only 90 million of which were ever retrieved, including only a handful from Brooks’ editorship. The hard drive had been removed from her computer for safe keeping and then lost.

There was no doubt at all that the News of the World had been involved in crime on a massive scale. Before the trial opened, three former news editors and the specialist phone-hacker Glenn Mulcaire had pleaded guilty to conspiring to intercept voicemail. By the time it finished, News International had paid compensation to 718 victims of the hacking – an average of nearly three agreed victims for every week during the five years for which patchy evidence of Mulcaire’s work has survived. Hundreds more alleged victims were still being identified by police. Similarly at the Sun: a shuffling line of police officers and other public officials had already appeared in court and admitted being part of the alleged ‘network of corrupted officials’ which the head of Operation Weeting, Sue Akers, described at the Leveson inquiry. The object of the trial was to test the thin threads which linked the crime to those in the dock.

The hacking case against Brooks and Coulson was based on a platform of inference. How could they not have known about the beehive of offending around them, the Crown asked. How could they not have known about Glenn Mulcaire’s speciality when he was one of only two outside contributors with a full-time contract and was being paid more than any reporter, at one point more even than the news editor? How could they not have known the origin of all those stories whose accuracy they had to test? How could they have been ignorant when a humble sports writer described Mulcaire, a former footballer, as “part of our special investigations team” in a story published by the News of the World when Brooks was editor? Brooks and Coulson insisted that they had known nothing of Mulcaire’s criminality. They had not even heard his name until he was arrested in August 2006, they told the jury.

The attack on this platform of inference included a striking example of the impact of Murdoch’s money. The evidence which lies at the core of the hacking scandal is the collection of notes which were found by detectives when they first arrested Glenn Mulcaire back in August 2006: 11,000 pages of his barely legible scribble and scrawl and doodle. The original police inquiry took one look at it and decided they simply did not have the resources to go through it all. When Operation Weeting in 2011 finally did the job properly, it took them the best part of a year. Brooks’ Rolls Royce did it in three months and then had the resources to produce a brilliant analysis.

The notes showed that Mulcaire was tasked some 5,600 times during the five years that he worked on contract for the News of the World, an average of more than four for every working day. As a crude average, that would imply that between September 2001, when he was contracted to work for the paper, and January 2003, when Brooks left, he was commissioned some 1,400 times. But Brooks’ legal team set aside all those notes where it was not 100% certain that they had been written during that time; and all those where it was not 100% certain that Mulcaire had been tasked to intercept voicemail as opposed to ‘blagging’ confidential data. Since a considerable mass of his notes were incomplete and/or ambiguous on either date or task, this allowed Jonathan Laidlaw to tell the jury that there were only twelve occasions when it was 100% certain that Glenn Mulcaire had hacked a phone while she was editor. An eye-catching point to be able to deliver in answer to the Crown’s inference.

Where Brooks was concerned on the hacking charge, there was very little extra evidence to add to that platform of inference. Three witnesses came to court and recalled social occasions when she had discussed hacking with apparent familiarity. Brooks told the jury that she had read about hacking in newspaper stories; she had talked about it casually because she had not realised it was illegal; but she would never have sanctioned it because it was such a severe breach of privacy. One of these three witnesses – the former wife of the golfer Colin Montgomerie, Eimear Cook – was cut to pieces by a particularly destructive cross-examination.

She told the jury she recalled a conversation at lunch in September 2005, when Brooks had not only warned her that her own phone might be hacked but had described the ease with which it could be done. Eimear Cook added that during the same lunch, she thought Brooks had discussed the famous incident when she had been arrested for assaulting her then partner, the actor Ross Kemp. Jonathan Laidlaw gently pawed her into position, confirming without doubt the date of the lunch, challenging the strength of her memory until she insisted she was absolutely certain and then, like Hannibal Lecter in a horsehair wig, softly and courteously, he cut out her heart: the incident with Ross Kemp had happened six weeks after the lunch; her story could not possibly be right.

