The phone-hacking trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others is due to begin at the Old Bailey on Monday. Chris Boffey, a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror, considers the media scrum that will await them.
Deep in the bowels of the Old Bailey, a couple of yards from the main toilets, are the press rooms. The old scarred desks, surrounded by tatty chairs where generations of journalists wrote and phoned in their copy, are now littered with computers but there are still reporters' shorthand books and a small team of Press Association professionals plying their trade alongside a couple of freelance agencies.
Court reporting is out of fashion. At one time every national newspaper had a staff reporter based at the Bailey, the Central Criminal Court, as did the BBC and spare seats in the press room were at a premium. Often there was – pre-hacking and before Leveson – a detective having a chat.
When the trial starts of Rebekah Brooks, close confidant of Rupert Murdoch and former chief executive of News International, and Andy Coulson, who followed her as editor of the News of the World, the Old Bailey will once again be the only show in town.
It is anticipated that their trial, and the five others, including Mrs Brooks’ husband Charlie who will stand in the dock with them, will attract as many reporters as the proceedings that saw the Yorkshire Ripper and the Brighton Bomber jailed for life.
The court will hold 25 reporters and 40 others will be housed in an annex watching monitors. Any texting, tweeting and use of social media will be banned during the trial and black-caped ushers will scan the press benches to spot miscreants. Twitter feeds will be monitored to make sure there are no breaches of the judge’s ruling banning live communications.
The seven defendants all faces charges relating to the phone hacking scandal but the two unwilling stars of the show will be Brooks and Coulson, both of them leading journalists of their generation with links to David Cameron. Brooks through friendship, Coulson the prime minister’s former director of communications.
Waiting in the wings are 60 other journalists facing possible offences that came out of the hacking investigations.
The personal tragedy for anyone in the dock facing a major trial is immense and no matter what happens will have a lasting and traumatic affect. The minutiae of their lives are examined leading in many cases to embarrassment, shame, family break up and jail.
But this trial will be more than that. Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph columnist, may have been going over the top when describing it as “the trial of the century” but in two paragraphs anticipated the extra frisson.
He said: “Much of the fascination will be human. Hollywood movies are going to be made about Rebekah Brooks, guilty or not guilty, and her journey from the Cheshire village of Daresbury to become the most powerful and courted woman in Britain, intimate of prime ministers and press tycoons alike. Her autobiography, when it comes, will be worth millions.
“The trial is of extraordinary political significance. For the past two decades, Rupert Murdoch’s News International was more than just a newspaper group. It became part of the process of government, first under Tony Blair, then Gordon Brown and finally David Cameron.”
Murdoch is a man who loves control as much as enjoys power and for the next three months he will have no control about what is said about him, his company or his closest associates as the evidence unravels. The only control is in the hands of the judge who will decide what and what is not relevant and can be heard in court and Murdoch will be powerless to respond.
He will have an army of lawyers waiting in the wings reading every word of the transcript of the case and the company will draw up crisis management scenarios, but in a criminal trial, especially one that is listed for three months, it is almost impossible to plot a course.
Three stops on the Circle line from the Old Bailey in Westminster there will be two powerful figures reading and wondering what the trial will mean to them. David Cameron hired Coulson on the advice of his chancellor George Osborne and the prime minister became a close personal friend of Rebekah and Charlie Brooks who lived close to his home in Oxfordshire.
Anticipating the embarrassment will be the political opposition, who will not be able to mention the trial but will revel in the any links that are made to Downing Street. Cameron suffered during the Leveson Inquiry and continues to squirm in the aftermath. However, Leveson was unable to go into the nitty gritty of hacking, because of the trial, and those who are in favour of a crackdown on the how the press operates will be licking their lips.
So what will happen at the start of the trial? Normally a judge will swear in a jury after asking a few questions to make sure they are fit and proper and then the prosecuting QC will make an opening statement.
But don’t hold your breath. It has taken two years for the case to come to trial and it may be a few more days before the case gets underway and those 65 reporters are allowed to make their first shorthand note.
Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government