LONDON – Two of Rupert Murdoch’s top editors oversaw a system of phone hacking and illegal payments to officials when they ran the now-defunct News of the World tabloid, a London court heard Wednesday.
Prosecution lawyer Andrew Edis told the Old Bailey court in opening statements at the long-awaited trial that phone hacking and other illegal activities at the newspapers went on for a decade under Rebekah Brooks and Andrew Coulson.
Edis said Coulson approved payments to police officers for phone books with secret contact details of members of the royal household. He agreed to secret cash payments in the early 2000s to police officers using fake names, the prosecution said.
The allegation is that the telephone numbers were used to hack phones in order to discover secrets about the royal family, as well as celebrities, crime victims and others which could then be published as exclusive stories in the tabloid News of the World. In 2011 the News of the World closed down amid the phone hacking scandal.
The scandal has rattled Britain’s media, police and political establishments. Brooks and Coulson – who went on to become British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ex-communications director – are charged along with six others on a variety of counts related to phone hacking, bribing officials and obstructing justice. All deny the charges and have plead not guilty.
Edis explained to the court what the term “phone hacking” means. “In this case, it means listening to other people’s voicemail messages without their consent, by finding the passcode they need to listen to find the messages left for them by somebody else.”
Edis explained the value of the phone hacking to the tabloids as a way to scoop up private information.
“People think their voicemail messages are likely to be private, people who leave voicemail messages [are] likely to say things that are private – that's how it's supposed to work.”
Brooks, another of Murdoch’s former senior executives, is also accused of overseeing a campaign of phone hacking by journalists, and of trying to cover up evidence of her guilt. As editor of another of Murdoch’s tabloid newspapers, The Sun, she is accused of making corrupt payments to defense officials.
The prosecution described the selling of private information about the royal family and others to journalists as “a betrayal of the public trust.”
“They agreed the News of the World would pay a palace police officer a sum of money in return for a royal phone directory which contained telephone numbers of members of the royal family,” said Edis.
Those payments were allegedly made by News of the World Royal Editor Clive Goodman, who is also on trial. The prosecution said Goodman made his “life’s work to try to find out things about the royal family, and those connected to it, which he could publish.”
Other phone hacking was directed at celebrities, politicians and even a murdered school girl, the court heard.
“The question,” of the trial, the prosecution said, is whether in, “a thirst for good stories it overstepped the boundary into crime.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.