Brooks email puts further pressure on Hunt

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt faces fresh questions over his involvement with News Corp’s bid for control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB, as emails shown to the Leveson Inquiry today suggest he sought guidance from the company over phone hacking.

The 27 June 2011 email from News Corp PR chief Frédéric Michel to ex-News International CEO Rebekah Brooks — who was today giving evidence at the Inquiry — read:

 JH is now starting to looking [sic] to phone hacking/practices more thoroughly and has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No 10’s positioning…

Hunt’s spokeswoman has said the claim was “inaccurate”.

The email also revealed that Hunt was due to make an “extremely helpful” statement to Parliament regarding the bid, based on his belief that “phone hacking has nothing to do with the media plurality issues”. On 30 June Hunt announced the bid could go ahead, subject to one further public consultation.

The 27 June message adds heat to Hunt, who has already faced intense pressure in the wake of 160 pages’ worth of emails between Michel and Hunt’s adviser Adam Smith that were released to the Inquiry on 24 April. These  revealed that News Corp was being given advance feedback of the government’s scrutiny of the BSkyB bid.

Smith has since resigned, saying that he had acted without Hunt’s authority and that his contact with News Corp “went too far”. Hunt has contended that he himself acted within the ministerial code.

News Corp abandoned the takeover bid in July 2011 in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.

Brooks’ day-long appearance marked the second day of the third module of the  Inquiry, which is examining relations between press and politicians. Inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC said these relationships may have been “over-cosy” in his opening remarks yesterday.

Brooks swayed from appearing nervous to restless and was more impassioned towards the end of her evidence. Discussing her contact with David Cameron, Brooks revealed the PM signed off his text messages to her with “LOL”, under the impression it meant “lots of love” rather than “laugh out loud”.

When Brooks clarified the difference to the PM, he then stopped using the acronym, the Inquiry learned.

Brooks’s contact with Cameron has been the focus of attention this week, with reports that the PM had texted her up to 12 times a day. Brooks dismissed the claim as “preposterous”, noting that he would send her messages once or twice a week.

She told the Inquiry she had received messages of commiserations from Cameron, chancellor George Osborne and former prime minister Tony Blair after her July 2011 resignation.  She confirmed that she received a message from Cameron, the gist of which was to “keep your head up”, but that it was not a “direct text message”.

She said that she spoke to Cameron “in general terms” after the Guardian published its July 2009 story on phone hacking that had claimed the practice was not limited to a single reporter. She added that they discussed it in more detail the following year as civil cases were brought forward.

The atmosphere between Jay and Brooks turned dour as the afternoon wore on and Jay’s usually mild questioning became more terse. Brooks defended some of the Sun’s more controversial coverage, notably its 2006 story on former prime minister Gordon Brown’s son Fraser suffering from cystic fibrosis.

When pressed over the source of the piece, Brooks refused to budge, asserting that the story came from the father of another cystic fibrosis sufferer. Brown had alleged the paper obtained the information through hacking into his son’s medical records, which the redtop countered was “false” and “a smear”.

For Lord Justice Leveson, the issue was whether it was “part of the culture of the press that attack is the best form of defence”.

Brooks, who said she was friends with Brown’s wife Sarah — whom she called an “amazing woman” — maintained she had the couple’s express permission before publishing the story.

“If the Browns had asked me not to run cystic fibrosis story, I wouldn’t have,” she said.

She also countered Jay’s suggestion that the Sarah’s Law campaign run by the News of the World to “name and shame” known sex offenders was “sensationalised” and “inflammatory”. Brooks maintained the approach taken, arguing she could not predict the reprisals that ensued (a Newport-based paediatrician was mistaken for a paedophile in August 2000, with the word “paedo” being written across the front of her home). However, she conceded that she had some regrets, mentioning the list of convicted paedophiles that had been published in the paper.

Throughout her evidence, Brooks reiterated the power of the Sun was its “readership”, whose voices she had sought to reflect during her editorship from 2003-2009.

“If a journalist ever compromised their readership or their role through friendship then it’s their failing,” she said.

The Inquiry continues on Monday.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Andy Coulson gives evidence at Leveson Inquiry

Anyone looking for a lesson in deadpan testimony could have done worse than tune into Andy Coulson’s appearance at the Leveson Inquiry today.

It was an unedifying session with the former News of the World editor and ex-Number 10 communications chief, who was protected from having to discuss the phone hacking scandal due to his July 2011 arrest and subsequent bail as part of Operation Weeting.

Lord Justice Leveson and Robert Jay QC trod particularly heavily on his meeting with George Osborne in March 2007 to discuss the communications role with the Conservative party. “Did it not occur to you — why are they asking me?” Jay asked.

Coulson, who said he entered into the conversation with a “degree of reluctance” and that he “wasn’t thinking about politics at all”, reiterated that he had been in the newspaper industry for a long time, running campaigns and managing a team. Given the “electoral mountain” the party had to climb, these were seemingly useful credentials.

“The conversation was very much, ‘What do we need to do to get elected?'” Coulson said, clarifying that his role was to build relationships across media (he stressed more than once the “fundamental” role of television in explaining policy).