And then there was Milly Dowler. This was almost spooky. It was the Guardian’s disclosure of the hacking of the missing Surrey schoolgirl’s phone which finally broke open the scandal. That was purely about the emotional impact of the story – that this was no celebrity victim, but an ordinary civilian, a child, and one who had been abducted and murdered by a predatory paedophile. Now, in court, once more, it was Milly Dowler who presented the threat, not because of any emotional impact, but because it just so happened that this was the one example of hacking under Rebekah Brooks’ editorship where there was some hard evidence. This was, as the judge said in a ruling, “the high point of the prosecution case.”

Having picked up a voicemail which seemed to suggest that Milly was alive and working in a factory in Telford, in Shropshire, the News of the World not only hid that information from police but then later, when they had failed to find her, they contacted Surrey police and demanded that they confirm the story for them – and quoted the voicemail, in phone calls and even in email. The records of those calls and messages survived in the Surrey police archive. Brooks must have been consulted about the high-risk decision to hide information from the police, the Crown argued. She must have been told about this potentially huge scoop – and about its origin, they said. She must have known that seven journalists were working on it, including her news editor, Neville Thurlbeck, and her managing editor, Stuart Kuttner, who had both personally contacted Surrey police and quoted the intercepted voicemail. If it was not secret from the police, why would it be a secret from the editor? From the editor who was running a national campaign to protect children from predatory paedophiles?

Brooks’ answer was that she had been on holiday that week, in Dubai, and simply had not been told about any of this: she had had no idea that her paper was working on this story. Even here, the Dowler case proved special. She had been using a News International phone, and the itemised bill had survived in the company’s vaults. If she had been in London, there would have been no record of her conversations, but the phone bill showed she had called the desk occupied by her deputy, Andy Coulson, for 38 minutes on the Friday of that week, as reporters crawled over the big story, and again for 20 minutes on the Saturday, as they pressed the police to confirm it. She had texted him too. However, the prosecution had failed to realise that the records of some of those calls and texts were linked to the time in Dubai, not London, a three-hour difference which allowed Jonathan Laidlaw to pour justifiable confusion over the evidence.

In addition, she and Ross Kemp had been joined on the holiday by a British tourist, William Hennessy, who told the jury that she had spent a lot of time on the phone, explaining on one occasion that she had to make a call “about the missing Surrey girl.” Hennessy was sure of the timing: he had bought a watch in Dubai and kept the receipt, which was dated. Brooks said she had no memory of that. She had remained oblivious to the whole saga, she said, even when she returned to the office the following week – never reading the story which they had published in her absence, quoting the voicemail verbatim; never knowing that her managing editor, Stuart Kuttner, was still hectoring Surrey police to confirm the tale.

Andy Coulson always had more to deal with. While evidence of his three years as Brooks’ deputy was hard to find, there was a wealth of phone records, emails, voicemail recordings and Mulcaire notes about the hacking which happened when he was in charge, from January 2003 to January 2007. And Coulson had got himself dangerously close to the action.

Searching Mulcaire’s home and the News of the World office, police found recordings of hundreds of voicemail left by David Blunkett for his lover, Kimberley Quinn. Coulson startled the court by admitting that his chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, had played some of them to him. He had then personally confronted the then Home Secretary with the allegation of his affair, telling him: “I am certainly very confident of the information… It is based on an extremely reliable source.” Blunkett taped that meeting, and the tape survived. Coulson argued that this might show that he was aware of one instance of hacking but not that he was part of the conspiracy to make it happen.

Mulcaire then hacked the voicemail of a Labour special adviser, Hannah Pawlby, attempting to prove a false allegation that she was having an affair with the next Home Secretary, Charles Clarke. It was Coulson personally who called Pawlby, saying he needed to talk to Clarke about “quite a serious story.” Mulcaire actually hacked his own editor’s message from Pawlby’s phone, and the recording was recovered by police when they searched his home. Coulson said simply that he wanted to talk to Clarke about a different story which was also serious: he had known nothing about the hacking of Pawlby’s phone, he insisted.

When they were investigating Calum Best, News of the World executives feared that one of their journalists might be leaking information to him, warning him about what they were planning. Coulson sent an email: “Do his phone.” Mulcaire’s notes showed that he did then target Best, though it was not clear whether he succeeded in hacking his messages. Coulson said his email was an order to pull the itemised phone bills of the journalist who was suspected of leaking, to see if he had been calling Best.

