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Photo Gallery: The Sordid Practices of the British Press

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Tabloid Espionage Trial Exposes Darkest Corners of British Press

Former editors with newspaper News of the World are currently on trial in London, where they are accused of spying on private phone conversations for years. The unfolding testimony against close associates of publisher Rupert Murdoch shows just how far the British tabloid press has been willing to go for a scoop.

On March 21, 2002, a girl disappeared in a town in southern England, not far from London. Her name was Amanda Dowler, nicknamed Milly, and her disappearance soon gripped the entire country. She was just 13.

The police began searching for her, even deploying a helicopter equipped with special cameras. Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, also took part in the search. Mulcaire was not working for the police or Dowler's family, though, but for the newspaper News of the World. His job was to help the paper secure an exclusive story.

It isn't unusual for editorial offices in the cutthroat London news business to hire professionals to dig through the dirt on their behalf. Private investigators can be useful because they can employ every legal and illegal trick on the hunt for stories, and their employers never have to get their hands dirty. Mulcaire was a good detective, and it didn't take him long to find Milly Dowler's cellphone number.

In its first edition on April 14, 2002, News of the World quoted a message left on Dowler's cellphone, which Mulcaire had intercepted. The call was from a recruitment agency employee, who it later turned out had simply dialed the wrong number. The police focused on other clues, and the missing girl's body was found in a forest several months later.

The call to Dowler's voicemail is now a key element in the indictment against seven former News of the World employees, including former editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. The Crown Prosecution Service in London has charged them with conspiracy to intercept hundreds of phone calls over the years, paying public officials for information and obstructing the subsequent investigations.

Betrayal, Bribery and Greed

It is the biggest media  trial the United Kingdom 's history. More than 100 journalists and public officials have already been arrested, and the presumed victims include many of the country's celebrities and prominent public figures: Prince Harry and many other members of the royal family, singer Paul McCartney, actor Hugh Grant, a former home secretary and his mistress, members of parliament, athletes, journalists, many TV starlets and footballer Wayne Rooney's masseuse.

For several weeks now, the proceedings in Courtroom 12 at the Old Bailey, London's central criminal court have offered a glimpse into the darkest corners of British journalism. The trial revolves around charges of bribery, not to mention betrayal, greed and ties between journalists and the government. Rebekah Brooks is a close associate of media mogul Rupert Murdoch , who owned News of the World. Her trial is also an indictment of a portion of Murdoch's newspaper empire.

The British public has looked forward to the trial with about as much anticipation as the new season of "Downton Abbey." The trial, which could last until April of next year, promises to offer salacious tales from the depths of the celebrity world. And the public hasn't been disappointed so far.

Recordings of voicemail messages have been played in court, and a surprising love affair has come to light. A fashion model told the court that she had passed on ultrasound images of her unborn child to journalists. Her former boyfriend talked about his money problems and a nighttime encounter with the daughter of rock star Mick Jagger. Amorous escapades, not all of them made up, are mentioned almost daily. The judge initially insisted that he would not allow his courtroom to be turned into a circus, given the large number of celebrity witnesses, but he might as well have been talking to a wall. About a dozen cameramen and photographers lurk outside the building each day.

The central characters in the courtroom are Brooks and Coulson, both 45, and both with substantial experience in the swamps of tabloid journalism. Brooks is a striking woman with long red ringlets. Coulson usually wears a dark suit and black-rimmed glasses. Every morning both defendants can be seen bent over their files with blank expressions on their faces. If Coulson didn't occasionally change his tie and Brooks her outfit, it could almost seem as if they were spending the night in the dock.

Rising to the Top

Brooks began her journalistic career at 20 with News of the World, the Sunday paper in Murdoch's media empire. She quickly worked her way to the top, becoming head of the features department and joining the ranks of senior editors. At 34, she was named editor-in-chief of the Sun, the country's most caustic tabloid, also a Murdoch paper. She was later promoted to head News International, the publishing house that prints Murdoch's British newspapers, the Sun, the Times, the Sunday Times and, at the time, News of the World. Brooks frequently uses her iPad during the trial, although it isn't possible to see what she is typing from the public gallery. Perhaps she's writing her memoirs.

Coulson's journalism career began at the same time. In the late 1980s, he went to work as a reporter for the Sun, and was later given a gossip and show business column. When Brooks became head of the Sun, Coulson was made editor-in-chief of News of the World. Their professional lives became intertwined. In 2007 David Cameron, the current prime minister, made Coulson director of communications of the Conservative Party. After the 2010 election, he became director of communications for the government at 10 Downing Street.

Prosecutors accuse Brooks and Coulson of knowing about the material that private investigator Mulcaire was providing. They also argue that Brooks, as editor of the Sun, ordered payments made to government employees, including a soldier who wanted £4,000 (€4,830) for a photo of Prince William in a bikini. Coulson allegedly approved of payments made to guards at the royal palace to gain access to the royal family's telephone directories. Finally, when the investigations became more specific, Brooks and her husband allegedly destroyed incriminating evidence and obstructed the work of the police. The defendants deny the allegations.

