Ruth Dudley Edwards: Affair exposed on historic day for British press
The tables were turned in court on two former editors of the defunct 'News of the World'
Published 03/11/2013 | 02:00
What a week it's been for the incestuous group of politicians and journalists who enjoy a love-hate relationship in their Westminster bubble. Journalists fraternise with politicians to extract information: politicians play along because they love good company and crave positive publicity. But when, in 2009, the Daily Telegraph published information on parliamentarians' expenses that led to open season on hundreds of MPs and peers, politicians were furious and whispered in dark corners about how the wings of the press should be clipped.
Revelations about phone-hacking led to the closure after 170 years of News International's News of the World (NOTW), and after harrowing testimony about tabloid excesses at the Leveson Inquiry, angry victims set up Hacked Off – a lobby group driven by luvvies and media academics.
In their secret desire for vengeance and a tame press, instead of the "voluntary, independent, self-regulation" recommended by Lord Justice Leveson, politicians agreed with Hacked Off to institute a form of press regulation that would involve the state.
Meanwhile, the press continued with its own civil wars.
As Nick Cohen, a tireless advocate for a free press, wrote last week under the headline "British journalists lock each other up and throw away the key", at a time when more than 100 journalists and their sources are under arrest for allegedly breaking the law and public servants are being frightened off speaking to the press. However, the signing of the Royal Charter has united traditional enemies. "In a behind-closed-doors meeting at Buckingham Palace, four ministers signed away 300 years of press freedom yesterday," said the left-wing Daily Mirror, while Tory MP Douglas Carswell said of the Royal Charter: "It is incomprehensible, foolish, ill-advised and I hope all newspapers tell the ministers to get stuffed."
It looks as if national, regional and local newspapers will follow his advice, ignore the government and roll with its own Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), described as a "tough new self-regulatory scheme".
British Prime Minister David Cameron surely must be wondering how in hell he can survive having his close friends Mr and Mrs Charlie Brooks and Andy Coulson, his spin doctor between 2007 and 2011, in the Old Bailey dock.
The week's dramas began last Tuesday with a policeman suggesting to a London news vendor that he stop selling the satirical magazine, Private Eye, lest it be in contempt of court with its "Halloween Special". Inspired by some retailers having been pressured into withdrawing from sale tasteless Halloween costumes, it featured Rebekah Brooks, nee Wade – once Rupert Murdoch's Crown Princess – over the caption: "Horror witch costume withdrawn from shops". The vendor refused to oblige without a court order and the Attorney General said there was no contempt, but because of the publicity Mr Justice Saunders felt obliged to show the Old Bailey jury the magazine and tell them it must be ignored. It was, he said, "a joke which in the circumstances of today is a joke in especially bad taste".
The timing last Wednesday was extraordinary. In the Central Criminal Court, Rebekah Brooks, and Andy Coulson, once her deputy, were charged along with Stuart Kuttner, the NOTW's former managing editor, and former news editor Ian Edmondson, with conspiracy to hack phones. With royal editor Clive Goodman, they were also accused of conspiracy to pay money to corrupt public officials. Brooks' second husband – Charlie, a rich racehorse trainer and an intimate of David Cameron since Eton – was charged along with his wife, her former personal assistant and her head of security, with perverting the course of justice by destroying and concealing evidence needed by the police.
Simultaneously, in the High Court, judges were on their way to turning down an application by the newspaper industry for an injunction to stop the Queen signing a Royal Charter on press regulation.
The same day, Andrew Edis QC was beginning to lay out an electrifying case for the prosecution, beginning with the information that three former NOTW news editors and Glenn Mulcaire, a phone-hacker, had pleaded guilty to hacking-related charges.
Will they give evidence against their old editors?
Over the next three days the allegations followed thick and fast, with the cream of the crop being the claim that Brooks and Coulson had had an affair between 1998 and 2004. Edis read to the court a letter from 2004 in which she sadly spoke of how difficult it was that they had to end their relationship: "The fact is you are my very best friend. I tell you everything, I confide in you, I seek your advice, I love you, care about you, worry about you. We laugh and cry together ... in fact without our relationship in my life, I am really not sure how I will cope." Edis was revealing this because it was evidence for their closeness, and appears to have kept a straight face when he spoke of The Sun's denunciation of the leader of the Fire Brigade Union, Andy Gilchrist, over an affair with a fellow firefighter, which described him as a "lying, cheating, low life fornicator".
Edis alleged that Coulson approved Clive Goodman paying a Buckingham Palace police officer for a royal telephone directory. Royals specifically targeted included Lord Freddie Windsor (41st in line to the throne), Prince William and Prince Harry. He said Brooks personally approved almost £40,000 for stories from a senior official at the Ministry of Defence.
Many of the celebrities mentioned were familiar targets such as Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. Coulson, said Edis, once told his news editor to verify a tip about George Best's son Calum with an email saying, "Do his phone". And, according to the former wife of golfer Colin Montgomery, Brooks once told her how easy it was to hack.
Then there were the politicians. Coulson told David Blunkett, the former secretary of state for work and pensions, that "extremely reliable" (ie said Edis, "phone hacking") sources showed he was having an affair with Kimberley Quinn, the publisher of The Spectator. He promised to leave Quinn's name out of the NOTW if Blunkett gave them a statement.
Although he kept his promise, the Sun named her and revealed she was pregnant.
But it is the allegations concerning John Prescott's affair with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple, that show how crazy the macho competitiveness of Fleet Street at that time had become. So desperate was the NOTW to get the story that Mulcaire not only hacked the phones of two Daily Mail journalists but Coulson was prepared to pay her £100,000 to kiss-and-tell.
The case is expected to run for up to six months, but though many newspapers are salivating over the revelations, they are uncomfortably aware that hacking was by no means confined to the NOTW and the Sun. The Mirror has had hacks arrested and although the respectable papers always claim to act in the "public interest", nonetheless, they do sail close to the wind. The Telegraph, for instance, paid £110,000 for stolen expenses information. As the dirty linen of News International is exposed in court, Messrs Dacre, Rusbridger and the rest of the editorial gang need to focus on getting their act together to set up a self-regulator with the power to punish bad behaviour. Divided, a free press will fall.
Ruth Dudley Edwards is the author of 'Newspapermen: Hugh Cudlipp, Cecil Harmsworth King and the Glory Days of Fleet Street'.