(Repeats Wednesday item)
By Kate Holton and Michael Holden
LONDON, June 25 Just weeks before her trial on
phone-hacking charges was due to start, Rebekah Brooks got some
crushing news: the former head of Rupert Murdoch's British
newspaper arm learnt that her main defence lawyer could no
longer represent her.
Brooks need not have worried about losing John Kelsey-Fry,
who dropped out as he himself might be called as a witness in
the case, even though he is one of Britain's best trial lawyers.
In his place came Jonathan Laidlaw who in eight months
dismantled the prosecution case that Brooks had orchestrated a
campaign to hack into phones and bribe officials in the hunt for
exclusive news stories. The jury at London's Old Bailey cleared
Brooks unanimously of all charges on Tuesday.
Described in the guide to the British legal system as having
such "lethal cross-examination skills" that he "kills his
opponents softly", Laidlaw mounted an aggressive defence of a
woman he said had been vilified for her success.
"This case has been described as the trial of the century,"
he told the jury. "Much nonsense, complete nonsense, has been
spoken. We have seen the prosecution construct a case based not
on direct evidence but around inference."
Laidlaw's expertise will not have come cheap. He is likely
to have earned the equivalent of about $10,000 a day for the
138-day trial, said a source at his legal offices, at 2 Hare
Laidlaw, who refused to comment on the trial or his
compensation, was backed by more junior lawyers, who are paid
more than $4,000 a day.
The vast legal costs helped to make the trial one of the
most expensive criminal cases in British legal history and the
line-up of defendants was likewise almost unparalleled.
In the glass dock sat six others including Brooks's former
lover Andy Coulson - Prime Minister David Cameron's ex-media
chief - and her husband.
"British justice is on trial," the judge, Justice John
Saunders told the jury and the massed ranks of wigged lawyers at
the start of the trial in Court 12 of the Old Bailey.
Brooks, Coulson and others were accused of involvement in
hacking into voicemails left on the phones of celebrities,
royalty, politicians and crime victims in the pursuit of stories
for Murdoch's now defunct Sunday tabloid, the News of the World.
Who will pay the defendants' legal bills is unclear,
although British media have reported that Murdoch's News Corp
will pick up the tab for Brooks and most of the others.
"NO SMOKING GUN"
Laidlaw's tactics were clear from the off. Having failed to
have the case dismissed on the grounds of unfair media coverage,
his attack focused on what he said was a vendetta by the
authorities against a woman who had wielded huge political
influence through Murdoch's newspapers before her arrest.
"There is an awful lot which is going on in the background
to this case and in its shadow there are agendas being played
out," the 54-year-old Laidlaw remarked during the trial.
Day after day as prosecutors attempted to build a case
against Brooks, Laidlaw would forensically dissect their
allegations in a polite tone, while expressing exasperation and
overt contempt for their "failures".
He also made life hard for the prosecution team, disrupting
proceedings by objecting to the evidence and leaving their
One police officer called as a witness by the prosecution
was forced to admit he had got details wrong. Another who
recalled Brooks explaining the art of hacking was proven to be
incorrect about the date of the alleged conversation, prompting
Laidlaw to call her a liar.
The evidence against Brooks was mainly circumstantial.
Almost no emails from News International, which Brooks
eventually ran, existed before 2005 while millions more were
lost in subsequent "purges".
Prosecutors said Brooks had deliberately covered her tracks
by arranging to have all emails prior to 2010 deleted, "a clean
sweep" as she called it in one email. However, she explained
this had been done to address their creaking system and was
usual corporate practice.
Murdoch's son James was shocked at the antiquated system
when he took over as chairman of the British newspaper arm in
2009, Laidlaw said.
A member of the prosecution team also told Reuters on
condition of anonymity that they had failed to find an expert
witness who would be both credible and independent to comment on
whether editors should be expected to know what their
journalists were doing.
As such, prosecutors mainly focused on two cases - the
hacking of a phone belonging to murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler
in 2002 and another involving former government minister David
Blunkett two years later when Brooks was editing the News of the
World's sister daily paper, the Sun.
The prosecution had accused her of receiving information
from Coulson, then editing the News of the World, gleaned from
hacking. In neither case did prosecutors land a fatal blow on
Brooks, although Coulson was found guilty and faces a jail term.
"There was no smoking gun in the evidence," as Laidlaw put
it, arguing that the police could detect only 12 definite
hackings in the time she was News of the World editor. "(The
prosecution) have fallen a long way short of proving hacking was
prolific under Mrs Brooks. That matters, that matters a lot."
By the end of the trial, he took the attack directly to the
softly spoken lead prosecutor Andrew Edis, arguing his case
simply did not stack up. "Not for the first time Mr Edis is
thinking a little bit too much like a lawyer and not like a
human being," he said during one testy exchange.
CALM UNDER FIRE
While Laidlaw was confrontational, Brooks herself was mostly
unflappable. When she finally made it into the witness box,
about four months into the trial, she was calm and engaging in
contrast to the often ruthless and brash papers she ran.
Prosecutor Edis had urged the jury to see through what he
said was an act, which masked her true character.
"If what you saw was a mask, Mrs Brooks must be a witch with
truly supernatural powers," was Laidlaw's response. "No human
mask could withstand that amount of scrutiny without cracking."
Far from the monstrous figure depicted by critics, the
46-year-old explained how she had had to battle her way through
a male-dominated culture and how she had often felt out of her
depth. Once in a position of authority she said she had changed
her newspapers to campaign on issues such as domestic violence
and child protection.
Looking often to her co-defendants including husband Charlie
during 14 days giving evidence, she described her private life
as a "car crash" and appealed to the jury for understanding when
asked about a letter, written but never sent, to Coulson.
The letter, which included the line "I tell you everything",
had been used by the prosecution to show how close the two were
and how they must have shared work secrets.
"I don't know if anyone has been in this situation but at a
time of hurt you come home at night and have a few glasses of
wine and you probably shouldn't go on a computer," she told the
jury of eight women and three men.
At one point as she explained how she had struggled to have
children, her voice became inaudible and she left the court.
Text messages showed how at the height of the scandal one of
her main concerns had been for her mother, urging her not to
watch the nightly news, while her baby daughter Scarlett,
carried by a cousin as a surrogate, had received death threats.
"This is a case that had to be heard and had to be decided
by a jury," judge Saunders said to the jurors to whom Laidlaw
had appealed to find the truth. "The public were entitled to
know who was criminally involved at a senior level at the News
of the World. You have made this decision."
Brooks walked free from the court on Tuesday through a scrum
of photographers, smiling faintly and clutching the hand of her
husband. She did not comment.
(Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs; editing by Guy
Faulconbridge and David Stamp)