On Tuesday, three years after the News of the World phone hacking scandal first broke, former head of News International Rebekah Brooks was acquitted of all charges against her, as was her husband and her personal assistant. How did this happen?
First and foremost, the responsibility of an editor is to know everything (important) that's going on under them. But even if they don't, they know they might have to take the fall for the decisions made by their employees anyhow. During the News of the World trial, prosecutors learned that over 1,000 people had their phones tapped by a private detective hired by the paper. Some of that hacking – including, most famously, the phone tapping of a missing student named Milly Dowler in 2002 – occurred when Brooks was editor of the paper itself. Brooks was later promoted to chief executive of News International.
It is almost too horrific to believe that a professional journalist or even a freelance inquiry agent working on behalf of a member of the News of the World staff could behave in this way.
If the allegations are proved to be true then I can promise the strongest possible action will be taken as this company will not tolerate such disgraceful behaviour.
I hope that you all realise it is inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations.
Her statement slightly contrasted with a statement made at the same time by Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator found responsible for hacking phones:
Working for the News of the World was never easy. There was relentless pressure. There was a constant demand for results. I knew what we did pushed the limits ethically. But, at the time, I didn't understand that I had broken the law at all.
If Milly Dowler's phone was indeed hacked, "it would mean either that Ms. Brooks had no idea how the paper she edited was obtaining information about the Dowler family for its articles, or that she knew about the hacking and allowed it," wrote Sarah Lyall and Eric Pfanner in the New York Times after the scandal broke. Others have largely agreed with that analysis; the head of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, said he believed there was no way the phone hacking wasn't done by just "a rogue reporter":
It wasn't just one individual. This was a systematic series of things that happened, and what I want from executives at News International is people to start taking responsibility for this.
Though Brooks has denied that what she and former News of the World editor Andy Coulson had was an affair, she has admitted that they were best friends and have had sexual relations with one another from time to time. On Tuesday, Coulson was found guilty of phone hacking, his second such conviction. Coulson was News of the World editor before Brooks and had resigned in 2007 when early allegations of hacking were brought against him. Coulson had to resign from his job as Prime Minister David Cameron's communication's director because of the allegations.
Brooks has also been a little too close for comfort with a few other untrustworthy individuals in this ring of lies, most notably, Rupert Murdoch, who gave her a sweet pay-off when she resigned. She may have also been romantically involved with Murdoch and his son.
During her testimony in 2003 for the first phone hacking scandal involving Coulson, Brooks was asked if she had ever paid police officers for information. Brooks said yes, that during her time editing The Sun, they had: "We have paid the police for information in the past."
But during her 2011 testimony, Brooks backtracked on that statement, explaining that she personally didn't know "of any specific cases" in which police were paid for information:
"As can be seen from the transcript, I was responding to a specific line of questioning on how newspapers get information," Brooks wrote. "My intention was simply to comment generally on the widely-held belief that payments had been made in the past to police officers.
"If, in doing so, I gave the impression that I had knowledge of any specific cases, I can assure you that this was not my intention."
She said earlier use of private detectives was the norm and that her reporters weren't aware phone hacking was illegal
Speaking of her time as editor of News of the World, Brooks denied knowing about a contract paying £92,000 to private investigator Mulcaire that had been signed before her editorship. "The use of searching agents, private detectives at that time in Fleet Street was pretty normal," she said, before adding that she didn't think "anybody knew [phone hacking] was illegal."
But Brooks specifically denied hearing from anyone below her that they needed access to voicemails and described hacking as "a serious breach of somebody's privacy, especially if you did not have an overwhelming public interest."
In 2010, Channel 4 News reported that members of parliament felt threatened by News International as they began to investigate the company. They alleged that they were concerned the paper would begin to dig into their lives if they started to question Brooks, specifically because of conversations they'd had with a News International executive. As Plaid Cymru Member of Parliament Adam Price explained:
We could have used the nuclear option. We decided not to, I think to some extent because of what I was told at the time by a senior Conservative member of the committee, who I know was in direct contact with NI execs, that if we went for her, called her back, subpoenaed her, they would go for us - which meant effectively that they would delve into our personal lives in order to punish them and I think that's part of the reason we didn't do it. In retrospect I think that's regrettable.
Brooks and her husband Charlie were both accused of trying to hide evidence from police officers. Charlie was accused of trying to throw out a laptop and papers, an incident which he described as a misunderstanding. Brooks herself was charged with specifically trying to remove boxes from News International, as well as other documents and electronics from the headquarters. They have been cleared of those charges.
She suggested News International investigate themselves independently – but wanted to make sure the investigators got them off
Under the consult of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Brooks wrote an email suggesting that Blair had told her to "Form an independent unit" to "investigate me and others and publish a Hutton-style report." (The Hutton report was a widely criticized investigation that blamed the BBC for the suicide of Iraqi weapons expert David Kelly and not the British government.)
"Publish part one of the report at same time as the police closes its inquiry and clear you and accept shortcomings and new solutions and process and part two when any trials are over," said Brooks's email about Blair's advice to her.
Ultimately, Brooks has been considered guilty from the start because everyone around her has been considered guilty. While she walks free, the jury is still deliberating further charges against Coulson and Royal editor Clive Goodman. Coulson – as well as several other News of the World reporters – will almost certainly see jail time.
Image via Rob Stothard/Getty