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February 21, 2014updated 11 May 2016 12:22pm

PR guru Max Clifford tipped-off the News of the World that Countess of Wessex was selling Royal Family access

By Press Gazette

Max Clifford tipped-off the News of the World that the Countess of Wessex’s PR company was selling access to the Royal Family, the hacking trial has heard.

Rebekah Brooks described how the investigation into royal access for business was blown when the letters leaked out.

She said investigative reporter Mazher Mahmood worked on a tip-off via Max Clifford that Sophie’s PR company was selling access to the royal family in 2001.

A former “disgruntled” employee had approached the newspaper alleging that the countess and her business partner were using the royal connection to boost their business.

The journalist set about posing as a Sheikh in need of PR at a huge cost to the News of the World, the court was told.

There was laughter in the courtroom when Brooks said: “He would live the true life of a wealthy Sheikh. He would have a Bentley and a penthouse suite. He always told me it was imperative.”

After the lengthy investigation, Brooks was presented with the results and she concluded that although it complied with the editors’ code of conduct from the start, it had not proved the allegation that the Countess had personally offered access.

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Brooks decided not to run the story and instead rang Buckingham Palace to make a deal.

An agreement was struck for an interview with Sophie in exchange for dumping the Fake Sheikh story.

It was the first interview since her marriage so a good deal for the paper, she said.

She told the court: “In the meantime, the Countess of Wessex, having been told by us, had realised that during the course of trying to get Maz as a client she had been horribly indiscreet about members of the royal family and politicians and obviously remembered what she said.

“So she wrote to everybody involved. She was particularly mean about Tony Blair and Cherie, William Hague, so she wrote these letters.”

But the letters leaked out and “became a justification for running the original story” although it was more about the embarrassing remarks, she told the court.

A story about the letters also appeared in the Mail on Sunday.

Brooks told the jury: “The time in which I approached the palace and negotiated the interview and then did the interview, as the Countess of Wessex is writing letters, it is being discussed in the palace, what had happened.

“I’m assuming someone from the palace leaked this to the Mail on Sunday, but that’s an assumption. If it was us and the palace that knew.”

Afterwards, Brooks wrote to the head of the investigations unit, Greg Miskiw, saying: “We have got to learn some lessons from Sophie.

“As I said, all our entrapment and subterfuge must be justified 110%. We have to (sic) so careful and make sure everything we do is inside the law.

“I know Sophie was 110% justified in every way and our methods were right and proper. We must continue this standard with all our investigations.”

Asked why she would have sent that email, Brooks told the court that there had been “a lot of things said” about the operation that were not true.

She said: “Because I had had particular involvement in this, I was quite cross because I felt that at every stage in the Countess of Wessex investigation we had adhered to the code and used the public interest exceptions and had behaved responsibly on the actual final decision, did we have enough of a story?”

All of the defendants deny the charges.

The trial continues.

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

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