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Phone-hacking trial: Rebekah Brooks 'knew the PCC code as all editors jolly well should do', News International legal adviser tells court

The trial of former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, the prime minister's former director of communications Andy Coulson and six others began at the Old Bailey on 28 October. The Drum will be in court for the duration of the trial, which is expected to last at least four months, and will provide comprehensive updates on this blog.

The trial is scheduled to examine seven counts that include conspiracy to intercept communications in the course of their transmission, conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office, and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Coverage will be provided by James Doleman, who was acclaimed for his exhaustive and responsible reporting of the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial.

As the third full week of the trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and six others opened, the court moved away from the “timeline” evidence and began hearing witnesses from employees of News International (now known as News UK).

Questioned by Andrew Edis QC, for the prosecution, the first witness Justin Walford confirmed he is a barrister who has worked for News International as a legal adviser since 2005, and while principally responsible for giving legal advice for The Sun, he did do work for the News of the World (NotW), although this was mainly the responsibility of Tom Crone.

Timothy Langdale, for Andy Coulson, then rose to question the witness. He asked Walford about the role of Tom Crone whom he described as a “highly respected lawyer” who worked a “News of the World” week, from Tuesday to Sunday, and that Andy Coulson “valued his advice”. He also agreed that Coulson was very concerned to have his story “legalled” ie checked for possible legal issues before publication. One example given was “libel reading” which was checking the copy, adding the word “alleged” when required, and ensuring balance. This was required as libel could be very expensive especially given the rise of “no win no fee” libel actions.

Walford also confirmed he would advise journalists on subjects such as contracts, or how to deal with issues such as reporters “coming into contact with drugs” in the course of an investigation. The barrister was then asked if he ever gave advice on “the legality of methods of gaining information” such as subterfuge, accessing private information etc. The witness said he did sometimes give such advice to the NotW, but this was usually done by Tom Crone. Langdale then asked if the Sun and the NotW generally co-operated with the police. Walford said they did and pointed to a number of criminal convictions secured, he said, as a result of their “investigations”.

Langdale then asked the witness if he had ever been asked to give advice on the “legality of phone hacking” or if he had ever seen a story sourced by that method. Walford said he had not nor had he ever heard the name of convicted phone hacker Glenn Mulcaire until he was arrested in 2006, along with NotW royal correspondent Clive Goodman. Walford also told the court he never tried to find out a journalist’s sources as they were “rightly, naturally protective” of these. He was only interested in evidence he could use in court to defend any libel or “breach of confidence” case. He would not ask for the name of a source as, on occasion, there may be a court order issued demanding the name, and if he knew it he would be obliged to release it. It was his job only to give advice, the decision to publish was the editor's.

Jonathan Caplan QC, representing Stuart Kuttner, then rose to examine the witness. Walford agreed that Kuttner was “highly respected” and that he worked very hard. Caplan questioned Walford about the role of “night lawyers” who came in at 6pm after he had left work. The witness told the court that they would deal with any legal issues that arose after. The NotW was different as Tom Crone would be there and he would “legal” the copy during the Saturday before publication. Crone would, however, sometimes seek outside help, especially with the rise of “super-injunctions” which involved attempts to stop stories before they were published under privacy legislation rather than sue after they appeared under libel law. Walford confirmed to Caplan that he had no role over managing cash payments.

Caplan then turned to Kuttner’s role as managing editor. Walford told the court Kuttner would not usually deal with stories, although he may write leader columns; instead he looked after the business side of the title, finance, budgets and disciplinary matters. Caplan then asked about the role of private investigators at the paper, asking if there were “legitimate reasons for newspapers to use them”. The witness said he would be unable to comment as that was not something he would be involved with. Walford was then asked about the information commissioner's report on the use of private investigators at newspapers and if this had led to a change of culture. Walford responded that there had been a “tightening up”.

Jonathan Laidlaw QC, for Rebekah Brooks, then examined the witness. Walford agreed he had worked under Brooks' editorship at the Sun from 2005 until 2009 and that The Sun was, in his words, a “national institution” that sought to provide “proper news to its readers". Laidlaw suggested to the witness that journalists at the Sun have a “high reputation” and Walford replied that “most fair people would agree” that “you don’t get to work in the Sun unless you were very good”, adding that as he worked there “he might be biased”. Laidlaw suggested that Brooks was passionate about high standards and the witness agreed that she was “very demanding” and they had “arguments” but Brooks knew the PCC code as all editors “jolly well should do.”

