It was a pretty good Tuesday in London for that most ancient of Olympic sports ?—? schadenfreude. The day had barely begun?—?OK, it was half-eleven, my day had barely begun?—?when the news came buzzing along the wires that the UK plod was charging eight former News International journalists and assorted hangers on with crimes related to phone hacking, most particularly the hacking of the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are the most high-profile of those charged. Both the former UK News Group head and editor of News of the World during its hacking years have already been charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice, with regard to the alleged disposal of evidence of phone hacking. These new charges are the first to touch on the hacking directly.
The official charge is “conspiring to intercept communications without lawful authority”, for a period covering from October 2000 to August 2006, and taking in almost 600 people, from high-profile celebs such as Angelina Jolie and Paul McCartney to politicians such as then deputy PM John Prescott, and crime victims such as 7/7 bombing victim John Tulloch, the Dowler family and others.
The charges are a series of interlocking ones, with different indictees accused of different hacking escapades?—?Brooks and Coulson are particularly charged with the Dowler hacking, among others?—?and there is also a range of conspiracy charges, to establish that they were not acting alone.
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Other former News employees charged include: Stuart Kuttner (former NotW managing editor), Ian Edmondson and Greg Miskiw (ex-news editors), Neville Thurlbeck (recipient of the infamous “For Neville” email, which established general knowledge of hacking within News International), and Glenn Mulcaire, the “private detective” who performed the phone hacking.
Brooks and Coulson issued statements saying they were extremely disappointed at the decision, there was no evidence they had performed phone hacking, etc, no evidence of conspiracy and will defend themselves to the hilt. Sadly there was no staccato Twitter poetry from Rupert Murdoch offering them his full support and the full legal resources of News Limited.
For Brooks and Coulson, the extra charges are a nightmare, as they will be entangled with the perversion-of-justice charges. Coulson faces three trials?—?the third for perjury in the Tommy Sheridan case, where the Scottish socialist was himself being sued for perjury following a libel action against News of the World.
Indeed, Coulson faces the prospect of consecutive jail terms, first in England, and then in Scotland on the perjury case. If convicted on all three, he might not see much change out of 10 years.
For Brooks and the others, conviction may not be their only worry. Legal fees are likely to bankrupt them all, and legal aid will only kick in once they have depleted their resources. The less senior journalists and editors will be ruined by this, and the years of stress, financial drainage and guilt will destroy not only their lives, but those around them?—?the innocent and the guilty alike are crushed when the state, like a juggernaut, a square stone resting on round stones, starts to roll. The hacking scandal has already racked up one suicide?—?Sean Hoare, the showbiz reporter, who drank himself to death rather than facing years of inquiries.
There will be many others. There the schadenfreude stops. Because, when it comes down to it, the people who became the managerial substratum of News Group International UK were not necessarily malign when they came in. They were just fatally, fatally weak?—?kids with a lot of energy and a gift for a 60-word article who couldn’t believe what they had got themselves into. Newspaper journalism elsewhere has become a dull duty?—?rewriting press releases from pharmaceutical companies as news, recapping MasterChef, or subbing Sam Brett?—?at which point most sensible people take a package and get a Brumby’s franchise in Warragul.