Unlike Brooks, Coulson also faced two live witnesses who claimed he had known about the hacking. A showbusiness writer, Dan Evans, who had become a specialist hacker, told the jury that Coulson had hired him from the Sunday Mirror explicitly because of his hacking skill. He claimed that one day in the newsroom, he had played Coulson a tape of a voicemail hacked from the phone of the actor Daniel Craig in which Sienna Miller said she was in the Groucho club with Jude Law.

Coulson’s counsel, Timothy Langdale QC, a model of old-school courtesy built around a core of steel, released a swarm of questions around Evans, stinging him into describing his own criminality, his deal with the police, his history of cocaine abuse, finally pushing him into claiming to be sure of the date when he had played the Craig voicemail to Coulson – and then revealing that Coulson had not been in the office on that day. When Langdale went on to query whether Sienna Miller and Jude Law had been in the Groucho during that timeframe, the prosecution were left floundering: they had failed to get evidence from the club to prove their point.

Similarly, Coulson’s former friend and royal editor, Clive Goodman, went into the witness box and told the jury that Coulson had personally approved his hacking of royal phones, for which Mulcaire was paid in cash with a false name and address on internal paperwork. He added that hacking was going on on ‘an industrial scale’ at the time and was even discussed in meetings with Coulson until he banned any further open mention of it. Timothy Langdale pushed back hard, confronting him with evidence that he had lied to the jury about the scale of his royal hacking. Goodman had indeed lied: the Crown had failed to tell him until it was too late that he would not be prosecuted if he told the truth.

A trial deals with only a limited amount of information, considering only the evidence which is available and also admissable and which relates directly to the charges on the indictment. As in any case, there was a great deal which the jury did not hear – information which could have tipped their judgement for or against the defendants.

Some 30 News of the World journalists provided information which helped the Guardian uncover the scandal. But almost without exception, they spoke off the record. One of them – Sean Hoare – spoke openly, but he died in July 2011. Two others were willing to give evidence but were ruled out for fear they would do badly under cross-examination. A senior former executive and two of those who had pleaded guilty before the trial – Glenn Mulcaire and Neville Thurlbeck – had discussions with the police about giving evidence for the prosecution. All three negotiations failed. Dan Evans and Clive Goodman were alone.

The jury heard nothing about earlier police inquiries into the News of the World’s involvement in blagging of confidential records and bribing corrupt police for information, which occurred between 1987 and 1999. For four years during that period, Rebekah Brooks was features editor and deputy editor of the paper. They heard nothing of the 3000-word feature in the Guardian which described in detail the alleged involvement in this blagging and bribing of a senior executive from the paper. That was in Sept 2002 when Brooks was editing the News of the World and Coulson was her deputy. They heard nothing of the meeting at Scotland Yard four months later, on January 9 2003, when the two of them were still running the paper, when a senior detective told Brooks of his own concerns about the same executive. Similarly, they were told very little of the paper’s use of Steve Whittamore, who blagged information illegally while she was deputy editor from 1996 to 1998 and then again when she and Coulson were in charge, culminating in his conviction in court in April 2005.

The jury were told in detail about the information which Brooks said she had been given by an officer from the original inquiry, DCI Keith Surtees, who met her in September 2006 to tell her that her own phone had been hacked by Glenn Mulcaire. An internal email written at the time reported that, according to Brooks, police had found “numerous voice recordings and verbatim notes of his accesses to voicemails” and that they had a list of more than a hundred hacking victims (as distinct from the eight who were later named in court) and that they came from “different areas of public life – politics, showbiz etc” (as distinct from the royal victims who were of interest to the only News of the World journalist they had arrested.) Brooks told the court that she reported on her meeting with Surtees to Andy Coulson.

