On Monday, the Rebekah Brooks trial over the 2011 phone-hacking scandal in the UK will begin. It's an issue that isn't that unlike the NSA surveillance scandal in the United States, and one that has tarnished the reputation of British journalism. For those of you who are a little embarrassed that you haven't been following along so far, here are nine questions about the scandal that you were too afraid to ask...
1. What's the gist?
The British Metropolitan Police discovered that employees of the British red-top newspaper News of the World (NoW) were involved in phone-hacking, police bribery, and exercising improper influence in the pursuit of publishing stories. Over the years, allegations grew in number and in extremity, eventually leading to NoW’s closure in July 2011 after 168 years of publication.
2. What exactly did they do?
Employees did not hack phones per se, but listened to phone calls and voicemail messages through unauthorized remote access to voicemail systems by exploiting loopholes in telcoms' implementation systems. This is much, much more serious and intrusive than the NSA’s metadata collection.
3. Is phone hacking illegal in the UK?
Yes. It is classed as an “unlawful interception... of a public telecommunication system” under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
4. Whose phones have been hacked?
It has ranged from the unnecessary to the just plain horrifying. The phone calls of Sienna Miller, Prince Harry’s friend Guy Pelly, murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, relatives of deceased British soldiers, and victims of the 7/7 London bombings — among many others — have all been intercepted.
5. What are the names I should look out for?
Too many to count, but watch out for Rebekah Brooks. She edited News of the World and The Sun before becoming CEO of News International, the two papers’ parent group. All are owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp.
Brooks faces five charges in relation to allegations of conspiracy to hack phones, conspiracy to pervert the course of justice (by removing seven boxes of material from the News International archive and hiding documents and computer equipment from the police in July 2011), and conspiracy to commit misconduct (i.e. phone hacking) in public office.
6. That was in 2011. What has happened in the meantime?
The Leveson Inquiry was set up in July 2011 by Prime Minister David Cameron to examine the culture, practice, and ethics of the British press. This was a public inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson, which involved public hearings and seminars between 2011 and 2012 (see here for more details). The inquiry examined the respective relationships between the press and the public, police, and politicians, determining what practices of the press counted as illegal behavior.
The British Metropolitan Police Service also launched Operations Weeting, Elveden, and Tuleta under its Specialist Crime Directorate after more allegations of phone hacking came to light after the NoW scandal. Weeting was an investigation into alleged phone hacking (primarily by NoW), Elveden was of payments made to public officials by journalists, and Tuleta of computers being hacked to obtain private information.
7. What has happened since?
In his 2000-page report published in November 2012, Leveson found the existing Press Complaints Commission — a voluntary regulatory body for the British press — insufficient, and recommended a tougher, newer, and independent regulator with a new system underpinned by statute (English law).
In a statement shortly after the publication, Cameron acknowledged, “Changes are urgently needed.”
The problem? Politics. Westminster was split on the extent of implementation needed. While Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband called for full implementation of the report, Cameron had “some serious concerns and misgivings” on the extent of implementation. “We should... be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. In this House — which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries — we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line,” warned Cameron.
After the Metropolitan Police Operations, many arrests, from reporters to laypeople, have been made on grounds of phone hacking (Weeting), computer hacking (Tuleta), and “inappropriate” payments to the police (Elveden). Rebekah Brooks, along with seven other conspirators, will be tried at the Old Bailey Courthouse on Monday.
8. Any more iffy things I should know about?
Yes. After the incident in 2011, claimants were given the option to enter into a £20 million compensation scheme set up by News International as an alternative to pressing charges against the company. (Or, in the words of an opposition lawyer, “throwing money” at claimants in a hope to persuade them to drop their lawsuits ahead of various court cases.) It was understood in February 2013 that over 250 claimants, including Cherie Blair and David Beckham’s father, had opted into it.
The compensation scheme has since been closed, raising concerns among the lawyers of victims who had just been told by police that their phones have been hacked yet still seek damages through the scheme. Steven Heffer, a lawyer acting for 80 such individuals, says, “It is a strong signal that News International are trying to close this down very swiftly... They are trying to put a lid on something that is still popping out of the box.”
9. What will happen at the trial?
So far, all eight defendants have denied allegations that have come out of Operation Weeting. Their statements will certainly be of interest to all, and the trial's outcome likely to affect the future of journalism culture and ethics in Britain. Stay in the loop with The Guardian’s dedicated coverage of the phone-hacking affair.