Anything for a Good Story

The trial is also an indictment of part of British journalism. At best, UK newspaper reporters have the reputation for being willing to sell their souls for a good story. Unlike Germany and the United States, the UK has no law that specifically protects the press, which drives many journalists to become all the more aggressive in demonstrating their right to exist.

In addition, growing competitive pressure in the last few decades has made journalists hungry for exclusive material. Eleven large, daily English-language newspapers are published in London alone, as well as free papers in the morning and evening. Mulcaire was only one of the many people who profited from the growing pressure on newspaper editors. As long ago as the mid-1990s, dozens of private investigators were working for newspaper publishers. And, as Nick Davies, a journalist for the Guardian, writes in his book "Flat Earth News," they often broke the law.

One person who experienced this atmosphere firsthand is Paul McMullan, a reporter who started working for News of the World in 1994 when it all began. He can explain in detail how rewarding it is for the press to monitor people without their knowledge, as long as they are reasonably interesting. During a three-hour conversation, McMullan gave a good impression of the atmosphere in his former editorial department. For McMullan, the most important thing was to see a story with his byline in the next edition of the paper, even if it meant lying, stealing or hacking into the voicemail of someone like actress Nicole Kidman. He once stole a photo from former British Prime Minister John Major's mantelpiece. Brooks gave him his first fixed contract. "She was shit at being a boss," McMullan says. "It was terrible."

He is standing behind the bar at the Castle Inn in the British port city of Dover. Just a short walk from the ferry terminal, it's a cross between a waterfront dive bar and a lodging house for backpacking tourists from the Continent. McMullan bought the establishment years ago when he still had money. His Italian waitress and a man who introduces himself as McMullan's painter are standing at the bar. McMullan occasionally contributes a story or a photograph to the Dover Express, but he earns his living primarily as an innkeeper, which means having to deal with employees who might try to steal his whisky.

Reporters Under Enormous Pressure

On a personal level, he says, he got along well with Brooks. "She was a lovely girl, and desperate to get to the top," he says. Brooks wanted McMullan to write stories that would make a splash on Fleet Street. On one occasion, he was asked to check himself into a drug rehab clinic for a month, under an assumed name, and on another he was told to obtain the names and addresses of convicted pedophiles. He complied in both cases. McMullan says that reporters were under enormous pressure to deliver explosive material on a weekly basis. The paper was published on Sundays, and each Tuesday he was required to present three new ideas. He was often sent to stake celebrities' homes. "I was really good at sitting in the back of a van and waiting," he says.

For the editorial office, it made no difference whether the paper exposed actors, criminals or politicians. All that mattered was shock value. For reporters, it was all but impossible not to employ the shady methods that everyone apparently used, even if they were illegal. McMullan says that he even hacked into the occasional voicemail, and that it was a common practice. "And of course Rebekah knew it," he says.

Until a few years ago, all it took was a little luck to hack into someone's phone, says McMullan. Most cellphone users didn't change the preset PIN that came with their phones, so that someone like McMullan merely had to dial a target's number, listen to the greeting, press the star key and enter four zeros to gain access to the person's messages. It became more complicated later on, because reporters had to figure out their victims' individual unique voicemail numbers (UVNs). But all it took was a little money or charm for an experienced reporter to obtain the codes from telephone company employees.

It wasn't just tabloid papers that benefited from the dubious methods of private investigators, either. According to journalist Nick Davies, respected publications like the Sunday Times also resorted to these methods. In one case, a private investigator was first hired by News of the World and later by the Sunday Times to look into the bizarre story that Prince Charles was not Prince Harry's father. The man pursued Harry in an effort to obtain a glass or napkin he had used to sample of the prince's DNA, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Disturbing the Peace on Fleet Street

No story was too mundane for News of the World. The more prominent the subject, the better. In late 2005, the paper's editor on the royals beat wrote about a knee injury Prince William had reportedly suffered. The story wasn't particularly newsworthy, but it was enough to arouse the suspicions of palace employees, and Scotland Yard was brought in to investigate.

During their investigation, agents eventually happened upon private investigator Mulcaire. They searched his house in August 2006 and found 8,000 pages of notes, along with several hundred recordings of messages he had obtained by hacking into victims' voicemail. Mulcaire was sentenced to six months in prison for illegal wiretapping, and the royals editor was given four months. Coulson resigned as editor-in-chief of News of the World , but not much else happened. The publisher claimed that Mulcaire and the editor had acted alone and without the knowledge of their superiors.

One of the unusual aspects of the case is that the investigation was more or less suspended after Mulcaire's arrest. Hardly anyone was interested in the content of his notes, or in whom he might have been working for. No one took the trouble to further investigate the case and find out who else had used Mulcaire's services, or what the senior editors knew. The authorities were satisfied with the editorial office's assurances that the matter had been resolved.

