After a year of furious controversy over the widespread phone hacking by one of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid newspapers, British prosecutors brought criminal charges on Tuesday against eight of the most prominent figures in the scandal, including Andy Coulson, who was Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications chief at 10 Downing Street until the scandal forced his resignation last year.
Also charged was Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of Murdoch’s newspaper empire in Britain until she, too, resigned last summer. Others who were indicted include five journalists who played prominent roles at the News of the World, the tabloid where Brooks and later Coulson were the top editors at the time that the hacking is alleged to have occurred, from 2000 to 2006.
The criminal charges — and the possibility of prison terms if prosecutors win convictions — are a sharp turning point in the affair, adding the drama of high-profile trials to a saga that has already thrown the worlds of politics, policing and journalism in Britain into a prolonged fit of self-examination and shaken the foundations of the Murdoch empire.
The eighth person charged was Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who served a prison term in 2007, together with the News of the World’s reporter specialising in coverage of Britain’s royal family, for hacking into the cellphones of younger members of the royal family and their aides. Those convictions remain the only ones so far in the hacking furor.
After Tuesday’s announcement by Alison Levitt, the senior legal adviser at the Crown Prosecution Service, headlines in Britain focused on Coulson and Brooks, both of whom have strong personal links to Cameron —Coulson through his years at Cameron’s side, in and out of government, and Brooks because of the friendship she and her husband, Charlie Brooks, had with Cameron before the scandal erupted.
Political analysts said the fact that the two now face criminal trials that seem certain to run on at least through the next year, attracting wide news coverage, posed a potentially serious hazard to the prime minister. With a general election due in 2015, the analysts said, Cameron and the Conservative Party are now potentially vulnerable to any new revelations that might emerge from the trials, in the form of hitherto unpublished emails or testimony touching on the prime minister’s dealings with Coulson or Brooks.
The prime minister’s judgment in the affair — particularly his recruiting of Coulson as the Conservative Party’s media chief in 2007, and his decision to take him to Downing Street after the 2010 election, long after the hacking that took place on Coulson’s watch at the News of the World became known — is already a major dent in Cameron’s political armor. He has also faced extensive questioning as to whether his close relations with the Murdoch elite have skewed government policy favourably toward the media mogul.
With a bloc of about 100 Conservative members of Parliament already deeply restive about other aspects of his stewardship as prime minister, mostly because of the political compromises he has struck on important social and economic issues with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, junior partners in the ruling coalition, the criminal charges against Coulson, in particular, seem likely to intensify questions that Conservative dissenters have been raising about his judgment.
The charges, the most significant so far in a scandal that has rocked British public life and shaken faith in the media, politics and the police, relate to allegations that hundreds of celebrities, politicians and others named in news stories had their voice mail messages intercepted by The News of the World in a search of scoops. They refer specifically to more than a dozen high-profile figures, including the actors Jude Law, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who prosecutors say were targeted between 2000 and 2006.
Other well-known figures listed by Levitt, the prosecutor, as having been targeted include Sir Paul McCartney and his former wife, Heather Mills; the actresses Sienna Miller and Sadie Frost; Wayne Rooney, perhaps Britain’s best-known professional soccer player; Sven-Goran Eriksson, a Swede who is England’s former soccer manager; four former Labour party cabinet ministers, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, Tessa Jowell and John Prescott, who held between them some of the most powerful posts in government in the years when the hacking is alleged to have occurred; and Lord Frederick Windsor, a great-nephew of Queen Elizabeth II.
The criminal charges against a senior tranche of his former employees at The News of the World, the 168-year-old publication Murdoch shut down last year as a result of the burgeoning scandal, also have major implications for Murdoch and the News Corporation, his $53 billion global media giant.. Brooks was a personal choice of Murdoch, 81, to head his British newspaper subsidiary, News International, and he made a priority of defending her last July, when he took an urgent flight to London to take over management of the crisis and to supervise the closure of the The News of the World, one of Britain’s most profitable newspapers.
