Vitriolic media coverage which portrayed Rebekah Brooks as a “figure of hate” made it impossible for her to receive a fair trial, her lawyer Angus McBride has alleged.
Speaking at a panel discussion in London, McBride, of Kingsley Napley solicitors, argued for defence lawyers to take more action to counteract prejudicial media coverage in advance of high-profile trials.
Former News of the World editor Brooks was found not guilty in June, after an eight-month trial, of conspiracy to: hack phones, pervert the course of justice and commit misconduct in a public office.
McBride said she was acquitted despite the fact that prejudicial publicity “created a real risk of a miscarriage of justice”.
And he hit back at the widely-reported suggestion that Brooks and her co-defendants had an unfair advantage because the defence vastly outspent the prosecution in terms of legal fees.
McBride said: "It has both amused and irritated me to see the reporting about the lack of resource in terms of the state as against the News UK-funded defence. The power of the state in any criminal prosecution is immense. In this case, there were 150-odd police officers involved in the investigation, five barristers, a plethora of Crown Prosecution Service lawyers and paralegals.
“The Left when seeing a bete noir prosecuted always seem to forget the power of the state institutions particularly when they are doing their bidding. Their resources often completely overwhelmed my team of four solicitors, four paralegals and three counsel.
“There were on average a team of police officers of that size in court everyday with tens back in Putney waiting on instructions.”
On the question of prejudicial pre-trial publicity, he noted in particular the fact that Brooks was compelled to appear before Parliamentary and the Leveson Inquiry shortly after her arrest.
During the Leveson Inquiry, of 2011/2012, he noted that she was condemned as "a criminal in chief" by one witness (without opportunity to cross-examine or counter).
And he condemned the “lamentable decision” of the Crown Prosecution Service to charge a number of co-defendants with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice before Charlie Brooks’ computer had been analysed by police.
He said: “An ounce of emotional intelligence would have seen to them. The CPS has become depressingly politicised and polarised, apparently bending to any pressure.”
McBride noted that foreign news reports made “libellous and outrageous allegations” against Brooks in the run-up to the trial and that she also faced a campaign of “untrammelled and uncontrolled vitriol in social media”.
McBride said that comment from satirical magazines and television programmes, in particular Private Eye and Have I Got News for You, also made it harder for Brooks to have a fair trial.
And he said that the Brooks prosecution itself was not based on evidence, but was "fuelled by the vitriol outside the court door”.
He said: “As my team trawled through the pages and pages of abuse it was clear what the perfect storm had created. A figure of hate.”
McBride added: “It still amazes me that Rebekah Brooks was able to turn up for her trial on the first day and every day thereafter, engage with the process and not entirely break down. Put yourself as an innocent person in that situation and think about how you would react.
"Those accused of criminal offences experience feelings close to that of bereavement. Life becomes completely overcome with the stress and distress, anger and fear that prosecution by the state can bring. In her case it was not a case of analysing forensic or witness evidence where the jury could be directed to focus on the evidence itself. This was going to depend on their view of her.
"The Crown's case was inferential. It is a terrifying prospect for any innocent person and putting aside the fact that it was Rebekah Brooks facing this for a moment. No one should have to face this fear before their trial. The fear that whatever the condition of the evidence, they cannot receive a fair trial.”
McBride drew particular reference to the Private Eye front page which appeared “in all its sniggering glory” on the first day of the Brooks trial, 28 October 2013.
Despite the fact that Brooks was ultimately acquitted, McBride said: “I still believe there was a real risk of a miscarriage of justice here, not only because of at times the way the prosecution case was presented and disclosed but also because of the uncontrolled prejudice surrounding the trial.”
He said it was now impossible to control pre-trial publicity, so instead he called for greater engagement between defence lawyers and reporters.
And he called for a relaxation of reporting restrictions to allow public analysis by the defence of the evidence on which a charging decision has been made.
In the Brooks case he said this would have highlighted the fact that Charlie Brooks was charged with hiding evidence for Rebekah before police had reviewed his computer and found all the material on it belonged to him.
McBride also said that defendants and their legal teams should be allowed to blog and tweet during pre-trial hearings.
He said: “The courts cannot now control what the public sees, reads, hears or thinks pre trial. Information is now communicated in a free and anarchic manner. There will be increased pressure on defendants in higher profile cases to come up with new and inventive ways of counteracting negative publicity and creating an environment in which they feel that at least they have done what they can to ensure that they have a fair trial and that the court of public opinion, the trial by twitter the fifth estate has not already condemned them. No one else is going to do it for them.
“I certainly hope that we will be able to get to a stage where defendants will not have to feel as Rebekah Brooks did at the beginning of her trial that she had reached it on an uneven playing field, where the state was supposed to protect the integrity of the process, but had not only failed to do so but contributed to the prejudice.”