Phone-hacking trial: Piers Morgan, the party, and the life coach
After the short break the court screens displayed a secure video link to Los Angeles, California to hear the testimony of the next witness for the prosecution, Ambi Sitham. The witness was flanked by a special agent of the FBI to ensure no one else entered the room while she was testifying.
Andrew Edis QC rose first to question the witness. Sitham told the court she was a qualified solicitor, and worked as a junior with Schillings solicitors until 2005 mainly for clients taking legal action against the media for defamation and other matters. Edis asked the witness if in 2003 she was in a relationship with Neil Reading, a publicist. Through him, she told the court, she went to the 2003 birthday party for Andy Coulson held in a steak restaurant in Balham, London. Asked about the party, the witness told the jury she was seated beside defendant Rebekah Brooks and across from then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan. During the party she discussed a legal action she had been involved in over a defamation action by model Niaomi Campbell against the Daily Mirror. "They all knew I was on the other side," she added.
Brooks and Morgan, Sitham told the court, weere both enjoying what she called "banter" about the coming edition of their papers. According to the witness, Morgan had said to Brooks that he already knew about what was in the Sun the next day as "I've been listening to your messages". Brooks, Sitham said, replied, "You've been hacking into my phone again have you Piers?" to which Morgan supposedly replied, "Well you've been looking at my emails". Asked to describe the tone of the conversation, Sihtam stated it was "pointed".
The witness then told the court that at the end of the evening she had handed a piece of paper with her phone number to Brooks so they could keep in touch and Morgan had quipped, "careful, she'll tap your phone". Sitham then took the piece of paper back and got Brooks' number instead.
Brooks' Barrister, Clare Sibson, then asked for five minutes to consult her client, so the court took a short recess.
When court resumed, Sibson rose to cross-examine the witness. She began by asking Sitham about her legal experience and asked when she came off the roll of practising solicitors. The witness replied she was still on the roll but agreed she had stopped practising law in 2006. The barrister then asked the witness if she had worked on many "high profile cases" for Schillings the solicitors on defamation and privacy actions and had experience of preparing witness statements, to which Sitham agreed. Asked about her current job, the witness told the court she was now a "life coach", had a book called "The laws of love" about to be published and had 18,000 followers on Twitter. She also agreed she had appeared on an early morning programme, "Daybreak", as a legal commentator.
Sibson then turned to the evening of the party, asking if Morgan and Brooks knew she was a lawyer for Schillings and acting for Naomi Campbell in a legal action against the Daily Mirror, "The privacy action of the decade" as the barrister described it. Sibson put it to the witness that the dinner happened in the midst of this legal action when Campbell was awaiting the result of an appeal to the House of Lords. The lawyer then brought into evidence a blog, written by the witness, called "and the truth will set you free" originally posted on the Huffington post March 2012. The full blog post can be found here.
The post starts "as a human being and lawyer I have always prided myself on being honest". It continued: "Almost a decade ago I happened to be in a situation where I became privy to information that raised a red flag both legally and morally." Sitham confirmed she had written the piece and it related to the conversation at the party. In the blog she mentions she had "flashbacks to the events"; asked what had caused the flashbacks the witness told the court it was during a television appearance discussing the hacking scandal in 2011.
Sibson asked the witness if she had really "taken the conversation seriously" and if she had told her employer about it. Sibham replied that regretfully she had not. The barrister then put it to the witness that when Morgan had made the comment "She'll tap your phone" had she taken that to mean "listening to live conversations?" The witness said she had. The barrister suggested that as the witness was a lawyer, having conversations with high profile individuals about a phone tap would have involved a serious breach of legal privilege, yet she had not informed her employers.
The barrister put it to the witness that "this conversation never happened" and pointed out that after the event she had sent Brooks a card with a humorous caption. Sibham was then shown a note, made by police officers, of a conversation she had with them in 2012 where she confirms she had sent Brooks a card with a "funny, jockey caption on the front". Why, Sibson asked, would she want to meet someone she thought might want to hack her phone? The witness responded that the significance of the conversation only occurred to her later.
Sibham was then taken back to her blog where she says: "Since the resurgence of hackgate and the twists and turns and increasing revelations arising out of the Leveson Inquiry I have been increasingly uncomfortable about my knowledge and waged an internal battle as to whether to put my head above the parapet. The blog goes on to describe a meeting she had with Hugh Grant, Nick Davies from the Guardian and others where she states "it felt like a Richard Curtis film". Sibson put it to the witness she had "fictionalised" her account, to which the she responded "as god is my witness it happened".
The witness was then asked if she had agreed to appear in a documentary about the current case being produced by Nick Davies. She confirmed she had decided to speak up about the moral pressure she had faced which had "cost her friendships". The witness denied she had "asked for a platform" by either the New York Times or the Guardian to tell her story, Sitham replied that she did not want to be "seen as a snitch" and wished to explain herself. Asked by the defence if she had ever featured in either the Guardian or the New York Times before, Sitham confirmed she had not. The witness agreed she had made a statement to the Leveson Inquiry but this had not been used, having been saved for the criminal inquiry. Pressed by council for Brook,s the witness denied she had only created the story to "raise her American media profile".
The court was then shown an email to the witness from Evan Harris of the Hacked Off campaign which gave advice on how her testimony to Leveson would be stronger if she had a note of the party incident, and advised if "part of this is to make decent US media impact the timing should be considered". The witness said that was not her motivation; she "felt in her gut" she was "standing up for the good" and at the same time "making herself known as someone who was doing the right thing".
The barrister put it to the witness that "this entire episode of you giving evidence is just to publicise yourself" which the witness denied. Sibson also put it to the witness she had the date of the party wrong as it happened in 2004 not 2003. Sitham agreed this was "possible". The barrister suggested to the witness that the party was the night before the release of the Hutton report, into the death of Dr David Kelly, a report that had been leaked to the Sun before any other media outlet. The witness replied she had no recollection of that being discussed. Sibson suggested that the conversation at the party was about this issue and Brooks had to leave the table to take a call from Downing Street. Any "pointed conversation" between Brooks and Morgan, the barrister suggested, was not about phone hacking but was in fact about how the Sun had received the report while the Mirror had not. The witness replied she had no recollection of that issue being discussed. The defence then ended its cross-examination
Andrew Edis QC then briefly re-examined the witness, showing her an email she wrote to Hacked Off saying: "I have absolutely nothing to gain from this, I just want to tell my story and move on with my life". Sitham agreed that was how she felt then and telling her story had "only cost her friendships". The email continues: "I dread the wave of vitriol that will come my way and the incestuous nest of vipers"/ Sitham replied that is "how scared she has been for the last three years". The video link was then closed and the court rose for the day.
All of the defendants continue to deny all of the charges, the trial continues.