LONDON, UK — Every morning, a gaggle of news photographers gathers at the stone entrance of London’s Central Criminal Court, commonly known as the Old Bailey.
At the sight of two familiar figures — a woman with flame-colored curls, a man in thick black glasses — they burst into action, swarming like bees around a duo that not so long ago ran the kind of newspapers that now print photographs of them.
It’s a strange change of fortune for the defendants of what’s known as the “hacking trial,” the latest episode of a scandal that has upended British journalism by exposing the messy entanglement between media, police, politics and power.
This week, a witness testified that defendant Rebekah Brooks — former chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International and editor of the Sun and News of the World newspapers — and Piers Morgan, the British tabloid editor-turned-CNN television host, had joked about hacking phones at a London dinner party in 2003.
“I already know what your splash [front page] is because I’ve been listening to your messages,” Morgan said, according to Ambi Sitham, who had sat near the pair.
“Been hacking into my phone again, have you, Piers?” Brooks was said to have replied.
Later, when Sitham suggested she and Brooks swap numbers, she said Morgan had joked: “Be careful, she’ll tap your phone.”
The criminal trial’s seven defendants include Brooks; Andy Coulson, former editor of the now-defunct News of the World and Prime Minister David Cameron’s former chief spokesman; Clive Goodman, a News of the World reporter; and former News of the World editor Stuart Kuttner.
A case against another News of the World editor was postponed on Thursday after medical experts ruled that he was too ill to take part.
Each face charges relating to illegal phone tampering and illegal payments to public officials.
Brooks and three other defendants — her husband Charlie Brooks, former News International security chief Mark Hanna and former assistant Cheryl Carter — are also charged with attempting to hide evidence from police.
All deny all charges against them.
Emails read in court this week showed reporters discussing with Coulson and other editors payments worth thousands of dollars to sources dealing in inside information. Many of the tipsters were serving police officers, soldiers and other public officials, meaning the payments were illegal.
Of his cash payments to sources, Goodman wrote to one editor that “any paper or computer trail to them or their families will put them, me, you and the editor in jail.”
In another email, Goodman asked Coulson to approve a $1,600 payment to a police officer secretly offering a directory of the royal family’s phone numbers.
"These people will not be paid in anything other than cash because if they're discovered selling stuff to us they end up on criminal charges, as could we,” Goodman wrote.
The resulting stories tended toward the steamy and seedy: a female soldier who secretly gave birth in the barracks, a wife-swapping local official, a tiff between Prince Harry and an old girlfriend.
Some of the emails sound like Brit-tinged gangster films.
“Dickie boy,” one reporter wrote to a supervisor, requesting to pay a source. “Would be most grateful if you could process it ASAP so the dosh [cash] could be collected by Friday.”
In keeping with British custom, the defendants are seated during the trial in the “dock,” an enclosure in the back of the courtroom surrounded with glass panels spaced a few inches apart. From the public gallery at the side of the room, it looks as if they’re behind bars.
In court this week, the defendants typed on laptops and BlackBerrys, flipped through the binders of evidence supplied to the jury or observed the proceedings without much expression.
Only the Brookses spoke to each other. Goodman, who has been through this before when he was jailed for hacking in 2007 (he’s now charged with illegal payments to public figures), took copious notes.
It’s a far cry from the atmosphere in which Brooks and Coulson once rubbed shoulders, in fine houses and at lavish parties with some of the most powerful figures in media and politics.
Both then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his successor David Cameron attended the Brookses’ 2009 wedding. Cameron and Brooks swapped text messages and dined at each other’s country homes. Coulson went from News of the World to the top communications job at 10 Downing Street until his resignation there in 2011.
Despite the posh connections, they presided over a cutthroat business shot through with trickery and greed. According to widespread reports, the UK tabloid industry was rife with newsgathering tactics ranging from the unseemly to the illegal, of which hacking was just one.
The system blew up in July 2011, when it emerged that News of the World reporters had hacked the phone of Milly Dowler, a murdered teenager. The hacking took place before her body was found and inadvertently gave her parents false hope that she was still alive and checking her messages.
The ensuing public outcry led to a parliamentary hearing and judicial investigation, known as the Leveson Inquiry, whose report was published last year.
In October, the government approved the creation of an independent media watchdog to oversee the industry, to bitter opposition from news outlets.
“There’s definitely been a chilling effect” on the industry since talk of regulation began, said Charlie Beckett, director of the media think tank Polis at the London School of Economics.
The tabloids have curtailed many of their most intrusive practices, he said.
At the same time, anecdotal evidence suggests some politicians are exploiting the new atmosphere, putting an end to uncomfortable but legitimate questions from journalists by threatening to report them to the media regulator.
“We know what tends to happen,” Beckett said. “It’s the most powerful people who push back.”
“On the one hand, it’s good that you have to think twice before doorstopping [confronting a source at home] or harassing someone’s kids coming out of school,” he added. “On the other hand, we realize sometimes journalists have to be rude or they have to take risks to get genuine stories that are in the public interest.”
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In the courtroom Wednesday, a lawyer for Brooks argued that Sitham was wrong about the date and substance of the dinner party conversation, accusing her of “fictionalizing” the account and of seeking personal publicity.
Sitham denied that. She recalled having thought to herself before the dinner, “This is an evening I’m going to remember. The people there were the most powerful people in media in the UK.”
As Brooks and Coulson looked on from the criminal dock, she continued, “These people had all climbed the ladder together, and all done very well together.”