LONDON: After a year of furious controversy over the widespread phone hacking by one of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid newspapers, British prosecutors brought criminal charges 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 St. 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 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 News of the World’s reporter specializing in coverage of Britain’s royal family, for hacking into the cell phones 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Party are now potentially vulnerable to any new revelations that might emerge from the trials, in the form of hitherto unpublished emails or testimony touching on the prime minister’s dealings with Coulson or Rebekah Brooks.
The charges relate to allegations that hundreds of celebrities, politicians and others named in news stories had their voice mails intercepted by News of the World in search of scoops. They refer specifically to more than a dozen high-profile figures, including actors Jude Law, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie who prosecutors say were targeted between 2000 and 2006.