Under questioning from Laidlaw, Walford again confirmed he had never seen a story in either the Sun or the NotW that he believed had came from phone hacking, that he had ever been asked to advise anyone about the legality of phone hacking or that he had heard of Glenn Mulcaire until his arrest in 2006. He confirmed to Laidlaw that after Mulcaire’s arrest he had made inquiries at The Sun and had been assured that this practice had never happened at The Sun, he “accepted these assurances.”

Laidlaw then asked the witness about the “volume” of material in an average issue of the NotW, stating that it had 70 pages and possibly 200 to 300 stories in each issue. The witness agreed that if you counted sports stories that would be correct. There were also many stories, he told the jury, that were researched and written but never made the paper and were “put to one side” as better stories came along. There was also, he agreed, “fierce competition” between the NotW and the Sun, telling the jury he was “taken aback” by this competition when he joined News International. Laidlaw put it to the witness that it would be “quite impossible” for an editor to know the source of every story, Walford agreed this was highly likely.

Laidlaw then asked about the use of “private investigators”, suggesting newspapers have to employ them so they can give the subject of stories a chance to comment on them before publication. The witness replied that he was “not aware” of that happening as the subjects of stories were, in his experience, usually easy to contact.

Edis then rose to re-examine the witness. He asked the witness about what he looked at when he considered a story in the light of the law of libel and Walford replied “meaning” and if it was true. Privacy law was different as even if the story was true it still must be weighed against public interest in releasing it, making it a “balancing exercise” between privacy and the importance of what the story was exposing. This would be discussed, if it was a “big story”, directly with the editor. The witness also confirmed any contracts signed by News International would be looked at by a lawyer.

Walford was then shown a copy of the PCC code of practice from 1999, which states “journalists must not use information obtained through clandestine listening devices or interception of private communications” Walford agreed that the code did say this. Edis asked if journalists on the NotW would have been aware of this, and the witness replied that training was not his responsibility but that of the managing editor’s office. Asked if he was involved in any inquiries into phone hacking at the NotW, Walford replied “only very, very briefly” as Tom Crone was away.

Justice Saunders then asked a question he said may be irrelevant with the caveat: “But then again I’m allowed to ask irrelevant questions". The judge asked about what legal advice Walford would give about an investigation by the NotW which involved taking a firearm into an airport. Walford replied this was potentially a “very serious offence” and he would seek outside views on if there was a “sufficient public interest”, but he would “need some persuading.” The court then thanked Mr Walford and he stepped down from the stand.

The next witness called to the stand was Michael Gill. Gill told the court he was the group financial controller of News UK, a position he has held since March 2008. During the period covered by the case he was financial accounting manager. Edis told the court the witness was here to assist the jury in understanding the financial processes the NotW operated between 2002 and 2006.

Edis then moved on to ask about the “contributor payment system” operated by News International. The objective of this system, Gill told the court, was to make sure payments were carried out through a proper process and were properly authorised. The jury was told there were four methods of payment, cash, via a cash collection agency (Western Union), electronic transfer to a bank account, or by cheque. The authorisation would come from a “desk head”, the person in charge of a particular part of the paper’s output - news, sports, features etc.

Documents were then shown to the court outlining the various policies used by Gill’s team when processing payments. The “philosophy” behind the policy, the witness explained, was that each responsible individual had “just enough authority to handle routine tasks,” all “exceptional items” would have to signed off at a higher level. Each responsible individual was assigned a “category” with a different financial limit. Category one for example had no limit, category three a ceiling of £50,000, category six had a limit of £5000. The jury was then shown a list from April 2002 of which category each person was in. Stuart Kuttner, the managing editor, was category three. Rebekah Brooks, NotW editor, was also category three. In comparison, the court was told, Scottish NotW editor Bob Bird was in category six.

Gill told the court these limits were for total contribution period, a contract for £1000 per month for 12 months would need an authorisation of £12,000 not £1000. All contracts were also subject to legal approval and would have to be signed off by the legal department. The court was then shown a list from 2006 of who each named individual would have to get approval from if they wished to make a payment over their limit. Andy Coulson and Stuart Kuttner were confirmed as the main people responsible for authorising over the limit payments for contributors to the News of the World. Gill then explained various other codes on the documents to do with which cost-centre was assigned to each payment.

Edis then asked Gill if between March 2002 and January 2005 desk editors could approve contributor payments. Gill replied they could not.

The court then broke for lunch.

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