But one person who never believed that Mulcaire was acting alone was Nick Davies, who has the reputation of being an excellent researcher. For years, Davies had been interested in the shady methods on Fleet Street, where the major newspaper publishers had once had their offices. With the publication of "Flat Earth News" in 2008, Davies made some powerful enemies, especially at News of the World. "They attacked us," he says. Davies was berated as a liar because he had disturbed the peace on Fleet Street.

Murdoch's Empire Falters

Sitting in the court cafeteria, Davies wears his trademark black leather jacket, his thinning white hair combed back across his head. Much has happened since 2008. After his book was published, he was contacted by attorneys who told him that Murdoch's publishing house was trying to silence and obstruct witnesses with out-of-court settlements, and that the scandal was attracting more and more attention. Davies was fascinated.

In July 2009, he wrote about the hush money scandal in the Guardian. He also described how journalists with News of the World and the Sun had illegally hacked into databases to investigate license plates and obtain public figures' addresses. Two of the celebrities were actor Jude Law and his then wife, Sadie Frost. Coulson, faced with growing speculation over his involvement in the scandal, resigned from his position as the government's director of communications in early 2011.

But it wasn't until the Milly Dowler case came to light that Murdoch's empire began to falter. In the summer of 2011, Davies and another reporter wrote a story describing how Mulcaire had tapped into the girl's voicemail for News of the World. This sparked an outcry in the UK, partly because Dowler was not a celebrity or a politician, but a 13-year-old murder victim.

It was a scandal that not even Murdoch could wipe away. It also meant that further details about the inner workings in the paper's editorial offices might come to light. He decided to shut down the 168-year-old newspaper. "It was panic," he said later. The last issue of News of the World appeared on Sunday, July 10, 2011. After that, Murdoch flew to England, apologized to Milly's parents and offered them £2 million in compensation.

Evidence Allegedly Destroyed

For Brooks, it marked the end of an illustrious rise to prominence within the media empire. Murdoch was her mentor. He had promoted her for years, and she had written toasts for him. Murdoch treated Brooks almost like a daughter, even hosting a surprise party for her 40th birthday. Her life, which had been centered entirely on Murdoch and his newspapers, was in ruins. A few days after News of the World closed, Brooks resigned as chief executive of News International.

According to the prosecution, she spent several days before and after her resignation destroying evidence. Among other things, she and several employees allegedly destroyed seven cardboard boxes containing notebooks from 1995 to 2007. Her husband Charlie reportedly helped her, although both deny this is true.

In the chaotic days after the newspaper was shut down, News International hired a security firm to provide Brooks with 24-hour protection. According to the prosecution, the security personnel helped hide computers, letters, a cellphone and a thumb drive from the police, allegedly using a hiding place behind garbage bins in the underground parking garage in the building where Brooks had her London apartment. The security personnel apparently enjoyed the game of hide-and-seek. After the material had been tucked away near the garbage bins, they sent each other conspiratorial text messages, like: "Pizza delivered and the chicken is in the pot."

There was a growing sense of outrage in the UK at the time, directed against Murdoch, his papers and many journalists. An independent investigative inquiry headed by Lord Justice Brian Leveson was appointed to come up with proposals on how to rein in the press. The hearings revealed an embarrassing piece of information, namely that Brooks and Prime Minister Cameron had apparently had a relatively close relationship. Cameron used to ride Brooks' horse, and they had exchanged text messages. During the run-up to his election, Brooks wrote to Cameron that she had "cried twice" during one of his speeches, and that she was looking forward to "working together."

Titillating Story Revealed

Brooks could be called to testify in Courtroom 12 before Christmas. The maximum penalty for illegal telephone wiretapping is two years, but she could also be convicted of bribing public officials and obstruction of justice. She could very well go to prison. In the end, a jury of nine women and three men will decide whether she is guilty.

The trial has already had some unpleasant consequences for Brooks and Coulson. The public prosecutor recently submitted a document as evidence that investigators had found on one of Brooks' computers. It was a love letter to Coulson, apparently written after he tried to end an affair they had been having. According to the prosecution, the relationship lasted at least from 1998 to 2004, at which point both Brooks and Coulson were married to other partners. The tabloid journalists couldn't have come up with a more titillating story for their gossip columns -- a love affair between a former government spokesman and a journalist. The public prosecutor argued that the letter was important evidence in the case, because it showed how trusting the relationship was between Brooks and Coulson at News of the World.

"The fact is you are my very best friend," Brooks wrote at the time. "I tell you everything. I confide in you, I seek your advice, I love you, care about you, worry about you. We laugh and cry together. In fact without our relationship in my life, I am really not sure how I will cope. I'm frightened to be without you." Brooks sat motionlessly in her chair as the prosecutor read excerpts from the letter out loud in the courtroom in late October. She knew what would happen next.

The story about the affair was splashed across front pages the next morning. It was the kind of story Brooks would have liked.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan