Senior executives at Rupert Murdoch’s News International launched a complex operation to cover up their crimes after illegal activities were exposed by the phone hacking scandal, the lead prosecutor at a trial in London alleged on Monday.
Rebekah Brooks was accused by the prosecution of orchestrating a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by using News International employees and resources to hide or destroy notebooks, computers and emails that would prove the company had repeatedly broken the law.
According to the prosecutor, a project known as Operation Blackhawk allegedly was launched to hide the misconduct and employed a series of code words and codenames borrowed from Hollywood. Andrew Edis, prosecuting, said potentially damning evidence was transported by security staff, who cannot be named for legal reasons. After evidence was allegedly removed and then returned to Brooks’ home in London under the guise of a pizza delivery, one of the security operatives sent a text message quoting from the 1968 World War II movie Where Eagles Dare: “Broadsword calling Danny Boy. Pizza delivered and the chicken is in the pot,” the court heard. A reply came back: “F—king amateurs! We should have done a DLB [Dead Letter Box] or brush contact on the riverside!”
Edis also alleged that Brooks ordered the deletion of millions of emails spanning her entire period at the helm of the News of the World up until January 2010 when she had been promoted to chief executive of News International, the British wing of Murdoch’s News Corp empire.
These allegations emerged on the final day of Edis’ opening. He described the fallout inside News International from 2009 to July 2011 when the phone hacking scandal exploded amid allegations that the phone of missing teenager Milly Dowler had been hacked.
On July 8, 2011, Brooks’ colleague, and, the prosecution says, former lover Andy Coulson was arrested by the police on suspicion of phone hacking. On the same day, Edis said Brooks sent her personal assistant, Cheryl Carter, to the News International archives, to retrieve seven boxes marked ‘Notebooks 1998-2007 of Rebekah Brooks, nee Wade.’ This is the first of two counts of conspiracy to “pervert the course of justice” that Brooks faces, in this instance together with her former personal assistant. “The prosecution case is… those seven boxes have never been seen again,” said Edis. The defendants deny all charges.
At the time the prosecution alleges the boxes were removed, Brooks was still hoping to keep her job as CEO of News International, Edis said. In an email to James Murdoch on the 8th of July, four days after the Dowler scandal broke, she claimed she was ‘ring-fenced’ and suggested the blame could fall on her predecessor as CEO of New International, Les Hinton, who was the head of Dow Jones, the WSJ publisher at the time, and the outgoing editor of the News of the World, Colin Myler. “[The] report when published would slam Les, Colin etc and it will vindicate my position (or not),” she wrote in an email sent to Murdoch.
The email also revealed that Brooks and James Murdoch had discussed plans to launch a replacement for the News of the World before it was closed. The Sun on Sunday wasn’t launched for another eight months.
The embarrassing email is just one example of several electronic audit trails which form a key part of the police evidence, according to prosecutor Edis. From 2009, News International has run an ‘email deletion’ or ‘data retention’ policy as do many companies. The prosecution relayed the following exchange in court: “What happens to my email?” Brooks wrote to News International lawyer John Chapman on May 12th, 2010. He replied: “Under current proposals all emails prior to December 2007 will be gone forever.” In August that year she followed up on the deletion, asking for Andy Coulson to be consulted, and for the deletion date to include “anything before January 2010” which, according to the prosecution “happens to catch her entire period as an editor at News International.” Chapman replied: “The revised date is likely to be misconstrued if circulated externally” and double checked the period for deletion. Brooks emailed back: “Yes to Jan 10th. Clean sweep.”
The jury also heard the prosecution’s contention that Brooks, her husband Charlie, and the head of News International security, Mark Hanna, went through an elaborate effort to conceal evidence in the period when Brooks was arrested on July 17, two days after she resigned as the senior executive running Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers.
“At this time Brooks and her husband were at the center of the media firestorm,” Edis claimed “And a security operation was set up by News International.” The prosecution allege that a private security team were contracted for ‘operation Blackhawk’ which, as well as providing security for Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, went to their London apartment and Oxfordshire home, to retrieve laptops and documents, before the properties were searched by police.
CCTV images, text messages and call data suggest, the prosecution allege, that the security team took the materials back to the Brooks’ Chelsea apartment once the police had finished questioning the couple. The security team did this on the pretext of delivering a pizza, according to Edis.
Another text read by the prosecution suggested the security operatives were going to bill the complex manoeuvres of that day as ‘pizza delivery’. “As well they may,” responded prosecutor Edis: “You can’t log in the hours as perverting the course of justice.”
The alleged ploy was thwarted when a cleaner at Brooks’ apartment block car park spotted the bin bag full of materials, and his manager called the police. Though a laptop found in the bag was thoroughly examined, the police found no incriminating material on it. However, they did discover from a snapshot of the router material that the Brookses had another laptop, and iPad and iPhone connected to the wireless router of their Oxfordshire house, according to Edis. These devices have never been found.
The outline of the prosecution’s case was followed with a brief opening by Coulson’s defense lawyer, Anthony Langdale, who said it was virtually impossible for any editor of a newspaper to keep up with everything that was going on as they were faced with “thousands of stories” and a “blizzard of emails”. He also revealed that the phone of Coulson, like Brooks’, had also been hacked. “Bear in mind Mr Coulson was hacked,” said Langdale: “He was both a conspirator and a victim? Those things do not sit easily together.”
The trial continues.