However, the jury were not then told of the letter which Brooks wrote to the media select committee in July 2009, after the Guardian first reported the true scale of the hacking, in which she said that the Guardian had “substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public.” Nor were they shown the subsequent evidence given by Brooks and Coulson to the media select committee when they reflected none of the information which they had shared following Brooks’ meeting with DCI Surtees. Nor were they shown Brooks’ famous evidence to that committee in March 2003 when she said that her journalists had paid police for information in the past. Select committee evidence is not admissable in court because of rules around parliamentary privilege.

Beyond all that, the jury were specifically not invited to consider the points which have most offended public opinion.

As tabloid newspaper bosses, Brooks and Coulson ruined lives. They did it to sell newspapers, to please Rupert Murdoch, to advance their own careers. One flick of their editorial pen was enough to break the boundaries of privacy and of compassion. The singer’s mother suffering from depression; the actress stricken by the collapse of her marriage; the DJ in agony over his wife’s affair: none of their pain was anything more than human raw material to be processed and packaged and sold for profit. Especially, obsessively if it involved their sexual activity.

With all the intellectual focus of a masturbatory adolescent, their papers spied in the bedrooms of their targets, dragging out and humiliating anybody who dared to be gay or to have an affair or to engage in any kind of sexual activity beyond that approved by a Victorian missionary. They did it to friends: like David Blunkett, for example, sharing drinks and private chats with him and then ripping the heart out of his private life, sprinkling their story with fiction as they did so. And to Sara Payne: befriended by Brooks in her campaign to change the law about publication of the home addresses of sex offenders; investigated by her paper on the false suspicion that she was having an affair with a detective.

But above all, they did it to their enemies. Among the politicians who they exposed for being gay or for having affairs, the left-wingers easily outnumbered the occasional stray right-winger. In amongst them were the special enemies who dared to challenge News International. In the early stages of the hacking story, there was only one frontbench politician from any party who was willing to attack the News of the World – the LibDem home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne. In June 2010, when Brooks was chief executive of News International, it was the News of the World which exposed Huhne’s affair, leading to the end of his marriage; and then the Sunday Times which handed police emails which they had exchanged with their supposedly confidential source, his wife, Vicky Pryce, leading to the imprisonment of both of them.

The News of the World also targeted the private life of their most outspoken critic in Parliament – Tom Watson. Brooks had loathed Watson since he took part in the ‘curry house’ plot in 2006, attempting to engineer Gordon Brown into Downing Street at the expense of her favourite, Tony Blair. News International reporters say that during the hacking saga, she called in reporters to ask if they had any dirt on Watson. The News of the World put a private investigator on his tail, hoping to catch him having an affair.

They did all this with breath-taking hypocrisy. While Coulson and Brooks were using their front pages to expose public figures for having affairs, they were themselves having an affair and keeping that information very private. Behind the scenes at the trial Brooks took the hypocrisy a step further. Although her newspapers had frequently attacked the Human Rights Act, she tried to use Article Six – on the right to a fair hearing – to prevent her ‘affair’ letter to Coulson being put before the jury. Before the trial started, Jonathan Laidlaw attempted to get the whole case against her thrown out on the grounds that prejudicial newspaper coverage meant she could not get a fair trial. The Crown replied by citing the case of Abu Hamza, who tried and failed to stop his own trial in 2006 because of prejudicial publicity in the Sun, then edited by Rebekah Brooks. Laidlaw went on to complain about the scrum of press photographers waiting to pounce outside the Old Bailey door.

Their willingness to ruin lives was directly linked to their political power. MPs feared that they might find their own private behaviour being monstered on News International’s front pages. This is the power of the playground bully: he has only to beat up one or two children for all of them to start trying to placate him. Beyond that, government collectively feared having its agenda destroyed, its daily activity destabilised, its future terminated if Murdoch’s editors turned against them. Former ministers and senior Whitehall officials all tell the same tale – that as Murdoch increased the size of his empire, governments became obsessed with newspaper coverage, particularly that of the Sun.

The power which Coulson and Brooks enjoyed delivered the kind of access for which unscrupulous lobbyists will pay large bundles of cash. As tabloid editors, both were courted by ministers. At the Leveson inquiry, Brooks disclosed 185 meetings with prime ministers, ministers and party leaders while apologising that her records were incomplete. At the News of the World, Coulson showed little enthusiam for politics, according to former Downing Street officials, one of whom remembers him being invited for breakfast with Gordon Brown and showing so little interest in policy that the two men ended up talking about newspaper circulations. Brooks, however, was a different story.

