'Alcoholic aberrations' and bad novels about secret Russian hookers
Charlie Brooks's charm shouldn't distract from the phone-hacking trial and its fallout, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
OUR own Peter Sutherland, chairman of Goldman Sachs International, whose stellar career took off here in 1981 as the youngest-ever Attorney-General, turned up briefly in Court 12 of the Old Bailey last Monday, sitting among the press. Charlie Brooks, second husband of Rebekah, the former News International chief executive, was giving evidence, and Jeremy Clarkson, an old friend of Brooks's, was in the public gallery.
Brooks livened up proceedings no end. Charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, he was pressed on his motives in concealing from police items including laptops and DVDs at a time when his wife had been arrested and the police were searching their flat. At times, one was reminded of Inspector Clouseau, for Brooks had apparently been too drunk to remember that embarrassing material he had asked security to look after temporarily had been returned to the basement car park, where it was spotted by a cleaner and given to police before he sought to retrieve it.
Blaming an "alcoholic aberration" for his odd behaviour that night, Brooks explained to the prosecuting barrister: "I'd drunk three bottles of wine, which may not be a lot to you," which caused the judge to intervene to ask that he "avoid personal statements". Judges can be frightful killjoys.
From the start of his three days of evidence, Brooks showed that he had imbued well the Etonian culture of charming self-deprecation; he elicited chuckles in his account of his ups-and-downs as a jockey, trainer, journalist and businessman. He had also taken to writing thrillers and on one of the laptops had a re-draft of a novel that had attracted "a withering response" from the publishers.
There were also on the computer other book ideas, including one in which "a Hooray Henry had fallen in love with a Russian hooker. He didn't realise she was a hooker. Behaviourally, she had the temperament of a nice Roedean girl".
Brooks didn't want to lose any of this by having his laptop confiscated, he explained, and there was also the embarrassment that, having been a bachelor during much of this time, "I think it's fair to say there was quite a lot of smut on it as well". And there were embarrassing lesbian DVDs.
Brooks flatly denied the prosecution's contention that he was trying to hide evidence that could damage his wife. On the contrary, believing that police were leaking to the Guardian and from there to the Labour MP Tom Watson, a scourge of News International who "hates my wife", Brooks said he was desperate to avoid her having the humiliation of "a Jacqui Smith moment". This was a reference to the press coverage when the husband of a former Home Secretary – who worked as her parliamentary assistant – was found to have included two pornographic films on her expenses claim. Rebekah was very vulnerable at the time, terrified about a dawn raid and a "killer photo": that of "being led away from your home or Heathrow, handcuffed, surrounded by police. You are never going to get another job".
This was a neat reminder of the context of this trial. Many politicians have been victims of the press, fairly and unfairly. In 2009, when the London Daily Telegraph paid £110,000 (€133,000) for stolen parliamentarians' expenses claims showing widespread actual or apparent misuse of the rules, there were sackings, resignations, de-selections and prosecutions and a sharp growth in public contempt for politicians and in politicians' hatred of the press.
Simultaneously, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his supporters had become bitter enemies of Rupert Murdoch when he changed his allegiance from Labour to the Conservatives. Consequently, when the scandal of phone-hacking surfaced and the Leveson Inquiry revealed all kinds of tabloid excesses, the press had few political defenders, Murdoch closed down the News of the World, and the police, who had previously been over-friendly with journalists, charged six of its ex-employees (along with Charlie Brooks) variously with phone-hacking, paying public servants for information and concealing material.
Coincidentally, the press is awash with stories of police corruption. And last week, the unimpressive British Culture Secretary Maria Miller grudgingly and under duress apologised to the House of Commons for obstructing an expenses investigation by its independent watchdog. She had been instructed to repay £45,000 (€54,500) but MPs on the Standards Committee reduced this to £5,800 (€7,000). Miller is in charge of trying to push through a system of press regulation hated by most of the press, who next month are setting up their own rival, so this is a godsend and the criticism of her, of Cameron for not firing her and of MPs for protecting her, is vicious.
Charlie Brooks's occasionally amusing evidence doesn't obscure the bleak truth that in Britain, old allies like police, politicians and the press seem to be in a war to the death.