/ 8 November 2013

Hack-in-chief ‘tried to hide paper’s trail’

Former News International chief ­executive Rebekah Brooks
Former News International chief ­executive Rebekah Brooks (right) and her husband Charlie allegedly tried to conceal evidence of wrongdoing. (AFP)

Rebekah Brooks and her husband hatched a complicated plot to hide evidence from the police, only to be foiled by a conscientious cleaner, an Old Bailey jury heard this week. It was a curious tale involving an underground car park, two pizzas and a famous Richard Burton movie line.

The story was told by the Crown as part of a wider allegation that, as the chief executive of News International, Brooks had tried to conceal evidence of wrongdoing at the News of the World by deleting email records and destroying her journalistic notebooks.

She denies two charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

The jury at the phone-hacking trial also heard in an opening address on behalf of Andy Coulson that the Crown had misstated his role as editor of the News of the World, and that "it is his case that he was never party to an agreement to hack phones, whatever others might have been doing on his watch".

Completing his three-day opening argument for the Crown, Andrew Edis QC took the jury back to July 2011, to the aftermath of the Guardian's disclosure of the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone. "A media firestorm was about to engulf the News of the World," he said.

"You can imagine the extremely anxious, if not panic-stricken, approach to these developments that must have been going on at the News of the World."

With a Scotland Yard inquiry closing in, Edis said, News International announced it would close the News of the World, and Brooks, a former editor of the paper, realised she faced arrest when she kept an appointment with police on Sunday July 17.

It was in this context, Edis claimed, that she and her husband, Charlie Brooks, came up with a plan to stop the police from finding computers and records at their country home, Jubilee Barn, in Oxfordshire, and their flat at Chelsea Harbour, central London.

That Sunday morning a chauffeur drove the pair from Oxfordshire to London. Back at Jubilee Barn, Edis alleged, the head of security at News International, Mark Hanna, collected items that were to be concealed and set off to the company's office in Wapping. Hanna, meanwhile, was in charge of protecting the Brookses from "newspaper people" and others in what had been named internally Operation Blackhawk.

By noon, the chauffeur had dropped off Charlie Brooks and driven Rebekah Brooks to Lewisham police station, waiting while she was formally arrested and questioned. At 12.15pm, Edis said, Charlie Brooks was caught by CCTV cameras at Chelsea Harbour going down to the underground car park, carrying a plastic bag and a laptop computer, which he appeared to leave in a waste bin. Two hours later, the CCTV cameras recorded Hanna apparently removing both items from the bin.

That afternoon the police searched both of the Brookses' homes. Edis suggested to the jury that among the material concealed were two iPads and an iPhone, which, according to electronic records, the couple had been using recently. "The coast is clear," he said. "The police have been and gone. But of course, it may not be entirely clear because there may be police or press keeping an eye on what was going on."

This became important, the jury heard, when it was decided to return some "safe" items to the Brookses that evening.

Hanna sent an SMS to one of his men: "Have plan. Can you call please?" Edis suggested to the jury that this security man had been ordered to go to News International headquarters in Wapping to collect a bin bag containing some of the concealed items and take them to Chelsea Harbour, where there was some risk of being spotted by police or press.

"There has got to be some sort of pretext," he said. Which is where the pizzas allegedly became involved.

According to Edis, the security man picked up two pizzas, phoned Charlie Brooks, delivered the pizzas to an unnamed man who came down to the underground car park, dropped the bin bag into a bin and then SMSed his immediate boss with a line famously used by Richard Burton when communicating with his commanding officer in Where Eagles Dare.

"Broadsword to Danny Boy," he SMSed, "Pizzas delivered. The chicken is in the pot."

His boss SMSed back: "Amateurs! We should have done a DLB or a brush contact on the riverside. Log the hours as pizza delivery."

Edis explained that a DLB is a dead letter box of the kind used by spies and that what the SMS as a whole meant was: "You have done the secret little job. We could have done that better. Log in the hours as pizza delivery because you can't log them as perverting the course of justice."

Edis said: "The whole exercise was quite complicated and quite risky and liable to go wrong." On the following morning, the prosecutor told the jury, it had indeed gone wrong: when the chauffeur drove the Brookses to see their solicitor, leaving the bin bag still in the waste bin.

In their absence, a cleaner, a Mr Nascimento, noticed the bag and its contents and took it to his manager. When the Brookses returned, CCTV records showed, Charlie Brooks searched the area around the waste bin and SMSed the security man who had left the bin bag there: "Need to get Rebekah some lunch. Pizza."

But by then, said Edis, Nascimento's manager had decided to call the police, "which is how the police ended up with the bin bag".

Separately, the jury heard that the previous week, on Friday July 8, the day after the closure of the News of the World was announced, Rebekah Brooks and her personal assistant, Cheryl Carter, had arranged to remove from the company archive seven boxes allegedly containing all the notebooks Brooks had used from 1995 to 2007.

Carter had falsely told the archivist that they were her own notebooks, Edis said, and then falsely told police that Brooks had not been in the office that day.

"It was quite dishonest," the prosecutor said. The notebooks have not been found.

Rebekah and Charlie Brooks, Cheryl Carter and Mark Hanna all deny conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

The trial continues. – © Guardian News & Media 2013