Phone hacking trial opens in UK – and it's the 'News of the World'

The scandal surrounding the now-shuttered Murdoch news outlet rocked Britain's news industry with its allegations of illegal snooping. Some 125 people have been arrested and 40 charged.

AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth
Rebekah Brooks arrives at The Old Bailey law court in London, Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. Former News of the World national newspaper editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are due to go on trial Monday, along with several others, on charges of hacking phones and bribing officials while at the now closed tabloid paper.

While the US government weathers an international trial of public opinion for eavesdropping on foreign leaders' phone and email conversations, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, former editors of Rupert Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World, go on criminal trial today in London, accused of conspiring to intercept the voicemails of politicians, celebrities, and crime victims in pursuit of tabloid exclusives.  

Ms. Brooks, who had been promoted to CEO of Mr. Murdoch's News International by the time the scandal broke, and Mr. Coulson, who became Prime Minister David Cameron's communications chief after the scandal shuttered News of the World, deny all charges.

They were both arrested in 2011, amid a criminal investigation that began when The Guardian revealed that News of the World had hacked into the voicemail box of a 13-year-old girl who had been abducted and killed.

Reuters reports that over 125 people have been arrested and 40 charged as a result of the ongoing investigation. It's one of the largest investigations ever carried out by the London police force. Six other defendants stand trial with Brooks and Coulson, including three other News of the World editors, the organization's head of security, Brooks' husband, and her personal assistant.

The phone-hacking scandal, which has revealed close personal relationships between British press and political leaders, has rocked Britain's news industry.

During a 2012 questioning, Brooks described her rapport with Mr. Cameron, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and their families, and said that she and Cameron exchanged regular text messages. "Occasionally he would sign them off LOL, 'lots of love,' until I told him it meant 'laugh out loud,'"she told investigators.

Another former Murdoch executive, Ken Chandler, who was not involved with this case, told National Public Radio that this trial would shine needed light on such relationships.

"You can call me old-fashioned if you like, but I believe that the role of the newspaper is to be a watchdog and to be critical of what the government and politicians are doing," Mr. Chandler said. "It's very hard to perform that role if you're socializing the way that they were with the prime minister and other politicians."

This trial comes at a time when British lawmakers "who once praised Murdoch's editors, are now seeking to regulate the press more tightly," according to NPR.

Meanwhile, the British judicial system faces a more immediate struggle: how to shield this trial from the attention of the international press, which is pouring into London to cover Britain's most high-profile criminal case in years.  Unlike in the US, where news reports weave weeks-long sagas out of courtroom details, British courts ban the press from commenting on active cases until verdicts are delivered.

"Twitter and other social media are an ongoing concern for all sides involved in trying to preserve the integrity of the judicial process," reports The Guardian. "Over the past year several high-profile individuals in the UK have been asked to delete tweets commenting on Rebekah Brooks following complaints from her legal team and to the attorney general. At least one US publication acceded to her lawyer's requests to block access for users in the UK to an article speculating about the trial."

The trial is expected to last six months, and Old Bailey, the common name for Britain's Central Criminal Court, has made special arrangements to accommodate the unusually high number of people entitled to attend the proceedings, according to The Guardian.

"About 25 barristers will be present, representing the crown and the defence, with at least one solicitor for each defendant. The police will also have representation as will journalists, 17 of whom will be in the courtroom with a further 53 watching proceedings from an overspill room which will have live streamed video."

According to The Independent, this trial, which focuses on a conspiracy to intercept communications, is only the first of three related trials.  When it concludes, a new trial will evaluate charges of inappropriate payments made to police, and a third trial will look at charges of attempting to cover up evidence linked to phone hacking.

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