That effort quickly collapsed amid outrage over a police disclosure that one of the targets of the newspaper’s cellphone hacking had been Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who disappeared in 2002 and was subsequently found murdered. The hacking occurred when she was the subject of a massive police hunt, but before her body had been discovered. The episode prompted Brooks’s resignation and led Murdoch to apologise personally to Milly’s parents at a luxury London hotel — and to offer a settlement that was reported at the time to run into several million dollars.
Five of the eight people now facing criminal charges are accused of involvement in the hacking of the schoolgirl’s phone. They are Brooks, Coulson, Mulcaire and three other journalists who worked in senior newsroom positions at The News of the World: Stuart Kuttner, a former managing editor; Greg Miskiw, another senior editor; and Neville Thurlbeck, the paper’s longtime chief reporter.
The other journalists charged with involvement in phone hacking, though not in the Dowler case, are Ian Edmondson and James Weatherup, who were also senior editors at the tabloid.
“I am not guilty of these charges,” Brooks said in a statement, referring to her time as editor of The News of the World. “I did not authorise, nor was I aware of, phone hacking under my editorship.”
Coulson did not respond to a call seeking comment and a spokesman for News International also declined to comment.
A spokesman for the prime minister said he had no comment on the matter, beyond his public statements — he has stopped short of issuing an apology, but has told Parliament that he regrets hiring Coulson, and that with hindsight he would not have done so. Privately, according to people with knowledge of his thinking, Cameron and his office remain concerned about the matter. Speeches are vetted to omit references that might fuel jokes about it, and lawyers have been taking statements from staffers on their relations with the Murdoch family and their senior executives.
Brooks also faces three counts of conspiring to obstruct justice. She, her husband and four members of Brooks’s staff at News International were accused of concealing documents, computers and other material from detectives investigating phone hacking at around the time The News of the World was closed. She also strenuously denied those charges, which were announced in May.
Tuesday’s charges, which carry a maximum jail sentence of two years, mark a spectacular fall for Brooks, who joined The News of the World when she was 20 and by her early 40s had risen to the top of its parent company as one of Murdoch’s closest lieutenants. She and her husband were neighbours of Cameron, and they have admitted to exchanging frequent text messages and riding horses together.
The eight defendants will appear in court on August 16, prosecutors said. But the charges brought on Tuesday are probably only the beginning: three police investigations — into the phone hacking, payments to public officials and data hacking — continue, Scotland Yard has said. So far, more than 50 current and former journalists, public officials and others have been arrested, and prosecutors have yet to decide whether they will be prosecuted.
Over the weekend, a News Corporation spokeswoman confirmed that Murdoch resigned last week from directorships at a cluster of companies that have oversight over his British papers, which also include the tabloid Sun and two major broadsheets, The Times and The Sunday Times. The spokeswoman described the move as no more than “a corporate housecleaning exercise” ahead of the company’s move to split its operations into two separate companies: one that will own the company’s newspaper and book publishing assets, including the British papers and The Wall Street Journal, and the other to operate the company’s far more profitable television and film assets, including the Fox broadcasting channels and the 20th Century Fox movie franchise.
But the resignations from the boards of the British newspaper companies fueled speculation, already rife among media analysts on both sides of the Atlantic, that Murdoch has decided that his lifelong passion for newspapering is outweighed by the financial and reputational costs of hanging on to the British papers, a major steppingstone in building his global empire. A powerful bloc of News Corporation investors has long favored selling the papers off, and the prospect of protracted criminal trials seems likely to intensify those pressures.
Murdoch also faces dozens of civil suits from a pool of more than 2,000 people the police have told might have been victims of phone hacking. And when all the court cases have been cleared, a process that could take years, a British public inquiry will begin sifting the evidence of wrongdoing in the Murdoch media empire once more.
If it is found that voice mail interceptions occurred on American soil, as some have alleged, Murdoch’s profitable American business interests could also suffer. A spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service declined to comment on the matter, saying that the defendants are accused of conspiracy, not of actual interceptions.
© 2012 The New York Times News Service