Business/Finance

Our Miss Brooks prepares for a visit to the woodshed

So at last one shoe dropped today, and it’s a pretty meaningful one. Rebekah Brooks, former editor of both the News of the World and The Sun, and the former CEO of News International here in the UK, is being charged today with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Along with her husband Charlie, who is usually referred to as “racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks.” Oh, and along with several other News International employees, including the Chief of Security. Specifically, they’ll be charged with attempting to prevent the police from finding a batch of evidence—trying to hide it, essentially. As Sandra Laville over at The Guardian succinctly puts it:

Brooks, one of the most high-profile figures in the newspaper industry, will be charged later on Tuesday with three counts of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in July last year at the height of the police investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced.

She is accused of conspiring with others, including her husband, Charlie Brooks, the racehorse trainer and friend of the prime minister, and her personal assistant, to conceal material from detectives.

Brooks and her husband were informed of the charging decision – the first since the start of the Operation Weeting phone-hacking investigation last January – when they answered their bail at a police station in London on Tuesday morning.

They are among six individuals from News International, along with the company’s head of security, Mark Hanna, to be charged over allegations that they removed material, documents and computers to hide them from officers investigating phone hacking. The charge carries a maximum penalty of life, although the average term served in prison is 10 months.

You will undoubtedly remember we mentioned the computer thing earlier—this relates to that, as well as some other stuff that Brooks and gang tried to conceal from the police. Not very effectively, as it has turned out.

“Perverting the course of justice.” I like that. It has a nice ring to it, a touch of empire, perhaps. It’s so much more elegant than “obstructing justice,” which is the US equivalent. The net effect is the same, though—you attempted to prevent the police from finding stuff out in relation to a criminal inquiry. And it brings up some interesting points.

First, will Brooks try to make a deal? This is an obvious question, but a good one all the same. She clearly knows stuff. She also has a young child at home (not hers—a surrogate, but still.) For that matter, will any of the other six people try to make a deal as well? Or instead? Will we see some version of Prisoner’s Dilemma here? It’s probably the case that no one knows as much as Brooks does. There are actually a number of police investigations currently going on—focusing on either the phone hacking exploits of the media (mostly, but not entirely, News Corp personnel), on email hacking, on unauthorized police leaks, on bribery of the police, and heaven knows what else. I suspect Brooks knows a fair amount about much of this. And if she does make a deal, will it be at the expense of Rupert and/or James? Hard to say. One of the interesting aspects of this whole affair is that so much was done without anyone actually telling anyone what to do. So there’s not much of a paper trail, and what there is has been disputed. Did James see the incriminating memo that his senior executives and lawyers said they showed him? He says no, they say yes, but there’s no hard evidence one way or the other. A lot of this is on that level. But if Brooks starts feeling pressure to make a deal, I imagine all hell will break loose.

Then there are the political implications, because there are some, particularly for David Cameron, who it turns out has been a lot chummier with Brooks than many of us had believed. Whether some of this shows just bad judgment, which would be bad enough, or something of the sense of entitlement Cameron has frequently been accused of, which would be worse, remains unclear. But it’s one thing to have occasional meetings between senior politicians and senior members of the media. That’s sort of normal, and is probably, all things considered, a net contribution to the total sum of human understanding. The loathsome Alistair Campbell yesterday cheerfully admitted to all sorts of contacts between Tony Blair’s government and Murdoch—“Of course we did this,” he said. “Don’t be an idiot,” he implied. It’s another thing entirely to text messages offering support during a criminal inquiry after you’ve become Prime Minister and your good friend Rebekah has just been arrested. This shows no signs of going away as a political embarrassment, and Cameron already has enough on his plate—an economy that refuses to recover, a very restive Conservative back bench, and a startling drop in support at the polls. This is the last thing he needs—but to some extent it’s a self-inflicted wound. As Alex Massie pointed out last week, all of this makes Cameron look, well, weak. Not good.

Then there’s the issue of how this will play in the US, where there are already interested parties attempting to use this, if possible, to get the FCC to make a move on the Murdoch empire under the Foreign Corrupt Businesses Practices act, which has some interesting implications for media ownership. The Brooks story, as I write, is the lead in “The Paper of Record ™,” which is showing some signs of actually paying attention. Now, as we said last time, there are already some US federal agencies looking into this whole affair, including the FBI. But, you know, it’s all been sort of vague, and it’s over here, and it’s not clear whether the story has legs, and so on. Today’s announcement changes that dynamic quite dramatically, I would think. Should Brooks be convicted, it’s very plausible to surmise that the interest level in the various provisions and potential penalties of the Foreign Corrupt Businesses Act would rise dramatically. It’s likely that the Justice Department and the SEC would find themselves being dragged into this, although it might be unwillingly.

Because it has to be said that the current administration has yet to bring a single case against anyone involved in the massive fraud that nearly crashed the financial system back in 2008, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out just the other day. So maybe we shouldn’t get our hopes up here. But even the Obama people, who usually act afraid of their own shadows, may detect the glimmer of an opportunity here. We’re talking about the institutional obstruction of justice, carried out by senior management—the CEO, in fact—of a firm fully controlled by a US company, News Corp, which remains controlled by the family of its major shareholder and owner, Rupert Murdoch. Along with his Chinese secret agent wife. It may reach a point that the Justice Department will feel compelled to act. I imagine that the Obama people are hoping that whatever comes out of this, its implications aren’t clear until we’re past an election year.

Meanwhile, the Leveson Inquiry is proceeding apace, churning up lots of dirt. It may be too early to set the minute hands on the Murdoch Doomsday Clock. But we can probably at least put it up on the wall and get ready.