London: They would shake down celebrities, bluff their way to confessions, conceal tape recorders, bribe mistresses and rifle through lawyers’ rubbish bins.
The Old Bailey court has heard claims that Rebekah Brooks’ News of the World used almost every trick in the book to get its salacious exclusives. Many of the tricks had editor Brooks’ enthusiastic approval.
Almost every trick. When it came to intercepting voicemails, she insists she knew nothing.
Brooks denies all charges against her in the phone hacking trial, now in its 17th week. Thursday was her 10th day in the witness box, but only her second under prosecution cross-examination.
She had spent more than a week building a picture of an honest, code-abiding female journalist, promoted fast, not above a tasty scoop but sadly surrounded by men who wouldn’t let on about the law-breaking that was taking place.
But prosecutor Andrew Edis repeatedly tested her on whether she had, in fact, known about the hacking that was going on under her watch.
His questions ranged from the minutiae of News International’s payments system, to the minutiae of her love life: specifically, her “physical intimacy” over nine years with phone hacking co-accused and one-time deputy editor Andy Coulson.
NOTW had a favourite trick to expose the romantic liaisons of its targets.
“It’s a classic line,” Brooks said in court this week. “Pretending you know something and have a very good source, and [the target of the story] confirming it.”
No such tricks were needed on Thursday.
“We were close,” she admitted, though she said it was an on-again-off-again relationship that began in 1998, continued from 2003-4 and resumed again in 2006.
In April 2002, when the Milly Dowler story broke – and NOTW investigator Glenn Mulcaire was hacking the missing 13-year-old’s voicemail – the relationship was “such that Mr Coulson could completely trust you with any confidence at all”, Mr Edis suggested, and Brooks agreed.
Coulson called her just minutes before he confronted politician and phone hacking victim David Blunkett over an affair. Brooks couldn’t recall him mentioning what he was about to do.
“I did not know it was a phone hacking story,” she said.
Mr Edis said that in 2001, Mulcaire’s £92,000 ($170,150) per year contract had been “hidden” from the paper’s managing director – but Brooks insisted “I didn’t cook any books”.
She also denied approving “binology” – going through people’s rubbish to look for leads.
“I told my [news] desk our standards had to be high,” she said. “We have to be above the law, sorry, within the law.”
On the other hand she couldn’t recall ever directly forbidding the practice, either.
Brooks said she had no idea during her editorship that phone hacking was illegal, and she was aware it was possible “as there was a lot of publicity over it in the late 90s”.
Again, she couldn’t recall ever giving the specific instruction not to hack phones. “That phrase I did not use,” she said.
If a journalist had come to her with a strong argument that it was in the public interest to do so, she might have approved it. However “I never asked anyone to intercept a voicemail”, she insisted.
In 2009 she “just didn’t believe” a story in The Guardian alleging there were thousands of phone hacking victims, and the practice was widespread at News of the World.
But she was shown emails between Coulson and herself in November 2006, on the day Mulcaire pleaded guilty to hacking the voicemails of celebrities including Elle Macpherson and star publicist Max Clifford.
Because Mulcaire pleaded guilty, very little of the evidence against him and his co-accused, NOTW royal reporter Clive Goodman, emerged in court.
“It is all going so well today,” Coulson wrote that day to Brooks (then Wade). Brooks told the court “it’s an odd way to describe the royal editor pleading guilty”.
The prosecution put it to her that she knew the whole truth hadn’t come out about the extent of the NOTW’s involvement in phone hacking. Police had previously told her they know of more than 100 phone hacking victims.
“I don’t think I saw it like that,” was Brooks’ response.
“The position at the News of the World was that nobody had known that Mulcaire was hacking phones,” she said later.
Brooks was shown corporate emails suggesting the company’s legal strategy. “Do we really want Mulcaire answering questions in court?” asked one.
But she said she had no personal concerns about Mulcaire testifying. She “inherited” the company line of there being a single “rogue reporter”, and saw no reason to disagree with it, she said.
She denied the prosecution’s claim that she knew the initial hacking investigation by police was “superficial”. She denied she had carried on the cover-up.
Mr Edis said a sequence of £200,000 payments to Max Clifford was designed to stop him bringing a phone hacking claim that would cause Mulcaire to name names at NOTW. Brooks said “we were protecting the company” by stopping Mulcaire, an “unreliable witness”, from potentially damaging the company and exposing them to civil liability.
Brooks’ cross-examination, and the hearing, continue on Monday.