LONDON — She rose from being a secretary in Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper empire to running it. She called prime ministers her friends. Then she found herself in the middle of one of the most riveting trials in years, accused of illegally intercepting voice mails and other crimes, alongside her husband and her former deputy, who it turned out, was also her lover.
And Tuesday, in the latest twist in her extraordinary saga, Rebekah Brooks, the protagonist of Britain’s phone hacking trial, who more than any other defendant had come to symbolize the freewheeling tabloid press and its proximity to power, was acquitted of all charges against her.
Her former lover, Andy Coulson, who succeeded her as editor at the now-defunct Sunday tabloid at the heart of the hacking scandal and who later became a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron, was found guilty of a conspiracy to intercept voice mails. Of the seven defendants in the case, Coulson was the only one to be convicted Tuesday; the jury has yet to decide on two other charges against Coulson, who faces a maximum of two years in prison for hacking, and another defendant.
That single conviction belied the outsize impact of a yearslong saga that produced parliamentary hearings, humbled Murdoch, led to a new media law, and spurred a cleanup of the worst practices in tabloid newsrooms.
The trial embarrassed many in Britain’s media and political establishment, inducing additional political heartburn for Cameron, who apologized publicly Tuesday for having hired Coulson as one of his top aides in 2007. Testimony in the trial revealed that former prime minister Tony Blair offered to act as an “unofficial adviser” to Brooks after she was implicated in the case.
Tense and at times tawdry, the trial has also exposed in great detail the inner workings of British tabloid journalism — the six-figure price tags paid for celebrity scoops, the scavenging in trash cans and the systematic eavesdropping on the cellphones of celebrities, sports stars, politicians, members of the royal family, and others caught up in the news.
Brooks and Coulson, both 46, were close colleagues and friends who rose from scrappy tabloid newsrooms to become members of the London elite. Part of the prosecution’s case was that their relationship was so intimate that they would have shared what they knew about how their newspapers were operating, including the phone hacking. But in the jury room, their parallel careers diverged with finality.
He was found to have admitted enough knowledge of what was going on that he could be convicted on at least one charge of conspiracy to intercept cellphone calls and messages. She apparently managed to convince the jury that she was sufficiently removed from it that it was possible she was unaware.
When the verdict was read and Brooks was cleared of charges related to phone hacking, hiding evidence, and bribing public officials for information, she appeared to be overcome by emotion and was led away by a court official. Coulson clenched his jaw, then took a deep breath and stared straight ahead.
During the trial, the jury heard that Coulson commented “brilliant” when a journalist played him an intercepted voice mail left for James Bond star Daniel Craig by actress Sienna Miller. When a reporter was working on a story about Calum Best, a television celebrity, Coulson told him to “do his phone.”
Prosecutors had presented phone data confirming widespread hacking during Coulson’s editorship of News of the World from 2003 to 2007. There was far less evidence of hacking from 2000 to 2003, when Brooks was in charge.
The most controversial instance of hacking, however, did occur on her watch, in 2002: News of the World intercepted the voice mail of a kidnapped teenager, Milly Dowler, who was later found dead. When The Guardian disclosed the hacking in 2011, it galvanized public outrage at unscrupulous tabloid practices and helped pave the way to the trial.
During the week in question in 2002, however, Brooks was on vacation and her then-deputy, Coulson, was in charge. The prosecution failed to convince the jury that as Coulson’s boss and on-and-off lover, Brooks must have known.
Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism at City University in London, said many in Britain had expected her to be convicted.
“People will be outraged that the prosecution couldn’t make a good enough case,” he said.