Pressing him further over his News International background, Coulson said his time at the media organisation might have been “considered useful” by the Tory party when considering him for the position, but “was not specifically discussed as being an advantage.” He also any refuted any suggestion that former NI chief executive Rebekah Brooks — due to give evidence tomorrow — had any influence in his recruitment.

Coulson was keen to stress that contact between the party and the media was above board. In his witness statement he wrote that “there was no quid pro quo” between them and NI or any other media organisation.

“I would certainly have taken every opportunity, to the point of becoming a bore, to sing the praises of David Cameron and the Conservative Party and to encourage them to support us. That was my job,” Coulson wrote.

He conceded that he was “not minded to disagree” with David Cameron that the relationships between some of the media and the government had become too cosy. Yet he warned Leveson against erecting more barriers, arguing that the public was already disengaging with politics and further restrictions would exacerbate “what is already a difficult process.”

Coulson ended his terse but lengthy afternoon session by noting the Inquiry has suggested that “a friendship is always based on some ulterior motive”. On the contrary, Leveson responded, arguing that the key was to maintain clarity in relationships.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Police confirm Milly Dowler's phone was hacked but blame for message deletion unclear

Full details of the phone hacking of murdered school-girl Milly Dowler may never be discovered, the Metropolitan Police Service revealed today.

A witness statement from detective chief inspector John MacDonald, which was read to the Leveson Inquiry today, explained to the court that though there is evidence that the voicemails were hacked, it is unlikely there will be “any further clarity” on the issues.

As a result of incomplete call data provided by the mobile phone company, the Met explained that “a definitive conclusion is not and may never be possible.”

The court heard that Sally Dowler was given a moment of “false hope” on 24 March 2002 when space was freed on her daughter’s mobile phone answering service — the family hoped that Milly was listening to and deleting her messages. MacDonald’s statement explained that Mrs Dowler may have been able access her daughter’s voicemail message box on that day after the mobile phone company automatically deleted voicemails 72 hours after they had been listened to.

MacDonald’s statement added that Mrs Dowler and the Metropolitan Police discussed suspicions that her daughter’s voicemail was being accessed by someone else. The statement explained that Mrs Dowler was reassured that her thoughts were reasonable and possible, given that she was able to leave messages one day, but not the previous day.

The schoolgirl’s voicemail was put into a “preserved state” on 25 March, to prevent any further voicemails being automatically purged. On 26 March, Surrey Police unsuccessfully attempted to record the teenager’s voicemail messages. A message left after this attempt was later “saved”, supporting the theory that someone had accessed Milly’s voicemail and listened to the message.

The statement added: “MPS cannot rule out that someone illegally accessed Milly’s phone on 26 March 2002, however, call data is incomplete,” but the incomplete information meant MPS were “unable to conclusively establish the accuracy of this theory.”

David Sherborne, counsel for the victims, condemned the failure of Surrey Police to investigate phone hacking in 2002, and criticised the MPS’ decision to close hacking investigation and concealment of News of the World, despite uncovering “Aladdin’s cave” of evidence. Sherborne added: “If only Rupert Murdoch had “ripped the place apart” in 2006. But he didn’t.”

Sherborne also read a statement from the Dowler family, in which they thanked DCI John MacDonald and his team for their efforts to get to the bottom of this issue.

The statement added: “If Surrey Police had prosecuted this activity in 2002 then perhaps countless others would have avoided having their messages hacked by News of the World. Police neglect and deference meant it took the relentless efforts of one journalist [Nick Davies – Guardian] to uncover what the police already knew. We continue to have faith that his efforts and the efforts of the inquiry and Operation Weeting will have a lasting positive impact.

Also appearing before the court this morning, DCI Brendan Gilmour from MPS and Operation Glade, described the sensitivities of investigating journalists in the wake of Operation Motorman in 2003 to the court.

Gilmour explained that the MPS discovered that Paul Marshall, a civilian employee, was providing private detectives with information, which eventually ended up in newspapers, from the police national computer.

Gilmour stressed that whilst they were “alive to the sensitivities of investigating journalists” there “wasn’t any fear involved at all” from the MPS.

Seven journalists, identified from the ledgers of private investigator Steve Whittamore, were questioned under caution about how they obtained certain information. Gilmour explained that “quite a few of them said the info was coming from the courts”, and added that all of the journalists said they would not have used Whitammore if they had known the information was being accessed illegally.

In March 2004, the CPS advised that there was insufficient evidence to charge any of the journalists. Gilmour said “I accepted the decisions on the basis that we couldn’t prove guilty knowledge.”

In a relatively short evidence session Russell Middleton, temporary assistant Chief Constable of Devon & Cornwall Police and deputy senior investigating officer on Operation Reproof also appeared at the Inquiry.

Middleton explained to the court that Operation Reproof began as an investigation into blackmail.

He said: “We were open minded as to what we would find”, and added that no evidence suggesting the involvement of a media organisation was found, but journalists were not “out of scope” in this police investigation.

At the start of the day’s hearing, Leveson addressed issues raised by Index on Censorship and other organisations, regarding transparency of the governments status as core participants. He said, that though he respects the organisations, he believed they misunderstood the purposes of redaction.

He added: “Redactions of any sort by the government will be approached in the same way as redactions sought by other core participants.”

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson