Britain’s Phone-Hacking Trial: Everything You Need to Know

This morning marked the official start of the long-anticipated U.K. trial of two former News of the World editors (and a few other peripheral individuals) for several criminal charges of conspiring to obstruct justice, hacking a murdered child’s cell phone, and interfering with a police investigation. Predicted to last around six months, the trial will place the News Corporation and its Australian owner, Rupert Murdoch, under even more glaring scrutiny. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s going on?

Up until July 2011, when News of the World permanently shuttered operations, the shouty British tabloid allegedly engaged in extralegal practices of gathering information, including hacking the voicemail passwords of people in the news, paying public officials for the phone numbers of the royal family, and bribing police officers with knowledge of high-profile crimes.

What happened in July 2011?

The Guardian’s Nick Davies revealed that British police had discovered evidence that staffers at News of the World hired a private investigator to access the cell phone voicemail of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl from Surrey, England, who went missing in March 2002 and whose remains were discovered a few month later. The investigator deleted several old voicemail messages to make room for news ones, which investigators at the time took to mean that Dowler was still alive. A week after Davies’ report, on July 11, News of the World printed its last issue, after 168 years of continuous publication. News Corp's owner Rupert Murdoch later printed an apology in several other newspapers, including The Guardian.

Who’s being charged?

The most high profile characters:

  • Rebekah Brooks, 45, former CEO of British News Corps subsidiary News International and the editor-in-chief, between 2000 and 2003, of News of the World, when the alleged hacking of Milly Dowler’s cell phone occurred. Along with several other subordinate editors, Brooks faces a blanket charge for unlawfully intercepting communication as well as four other particular charges for conspiracy to obstruct justice and interfere with a police investigation between 2002 and 2006, including the hacking of Dowler’s voicemail and during her tenure as editor at The Sun, another British paper owned by News International.
  • Andy Coulson, 45, the editor of News of the World between 2003 and 2007, when he resigned over other phone-hacking charges against the paper. (Coulson later joined David Cameron’s administration as a communications officer, but resigned four years later, in January 2011, when new hacking allegations against News of the World were gaining steam. In addition to the blanket charge he faces with Brooks, Coulson faces two other charges of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office, stemming from allegations that the paper paid for information about the royal family.

Subsidiary characters, each of whom fell under the blanket charge of conspiring to illegally intercept communications:

  • Charlie Brooks, husband of Rebekah Brooks
  • Cheryl Carter, former assistant to Rebekah Brooks
  • Ian Edmondson, former news editor of News of the World
  • Clive Goodman, former royal editor of News of the World
  • Mark Hanna, directory of security at News International
  • Stuart Kuttner, the former managing editor of News of the World

Each individual, including Brooks and Coulson, has denied all charges.

Update: Minutes after this post’s publication, the prosecution revealed that, in an earlier trial, three ex-News of the World reporters—Neville Thurlbeck, James Weatherup, and Greg Miskiw—pleaded guilty to charges related to phone-hacking. “Their guilty pleas [...] had not previously been reportable,” according to Reuters.

What could happen to the defendants?

Potentially a lot. According to the Associated Press, a phone-hacking charge could incur, at maximum, two years in prison. “The other charges carry a maximum life sentence,” the AP explains, “although the average term imposed is much shorter.”

Wasn’t there a sex scandal or something?

Possibly. In July—one month after The Daily Mail hinted that there was a “significant” sex scandal implicating British Prime Minister David Cameron—Gawker’s Nitasha Tiku reported that the pre-trial discovery process turned up emails indicating that Rebekah Brooks had had sex with Rupert Murdoch, his son Lachlan Murdoch, and Andy Coulson—possibly while employed by Cameron’s administration.

What happens now?

Yesterday twelve jurors, nine women and three men, were chosen to hear the trial against Rebekah Brooks at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, in London’s Square Mile. (The jurors were told, as the first order of business, to ignore Private Eye, a British humor magazine, whose latest issue features Brooks on the cover.) The actual proceedings began today, at 2PM London time/9AM EST.

However a good deal of the proceedings are likely to be kept under wraps, given the nature of the trial, the heightened scrutiny of Britain’s press, and the strong authority Britain wields over the country’s media industry.

How do I stay updated?

Gawker will keep you apprised of important developments in the trial, which is likely to unearth precisely the sort of news that News Corporation is unlikely to want others to hear. (To its credit, however, The Wall Street Journal, which the company purchased in 2007, is covering the trial.) For a more minute-to-minute feed of developments, check out the Twitter feeds of reporters like The Daily Beast’s Nico Hines, the BBC’s Dominic Casciani and Tom Symonds, and the Associated Press’s Jill Lawless.

Anything else?

Yes! Send us tips about things the British press can’t write about—like the aforelinked evidence indicating Rebekah Brooks’s relationship with Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch. Meanwhile, submit your predictions for the trial below.

[Photo credit: Getty Images]