For 130 days, the phone-hacking trial gripped Britain, and Peter Jukes sat through every minute of it.
Livetweeting from inside the courtroom, Jukes relayed the testimonies of countless celebrities, journalists, and assorted other stringers of media companies on Twitter. His tweets arrived so rapidly that his account was even suspended by Twitter for suspected spamming. Jukes didn’t let up, even going so far as crowdfunding his living costs to be able to focus on the trial.
The trial was based around allegations against News International, the Rupert Murdoch-owned media company, charging that employees of the corporation may have hacked into the voicemails of prominent figures, including murder victims, members of the Royal Family, and celebrities such as Sienna Miller, Jude Law, and Elle Macpherson. These hacked messages then allegedly formed parts of exclusive articles, and the hackers were reportedly paid well for it, with one allegedly earning more than £400,000 ($679,944 U.S.).
On Tuesday, the jury announced that former CEO of News International Rebekah Brooks was found not guilty on all counts. Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World, who then went on to work for the Prime Minister as director of communications, was found guilty on one count.
For Jukes, covering the trial in such painstaking detail was a personal matter.
“I’d been following the phone hacking scandal since it erupted three years ago, when Guardian investigative reporter Nick Davies exposed the five years of cover-up, and the hacking of the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler,” Jukes said via email. “Since I’d worked in various aspects of the media for 25 years, the News of the World closure seemed to me a prime example of how media, politics and business connect. I knew I had to cover this trial in some way—if only to update my book with new evidence.”
Sacrificing months to one trial had its challenges. Jukes was not assigned to a paper or news agency; he was doing this on his own, which raised serious financial concerns. As a result, he had to turn to the Internet and crowdfunding site Indiegogo.
“I already had some experience of seeking funding for projects on social media,” he said. “I’d crowdsourced my previous book through the innovative new publisher Unbound, and managed to kick start a musical I am co-writing with the composer Marcos D’Cruze—Mrs Gucci. The decision to crowdfund my coverage of the phone hacking trial, however, wasn’t calculated in advance. I didn’t know I could livetweet it all. And when I did, and people asked me if I would be there for the duration, I realised I couldn’t afford to stay there without financial help.
“For the first round of crowdfunding—launched a few days into the trial, the judge announced we could livetweet everything—I used Indiegogo, and was amazed to see the target met within half a day. By that time I had 10,000 or so followers, clearly interested in the trial and hooked on live reporting. They were a captive market in retrospect, and it was a very unusual situation of restricted access to the court, and an absence of cameras. I’m not sure it easily be replicated.”
With the first round closed so soon, Jukes opened a second wave in the new year, this time raising another £16,000 ($27,212 U.S.).
“On the second occasion I deliberately dropped the entry level support to £2 ($3.40), and had hundreds of small donors,” Jukes recalled. “But the main support came from individuals who contributed £100 ($170) or more. Some of these are well known actors, lawyers, campaigners, but I am committed to maintaining their privacy. But by far the largest amounts came from members of the public I’ve never met, never heard of, all of whom were keen on me providing my services free for everyone else.”
The practicalities around livetweeting British trials are difficult. Unlike U.S. courts, almost none of the cases in the U.K. are filmed, and very little is allowed to escape the courtroom itself.
“You need a press card to bring phones or laptops into the building,” Jukes elaborated. “For the hacking trial you needed a special ticket, allocated in advance. And livetweeting the trial was unexpected. Most judges have, historically, only allowed journalists to file during breaks.
“I reported from two places: the press overspill court or annex where you could talk to other journalists, confirm notes and quotes, and the screens showing evidence were large and clear. But the seats there were pile-inducing. Upstairs in the main court, the chairs were more plush, but the acoustics were terrible. I’d also gotten into the habit of reacting to evidence: not a good idea if the judge, jury and defendants are only feet away.
Jukes struggled with reception throughout the trial, especially after a 12-story building was erected that blocked local masts, he said. One week he found himself unable to tweet.
“I kept on getting ‘locked out’ of my Twitter account because the number of tweets I was issuing look like a spam account (I’d hit over 300 most days),” he ssaid. “But I asked my followers to retweet a complaint to Twitter support, and the head of U.K. news was quickly in contact and sorted out the problem. “
Now that the verdicts have been announced and the jury has been dismissed, Jukes isn’t sure what will come next for him, though he’d consider a full-time job as a social media reporter. He’ll also be launching a book containing a lot from the trial that couldn’t be aired while it was ongoing.
“It is contempt of court to publish pretrial legal arguments, backstage drama, discussions about media coverage and witnesses, or any information that never came in evidence before the jury,” he said. “The book is place I can reveal all these things—everything I couldn’t tweet. And it’s a phenomenal story. This has been one of the most hard fought, expensive, prolonged and high stakes trials in British history."