Phone-hacking trial: Bloggers, tweeters and Alan Sugar

By James Doleman |

January 3, 2014 | 5 min read

One striking aspect of the trial of Rebekah Brooks and her co-defendants at the Old Bailey is that, for all the wig wearing lawyers and 19th century costumes, it is very much a 21st century event. Often in court everyone seems to be looking at a screen.

The accused sit in the glass fronted dock with their tablets and phones typing away, and the judge makes notes on his laptop while the plasma TV's on the court walls display the latest evidence. In the press room downstairs most of us are online while typing notes and watching a screen displaying the video feed of the court proceedings. When a witness testified from America we watched a video camera pointed at a video screen and tweeted it live. Meanwhile, the court artist still had to go outside and draw her pictures from memory.

Much of this case hinges on emails - millions upon millions of them. It's not a complete record; in 2011, News International began a process of deleting all email archives but, luckily for the prosecution, backups of some of them were held by the company tasked with wiping the records. The Crown also secured emails stored by solicitors Harbottle and Lewis and defendant Clive Goodman. More were recovered from computers seized by police from Rebekah and Charlie Brooks' London flat in 2011. Without these records it is possible that this trial may never have happened. As one police officer told the court, the emails give the "context" the prosecution are relying on to prove their charges of conspiracy.

So, the court stares at screens while the lawyers discuss how to interpret Andy Coulson emailing a journalist with the pithy: "Do his phone." Does Brooks' replying "fine" to an email mean she has read it? That's for the jury to decide.

This trial is probably the most live-tweeted and blogged case yet, however apart from the usual warnings to the jury to only decide the case on evidence they hear in court, Mr Justice Saunders has already had to address the jury twice about specific instances of media coverage.

In the very first week of the trial the judge informed the jury that this cover of Private Eye featuring Brooks was "a joke which in the circumstances of today is a joke in especially bad taste".

Then, just before the Christmas break, the judge spoke to the jury about a report from the Independent on a Christmas card sent by Nick Brown MP featuring Brooks. Judge Saunders told the jury to "simply ignore things like that" while Brook's QC, Jonathan Laidlaw, passed the jury his iPad so they could all see the picture.

So, two cheers for the tweeters and bloggers. There are understandably many reporting restrictions on this case and ensuring a fair trial for the accused is the most important thing. So far, despite some minor incidents, both old and new media seem to be staying within the rules. It would be ironic, however, if a trial about intrusive media coverage was aborted due to prejudicial media coverage.

In a reference to the Private Eye cover mentioned above, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Saunders remarked: "In this case not only are the defendants on trial, but British justice is on trial."

Saunders is known for keeping a tight reign on social media. In 2011, on being informed of a post on Twitter by Alan Sugar about a trial he was presiding over, Saunders remarked: "Can someone contact Lord Sugar and get that removed?" The tweet was gone in 20 minutes.

This trial is yet to have such social media dramas, and hopefully it will not. There has been debate on whether or not this level of online reporting is really a rival to traditional media coverage or just an extra level of detail, likely to be interesting only to a few obsessives. As the case proceeds and we move on to the defendants themselves taking the stand - Andy Coulson has already stated he will - we may not settle that argument, but we will be in a far better position to have it.


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