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The Cost to Taxpayers of Britain’s Phone-Hacking Trial

After Tuesday’s verdict in Britain’s phone-hacking case, Twitter users were asking about the public cost of the seven-month-long trial while political commentators were criticizing it. Several news organizations have weighed in with either general or hypothetical estimates, so we thought we should try to put a finer point on the actual costs — specifically the costs borne by British taxpayers.

The trial, which began in London in October, has rocked the political elite as well as Murdoch’s media empire, News Corp., which includes the Fox Entertainment Group and The Wall Street Journal. After deliberating for two weeks, the jury found Andy Coulson guilty of conspiring to hack phones while he was editor of the News of the World tabloid. (Coulson has strong ties to Prime Minister David Cameron, who appointed him in 2010 to be director of communications to the British government.) The jury acquitted Rebekah Brooks, the former head of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper holdings in Britain, of all charges.

In October, the Daily Mail estimated that the public cost of the trial would be “hundreds of thousands of pounds.” Early on Wednesday, the tabloid drastically increased its estimate, saying the scandal cost the public purse as much as 41.1 million pounds ($69.8 million). The total cost of the trial, including the legal costs incurred by News Corp., was estimated to be 95 million pounds ($161 million). There’s been a lot of confusion about these two numbers. For example, Peter Jukes, an independent journalist who has reported from the courtroom every day of the trial, said the Mail’s total cost estimate overstated the public cost.

We contacted the three major British government agencies involved in the trial to help clarify the costs to taxpayers for a trial that has been called “one of the longest and most expensive in British legal history.”

The British Metropolitan Police told us Tuesday about the costs related to three of the five major operations into allegations of phone hacking: Operation Weeting, Operation Elveden and Operation Tuleta. In total, those operations cost 20.3 million pounds ($34.4 million). That number appears to have come from a Freedom of Information Act request, which the police responded to in February. The response shows that those figures do not include legal costs and that they have not been updated since Dec. 31, 2013.

The document also shows that 148 officers and 26 staff members were assigned to the three investigations, which resulted in 140 arrests and 60 charges.

Police investigations also incurred costs with the Crown Prosecution Service, the main prosecuting authority in England and Wales. CPS told us that it had an internal hacking team dedicated to the trial, which was made up of one to eight personnel at any given time, as well as five core members in court. This is the breakdown the CPS gave us on its costs related to the trial, up to May 31:

  • Operation Weeting (CPS staff costs): 279,150.50 pounds
  • Operation Sacha (CPS staff costs): 54,683.72 pounds
  • Operation Elveden (CPS staff costs): 157,295.73 pounds
  • Counsel fees: 1,157,366.36 pounds
  • Expert fees: 10,562.00 pounds
  • Electronic presentation of evidence costs: 85,829.63 pounds
  • Hearing transcripts and photocopying: 864.64 pounds
    Total costs: 1,745,752.58 pounds ($2,964,331.52)

Next, we contacted Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice, which administers the court system. It told us that it doesn’t have specific costs for the phone-hacking trial but pointed us to a parliamentary question about the average administrative cost of a public trial. On Oct. 14, the secretary of state for Justice provided average staffing and judicial costs for each day a crown court is sitting to consider a case. In the phone-hacking trial, the court was in session for about 130 days between Oct. 28 and June 11, when the jury retired to reach its verdict.

If the phone-hacking trial were similar to an average hearing, that would mean that the court costs would have been 1,603 pounds x 130 days = 208,390 pounds ($353,851). However the Courts and Tribunals Service made it clear that this trial would have been far more costly than those average figures suggest.

Based on the responses of those three main bodies, the total public cost of the trial so far (verdicts have been reached but Coulson has yet to be sentenced) is, at the very minimum, 22.2 million pounds ($37.7 million).

An indirect but related cost of the trial was the Leveson Inquiry, a judicial public inquiry into the British press which was announced by the prime minister in 2011 after fresh allegations emerged against News Corp. The inquiry, funded by two government departments, lasted a year and four months, and cost taxpayers 5.4 million pounds ($9.2 million).

So, it’s clear from even conservative estimates that this has been an expensive and messy criminal trial.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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