If Rupert Murdoch was hoping for a quick end to the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, he won't be pleased by yesterday’s decision not to put Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson on trial until September 9 next year.
Worse still, if his two former editors go into the dock at London's Old Bailey with convicted hacker Glenn Mulcaire and five other ex-NotW journalists -- charged with conspiracy to unlawfully intercept communications -- the case could easily throw up damaging headlines for weeks and months after that.
By Christmas 2013, perhaps, the eight accused will finally know their fate, and be contemplating it from prison, or celebrating their escape with family and friends. But others will then follow.
First cab off the rank is likely to be a separate trial for Brooks and her husband, Charlie, plus her PA, chauffeur, security guard and the former head of security at News International, on charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. But that won’t be the last either.
The Metropolitan Police have now arrested 79 people in three linked investigations -- operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta -- into phone hacking (at the NotW), corrupt payments to police by journalists (at The Sun and the NotW), and computer hacking by private eyes (working mainly for The Sun). But so far only 13 of these people have been charged. Several more cases are currently being looked at by the Crown Prosecution Service which, according to the Met’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, is "making decisions all the time". Many of these are likely to be current or former reporters on Murdoch's favourite tabloid The Sun, since they make up about half the 46 journalists arrested by police since mid-2011.
That will put yet more pressure on Rupert and his son, James, who was CEO of the British newspapers (including The Sun and NotW) from December 2007 until September 2009, and executive chairman for more than two years after that.
Meanwhile, the Met will pull out all the stops to get Brooks and Coulson behind bars, so they can justify the huge amount of effort and money spent on getting them to court. So far, the total cost of running Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta is £9 million, but it is forecast to top £40 million by the time the investigations are wound up in 2015. Akers told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee three weeks ago that there are now 185 police officers and civilians working on the job and the priority is to get cases into court and get a result.
It will be no comfort to Rebekah Brooks and her ex-boss that Akers provided the inspiration for Helen Mirren's steely DCI Jane Tennison in the famous Granada TV series Prime Suspect. Unmarried at 55, and famous for chasing corruption in the police force, Akers shocked the Leveson inquiry by claiming there was "a culture at The Sun of illegal payments" and that "systems" had been created at the newspaper "to facilitate such payments whilst hiding the identity of the officials receiving the money".
Talk of "systems" doesn’t quite fit in with the trusty Murdoch defence of "one rogue reporter" that was relied on for so long in the phone-hacking scandal.
Akers told Leveson that one Sun journalist drew more than £150,000 from the paper over the years to pay his sources -- hardly an amount one could hide. She also claimed The Sun had also established "a network of corrupt officials", keeping some of them on a regular retainer.
"The cases we are investigating are not ones involving the odd drink, or meal, to police officers or other public officials," Akers told Leveson. "These are cases ... involving the delivery of regular, frequent and sometimes significant sums of money to small numbers of public officials by journalists."
If any of these corruption cases comes to court, it will be fascinating to hear about those payment "systems" and about who at News International knew, or should have known, what was happening.
In similar vein, next September's phone-hacking trial may throw some light on the chain of command and subsequent cover up at the News of the World. One of the journalists facing trial with Brooks and Coulson, former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, has long made it clear that he is unlikely to go quietly. He turned down an offer of immunity from the police last year, claiming that investigations would clear him, but he may be tempted to rethink his decision as the trial draws near.
In 2009, Thurlbeck sent a memo to the NotW's in-house lawyer Tom Crone (who was himself arrested last month) accusing the NotW news editor and news desk of giving the order to hack into voicemails belonging to Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers’ Association. Thurlbeck’s memo was accompanied by a secretly recorded tape of a fellow journalist, supposedly demonstrating this. A couple of days later, Crone appeared before a House of Commons committee and told MPs there was no evidence that hacking at the NotW extended beyond royal correspondent Clive Goodman, the famed "rogue reporter".
Crone and his superiors at News International -- including Rebekah Brooks, James and Rupert Murdoch -- continued to repeat this mantra for the next two years until they were finally forced to admit it was a lie.
Since then, as we reported recently, James has been awarded a $US5 million cash bonus for his performance during 2011-12 and been accused of incompetence by Britain’s TV regulator Ofcom, which described his conduct in the phone-hacking saga as "both difficult to comprehend and ill-judged ... on a number of occasions".
The latest development, confirmed by News Corp’s Wall Street Journal, is that Rupert’s boy will soon be promoted to run Fox Networks, or everything TV in the US apart from the Murdochs’ appalling Fox News.
His impending elevation brought an incredulous response from former New York governor and attorney-general Elliot Spitzer, who is chasing the US Department of Justice for not prosecuting News under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. "Do the folks who run News Corp really believe James Murdoch should be in charge of the TV operations?" Spitzer asked. "Have they read the record that clearly suggests that Murdoch either participated in this activity or wilfully ignored what he was being told? The guy wouldn't be permitted out of a management trainee course in any company I've been involved in."
The answer, of course, is that Rupert has read Ofcom’s damning verdict (and the even more scathing report from the House of Commons’ media committee) but doesn’t care. With 39% of the voting shares in News Corp, he can do (and generally does) what he wants, especially when it comes to giving jobs to (or buying assets from) his children.
In three weeks, at the News Corp AGM in LA on October 16, there will be fresh attempts to rein him in, by removing James and Lachlan from the board, abolishing the dual share structure, and separating the roles of CEO and chairman, both of which he currently holds. But the moves have little or no chance of succeeding. Similar resolutions were supported last year by about two-thirds of News Corp’s independent shareholders, yet Rupert still runs the $50 billion corporation like it has his own corner shop, despite the fact that he and his family only own 12% of the company.
As the leader of last year’s revolt, Julie Tanner of Christian Brothers Investment Services, observed this week:
"While we are disappointed -- and frankly, somewhat amazed -- by this move [James’ promotion], I also hope it sheds some light on the importance of voting for our resolution to appoint an independent chair at the News Corp AGM. This is a clear example of the need for improved corporate governance at the company.
"This move proves that Rupert Murdoch is running News Corp solely for the benefit of the Murdoch family."