LONDON (AP) — It was a simple trick – punching in passcodes to listen to messages left on other people’s phones.
For years the illegal technique, known as phone hacking, helped Britain’s News of the World tabloid get juicy stories about celebrities, politicians and royalty.
But the fallout eventually shut down the country’s best-selling newspaper, split Rupert Murdoch’s powerful media empire and brought a storm of outrage down on the country’s rambunctious press.
On Tuesday, the scandal brought a criminal conviction for former editor Andy Coulson on a charge of conspiring to hack phones – and an apology from Prime Minister David Cameron, who employed Coulson as his spin doctor after others at his paper faced earlier hacking convictions.
Fellow News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks – a Murdoch protege who was the chief executive of his British newspaper operation – was acquitted of all charges, as were her husband and three other defendants.
The nearly eight-month trial – one of the longest and most expensive in British legal history – was triggered by revelations in 2011 about the scale of the News of the World’s illegal eavesdropping. That fact is not contested – several desk editors at the newspaper have pleaded guilty to hacking, as has private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who was paid almost 100,000 pounds (now about $168,000) a year by the newspaper for his scoop-gathering prowess.
Prosecutors argued that senior editors including Brooks – editor between 2000 and 2003 – Coulson, who succeeded her, must have known about the practice, a claim both denied.
After deliberating for seven days, a jury at London’s Old Bailey unanimously found 46-year-old Coulson guilty of conspiring with Mulcaire and others to eavesdrop on mobile-phone voicemails. The charge carries a maximum two-year jail sentence.
The jury of eight women and three men is still considering two further charges of paying police officers for royal phone directories against Coulson and former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman.
Brooks was acquitted of that charge and of counts of conspiring to bribe officials and obstruct a police investigation. The jury also found former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner not guilty of phone hacking.
Brooks’ husband Charles, her former secretary Cheryl Carter and News International security chief Mark Hanna were all acquitted of conspiring to pervert the course of justice by attempting to hide files, computers and other potential evidence from police.
The hacking scandal exposed a complex web of ties binding Britain’s political, media and police elite. Add celebrity hacking victims who ranged from Jude Law and Sienna Miller to Prince William and Kate Middleton and it’s clear why one lawyer involved called it the “trial of the century” – and why judge John Saunders told the jury that “British justice is on trial.”
Coulson’s guilty verdict reawakened accusations that British politicians were too close to Murdoch, whose newspapers were long said to hold the power to swing elections. Cameron employed Coulson after two News of the World employees were convicted of phone hacking in 2007.
The prime minister apologized Tuesday for his decision to give Coulson a second chance.
“It was the wrong decision and I am very clear about that,” he said.
Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said Coulson’s appointment tainted Cameron’s government.
“He brought a criminal into the heart of Downing Street,” Miliband said. “He put his relationship with Rupert Murdoch ahead of doing the right thing.”
The trial was a vindication for Brooks, who was been the subject of a level of media fascination and online abuse that her lawyer called a “witch hunt.”
From humble origins in northern England, Brooks rose to become chief executive of Murdoch’s influential British newspaper division and a friend and neighbor of the prime minister, part of the horse-riding “Chipping Norton set,” a reference to the tony town near her rural home. Friends included Cameron and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who offered advice as the scandal erupted: “It will pass. Tough up.”
In sometimes emotional court testimony, Brooks described her “car crash” personal life, including her struggle to have a baby and her long affair with Coulson when both were married to others.
In the end, the jury was not convinced by the prosecution claim that she had known about phone hacking and other illegal behavior.
Standing in the dock at the back of the courtroom, 46-year-old Brooks mouthed “thank you” after she was cleared of all charges. She and her husband left court without speaking to reporters.
Both prosecution and defense accepted that the News of the World hacked phones on a substantial scale. Intercepting voicemails was a specialty of private investigator Mulcaire, who was briefly jailed in 2007, along with Goodman, for hacking the phones of royal aides.
For several years Murdoch’s company maintained the wrongdoing had been confined to Goodman and Mulcaire. That “rogue reporter” claim unraveled in 2011, when the Guardian newspaper revealed that the News of the World had intercepted the voicemails of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl kidnapped and murdered in 2002.
In the furor that followed, Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old newspaper and police relaunched criminal investigations into tabloid wrongdoing.
Dozens of journalists and officials have been arrested, including some employees of newspapers not owned by Murdoch. Several former News of the World reporters and editors have pleaded guilty to hacking.
The cost to Murdoch’s News Corp. has been enormous. In the wake of the scandal the mogul split the company into two businesses, a publishing company and a media and entertainment group. The company has spent more than $500 million in settlements, legal fees and other related costs.
Murdoch’s British newspaper division, News U.K., said in a statement that it had already admitted and apologized for wrongdoing and had “made changes in the way we do business to help ensure wrongdoing like this does not occur again.”
The cost to Britain’s tabloid press is still being measured. In the wake of the hacking scandal, Cameron set up a judge-led inquiry into media ethics. Justice Brian Leveson recommended creating a strong press watchdog backed by government regulation. Tougher regulation is being resisted by large segments of the press.
The tabloids still specialize in celebrity kiss-and-tells, but their revelations have seemed more muted since the scandal.
Hacking victim Miller, who testified during the trial about how her fling with James Bond star Daniel Craig had made News of the World headlines, said she hoped the media had changed.
“I feel like that kind of callous journalism has hopefully died down and I’m really proud I played a part in that,” Miller told the television network ITV.
The aftershocks of the phone-hacking saga rumble on, with several more trials over tabloid wrongdoing still to come.
Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, said the trial had proven the “huge internal scale of phone hacking at the News of the World.”
“We have to take stock of what this verdict tells us about the culture of one of the world’s major media organizations,” he said. “It tells us it was rotten.”
Associated Press Writer Gregory Katz contributed to this report.
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