Far more than Coulson, she played the game of power, exploiting her extraordinary social skills to build an unrivaled network of connections. Backed by fear of what her journalists could do, Brooks used her access to get her way. She could do it over small things: “If she was going to the US and she realised she had no visa, all she had to do was to make a phone call to a minister, and they’d sort it out for her,” according to one former official. She used it to get stories. An adviser from the Ministry of Defence recalls the government being under pressure about British soldiers being killed and maimed by roadside bombs in Afghanistan: “We were told we couldn’t release all we were doing for opsec reasons, yet the MoD went ahead and gave the information to the Sun.”

More than that, she used her influence to try to change government policy, not simply and legitimately by publishing stories but privately with ministers by cajoling, insisting, aided by their fear. This might be aimed at scoring a victory for her newspapers – persuading the government to order a police review of the kidnapping of Madeline McCann as part of her strategy to persuade Madeleine’s parents to let her newspapers serialise their book; pushing hard to end the career of Sharon Shoesmith, head of childrens services in Haringey, whom the Sun blamed for the death of Baby P. Shoesmith was sacked, a decision which was later described by the court of appeal as “intrinsically unlawful.” Or Brooks aimed at larger policy which suited the ideology of the Sun and of its owner – over crime, immigration, public spending and notoriously over Britain’s membership of the European Union and its potential involvement in the euro.

This exercise of power reached a peak with the sequence of events surrounding the Murdochs’ attempt to buy BSkyB: the Sun turning on Gordon Brown in September 2009; the sustained campaign of hostile reporting apparently calculated to ensure that the electorate would force him out of office; the parallel campaign in all the Murdoch titles attacking the BBC and Ofcom; the announcement of the BSkyB bid within a month of David Cameron’s election; the Cameron government imposing drastic cuts on the BBC and Ofcom; Cameron’s culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, allowing his special adviser to act as a back channel to the Murdochs while he considered the bid. Hunt duly gave a green light to the deal, which was within days of being confirmed in July 2011 when the hacking scandal finally erupted and moved parliament to denounce it.

And in all of this, Brooks and Coulson consistently injected a highly contentious political ideology into the arteries of public debate, a toxic cocktail of crude populism and intellectual confusion. They demanded lower taxes and then damned public services for the failures inflicted on them by lack of funding. They led the cheers for stripping regulation out of the financial sector and then blamed Brussels for the ensuing crisis in the euro zone. They attacked the state when it inhibited corporate power and then promoted it when it engaged in military violence. They insisted on wars and then dared to claim to be the protectors of the soldiers who died in them (while Glenn Mulcaire hacked the phones of some of their families). These were leaders of opinion who had thought no further than the bland and self-serving simplicity of James Murdoch’s theory about a free press, that the only guide to independence is profit.

As a single example of the distorting impact of their work, YouGov in December 2012, working for the TUC, found that the average public perception was that 41% of the welfare budget was spent on the unemployed. The reality is 3%. And that 27% of that budget was eaten up by fraud. The reality, as far as official figures can detect, is 0.7%. So the simple, beautiful idea of all citizens voting for government became an exercise in the bland leading the blind.

And while Operation Weeting succeeded in bringing Brooks and Coulson to court, these other, moral crimes remain unchallenged. The power remains. Leveson’s attempt at independent media regulation was throttled at birth, not simply by the genuine concerns of those who care about a free press but also by a Fleet Street campaign of aggressive falsehood and distortion of precisely the kind which had made the Leveson inquiry necessary in the first place. Police officers resigned and politicians were embarrassed as the scandal erupted, but Scotland Yard – with dazzling cynicism – has reacted by trying to silence the kind of police whistleblowers who helped to expose the failures of their leaders; and ambitious politicians continue to dine with Rupert Murdoch. How long before NewsCorp’s famous summer party is revived as a compulsory opportunity for political genuflection?

The jury at the Old Bailey returned true verdicts according to the evidence. They were not asked to do more.