“The defendants are on trial but British justice is also on trial,” Mr Justice Saunders told the jury at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, more commonly known as the Old Bailey. “It is a central principle of our system of trial by jury that you reach your verdicts only on the evidence heard in court.” That’s not as easy as it sounds as Britons, gripped by the trial of eight defendants including former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, a former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, struggle against the temptation to voice their (potentially prejudicial) opinions on social media. The more scientific business of sifting evidence began in earnest today as Andrew Edis QC started laying out the case for the prosecution. “We will be able to show that there was phone hacking at the News of the World,” said Edis.
Murdoch closed down his Sunday tabloid in 2011 amid allegations that staff may have ordered the hacking of voicemails not only of celebrities but of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler. Edis told the jury it would now fall to them to decide “quite a simple issue”: Who knew about the hacking.
Edis revealed that three former News of the World editors, Neville Thurlbeck, Greg Miskiw and James Weatherup, had pleaded guilty in earlier proceedings to conspiring to hack phones, and that the private eye Glenn Mulcaire had also pleaded guilty to hacking the phone of Milly Dowler.
The eight defendants on trial at the Old Bailey have all pleaded not guilty to a range of charges relating to the scandal, which kindled fierce debate in Britain about how to regulate the press and manage relationships between the media, politicians and the police. There was a feeling that relations between these pillars of public life had grown too cozy.
If that was once true, the opposite may now be the case. This evening a new framework agreed by all the main political parties was signed into being, despite efforts by newspaper publishers to get an injunction to stop its creation. The royal charter is designed to replace an old system of self-regulation which failed to prevent the hacking scandal. Roger Alton, executive editor of Murdoch’s Times, speaking earlier to the BBC, said that “the idea that such a deal is the thing that now controls the press, which is one of the most vital safeguards in our democracy, I find extraordinarily depressing, very sad… It will be resisted.” This battle, like the hacking trial, looks set to extend well into 2014.