It’s been two years since the Phone Hacking scandal broke. Today, leading members of the Chipping Norton Set (the wealthy media and political community of Oxfordshire) face trial on a string of charges including phone hacking, conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and making illegal payments to officials. As much as this case will expose the dodgy practises of a monopolised media, it will shine a light on the incestuous nature of this privileged group, leading right up to No. 10 Downing Street.
All in it Together
The network of relationships in this debacle almost needs reading twice to be believed. So who are the main characters? I will not rehearse the whole phone hacking backstory here, but if you’d like a refresher – here you go.
Rebekah and Charlie Brooks
Rebekah Brooks rose from state school to become the youngest editor of a national newspaper at the age of just 32. As Editor of The Sun, she published the names of suspected paedophiles and threw her weight behind ‘Sarah’s Law’ – a legal change to mirror Megan’s Law in the US, whereby people are legally permitted information on sex offenders living in their area.
She is considered one of the world’s finest networkers, finding the right people for whom to do unforgettable favours. Her friends include the present and former Prime Ministers:
- Brooks became close to former PM Tony Blair and his wife Cherie (describing him as a ‘constant presence’ in her life for many years, at Leveson), and their chief spin doctor Alistair Campbell.
- Sarah Brown (wife of PM Gordon Brown) used to have her over for sleepovers at Chequers.
- Over 150 text messages exchanged between Prime Minister David Cameron and Brooks were handed over during the Leveson Inquiry. These revealed the PM had often gone horse riding with Brooks, that he signed off texts ‘LOL’, until Brooks informed him this meant ‘Laugh Out Loud’ and not ‘Lots of Love’, and that he had expressed a sadness that he could not support her more publicly. The Camerons had often shared Christmas dinners with the Brooks’, even after entering Downing Street. In fact, even as the scandal was breaking, Cameron attended a Christmas party at Brooks’ home.
She has been described as Rupert Murdoch’s fifth daughter. There were even rumblings that Murdoch’s real daughter Elisabeth may well have picked the moment of the phone hacking scandal to ‘off’ a potential rival for her father’s affections and patronage. By last Summer however, it looked like Elisabeth was granting Brooks re-entry into the exclusive Chipping Norton Set of wealth and power – accepting an invitation to dinner with Brooks and her husband Charlie at their home.
Brooks denies all knowledge of phone hacking at News International. She resigned her position as Head of News International in July 2011 after mounting pressure (and apparently that Elisabeth Murdoch intervention) – vowing her innocence in the matter. She was arrested twice before being charged, along with five others in November 2012, over payments to police and public officials, phone hacking and perverting the course of justice. You can read the full charge sheet here. Brooks is pleading not guilty to all charges.
Charlie Brooks – or Charles Patrick Evelyn Brooks, to give him his full title – is a socialite, described by Vanity Fair as an ‘international playboy’. When Charlie married Rebekah on June 13th 2009, attendees included then PM Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah, the Cameron’s, The Murdochs, and George and Frances Osborne.
Charlie is going to be sharing the dock with his wife after a laptop and ipad were found by a cleaner, in a bin, in the underground carpark of he and Rebekah’s Chelsea home. Brooks attempted to retrieve the computers but the police got a hold of them first. Police later charged the couple with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, the inference being the couple sought to destroy evidence.
In the earlier stages of the case, the Brook’s received legal advice from Three Raymond Buildings, the chambers headed by David Cameron’s brother – Alexander Cameron QC. Alexander Cameron attended the exclusive Eton Boys College alongside Rebekah Brooks’ husband Charlie, now a racehorse trainer. In a November 2009 article for GQ entitled ‘The Eton Factor’ Charlie Brooks wrote of Alexander Cameron QC ““Alex Cameron QC is the star of our pack. I thought he’d do well in politics but it was to the bar that he went. He was so young when he took silk, he practically still had his milk teeth.”
The Brooks’ will be defended in court by John Kelsey-Fry. Kelsey (as he is known to other barristers) has made a name for himself in recent years defending Roman Polanski, Harry Redknapp, Chris Huhne and a host of other high profile cases.
Andy Coulson is also state educated, growing up in Wickford, Essex – and rising from the Basildon Evening Echo to Editor of News of the World between 1986 and 2003. He stayed there until resigning in 2007, after NotW royal reporter Clive Goodman was found guilty of phone hacking. The Goodman case was the precursor for later fiasco – Goodman was sold by the defence as a rogue reporter, the Murdoch’s paid his legal fees and he kept quiet on the fact that he was merely partaking in business as usual in the News of the World offices.
Coulson had, however, used his time at the News of the World to perform a Brooks style unforgettable favour…and it was about to get repaid.
In 1994, future Chancellor George Osborne was photographed at a party, with his arm around a prostitute called Natalie Rowe, sitting as a table full of drinks, fags and cocaine. In October 2005, Natalie Rowe came forward to release the picture and her story to the press. Rowe sold her story to the Sunday Mirror. However, to the surprise of Rowe and the Mirror, Andy Coulson broke the story in a leader column in the News of the World. Not only that, but the story was spun in a manner entirely sympathetic to Osborne, stating that he was ‘a young man when he found himself in a murky world’. Rowe’s lawyers allege that Coulson stole the story by hacking her phone, and used it to gain leverage with the future chancellor.
And lo, on news of his resignation from the News of the World – Andy Coulson became Director of Communications at Downing Street, despite recently resigning in shame so recently. He was recruited on the recommendation of none other than George Osborne.
The Chipping Norton Set on Trial
So, today’s trial is about corruption. The corruption that allowed the News of the World to act with impunity for so long, and which has arguably meant that even in this scenario – the ultimate parties responsible, the Murdoch family, have been dealt with kid gloves. They’ve renamed their Sunday paper, missed out on the BskyB bid, but retain every bit the political and economic clout they had before the exposure. Goodman, Brooks, Coulson, and the others are the pawns, the rooks and the bishops…the public are a long way from getting a check mate on the circle jerk of wealth, privilege and power that is The Chipping Norton Set. For now.
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