LONDON – Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson was convicted of phone hacking Tuesday, but fellow editor Rebekah Brooks was acquitted after a monthslong trial centering on illegal activity at the heart of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire.
A jury at London’s Old Bailey unanimously found Coulson, the former spin doctor of British Prime Minister David Cameron, guilty of conspiring to intercept communications. Brooks was acquitted of that charge and of counts of bribing officials and obstructing police.
The nearly eight-month trial was triggered by revelations that for years the News of the World used illegal eavesdropping to get stories, listening in on the voicemails of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims.
Three other defendants – Brooks’ husband Charles, her former secretary Cheryl Carter and News International security chief Mark Hanna – were acquitted of perverting the course of justice by attempting to hide evidence from police.
Former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner was found not guilty of phone hacking.
The defendants stood silently in the dock as the forewoman of the 11-member jury announced the verdicts.
Brooks mouthed “thank you” after she was cleared of all charges, and exchanged a glance with Carter, standing next to her in the dock.
The scandal led Murdoch to shut down the 168-year-old tabloid and spurred criminal investigations in which dozens of journalists and officials have been arrested.
The jury, which has been deliberating for eight days, is still considering two further charges of paying officials for royal phone directories against Coulson and former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman.
Brooks and Coulson, both 46, were accused of conspiring to hack phones between 2000 and 2006. She edited the News of the World from 2000 to 2003 with Coulson as her deputy – and, the trial revealed, on-off lover. Coulson then took over as editor, before becoming Cameron’s communications chief, a post he held from 2007 to 2011.
From humble origins in northern England, Brooks rose to become chief executive of Murdoch’s influential British newspaper division and was a friend and neighbor of the prime minister as part of the horse-riding “Chipping Norton set,” a reference to the tony rural town near her home. Friends included Cameron and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who offered advice as the scandal erupted: “It will pass. Tough up.”
One lawyer called the case the “trial of the century,” and it drew intense media and public interest from around the world. Brooks, in particular has been the subject of a level of media fascination and online abuse that her lawyer called a “witch hunt.”
Since the trial began at London’s Central Criminal Court in October, the jury of eight women and three men has heard from police officers and royal functionaries, actors Jude Law and Sienna Miller, and the defendants themselves.
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 Glenn Mulcaire, who was retained by the newspaper for almost 100,000 pounds (now about $168,000) a year. He was briefly jailed in 2007, along with royal editor 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 began to unravel 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 who was kidnapped and murdered in 2002.
In the furor that followed, Murdoch shut down the paper and police relaunched criminal investigations into tabloid wrongdoing.
Dozens of journalists and officials have been arrested, and several former News of the World reporters and editors have pleaded guilty to hacking. Murdoch’s News Corp. has paid millions in compensation to hacking victims.