Hack charges hit British PM's ex-aide, former Murdoch protege; trials could embarrass Cameron

LONDON – Britain’s phone hacking scandal entered a new and expanded criminal phase Tuesday, with charges brought against two former members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s inner circle over a campaign of illegal espionage that has rocked the country’s establishment.

The Crown Prosecution Service announced Tuesday that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks — both former editors of Rupert Murdoch’s now-shuttered News of the World tabloid — were among eight people being charged with conspiring to intercept the communications of at least 600 people between 2000 and 2006.

The alleged victims included everyone from a murdered teenager to Hollywood power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Coulson and Brooks, who had previously been charged in related cases, have both denied any wrongdoing and vowed to fight the charges.

The charges may further embarrass Cameron, who hired Coulson as his chief communications adviser and once counted Brooks and her horse training husband Charlie in his circle of friends. The prime minister is Brooks’ neighbour in the well-to-do Cotswolds town of Chipping Norton, and would swing by the News Corp. executive’s house for Christmas parties, go horseback riding with her husband, and text her weekly.

The developing criminal investigation will shortly be overshadowed by the long-awaited London Olympics, but the prospect of having Cameron’s former associates in the dock during lengthy trials could prove an unwelcome sideshow as the prime minister battles to get Britain’s recession-scarred economy back on track.

“Of course we don’t yet know what the outcome of these trials will be, but the fact that this is rumbling along is deeply unhelpful for a prime minister who is in some trouble,” said Stephen Fielding, the director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Nottingham.

The long running scandal has spread beyond the Murdoch’s News Corp., damaging the reputation of British journalists as well as politicians and police suspected of getting too cozy with the press.

Phone hacking first came to public attention in 2006, when police arrested private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and the News of the World’s then-royal editor Clive Goodman on suspicion of hacking into the voicemails of members of Britain’s royal household. Coulson quit as the tabloid’s editor after the pair was convicted, but insisted he’d had no inkling of their wrongdoing.

For the next five years, the tabloid’s owner, Murdoch’s News Corp., would claim that the illegal activity was an aberration — the work of single rogue reporter. But a stream of lawsuits as well as enterprising reporting by the Guardian and The New York Times eventually exposed a massive coverup.

Prodded by the media, police reopened their investigation. At News Corp., stony denials turned into apologies sweetened with big settlements. Under pressure, Coulson stepped down from his job as Cameron’s adviser.

Still, it wasn’t until the Guardian revealed that the News of the World had hacked into the voicemail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler — a school girl whose 2002 disappearance and murder transfixed the nation — that the scandal really exploded. Britons who might’ve shrugged off intruding on celebrities’ lives were horrified by the news that reporters had violated the privacy of a dead girl to hunt for scoops about her whereabouts.

The ensuing furor shook the British establishment like an earthquake.

Once so powerful that many referred to him as a permanent cabinet minister, Rupert Murdoch’s influence in Britain crumbled, and politicians who once assiduously courted the Australian tycoon have rushed to distance themselves from him.

Meanwhile Murdoch has distanced himself — and his son James — from News Corp.’s British newspaper arm, News International. Murdoch has shut the News of the World, resigned from a series of directorships, and pulled James back to New York.

Three of Scotland Yard’s top officers have resigned over their failure to get to grips with the scandal; dozens of journalists, media executives, and public figures have been arrested or resigned. The country’s media regulator — widely discredited by the scandal — has been scrapped.

The saga has also tarnished the reputation of many whom, like British Olympics Secretary Jeremy Hunt, were sympathetic to News Corp.’s far-flung interests.

Among those charged Tuesday were some of the News of the World’s best-known and most senior journalists. Prosecutors named Stuart Kuttner, Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck, James Weatherup and Ian Edmondson. Mulcaire, whose extensive notes have long been at the centre of the scandal, is also being prosecuted.

Miskiw and Weatherup are accused of intercepting the messages of actor Jude Law, along with associates of his ex-wife Sadie Frost and former girlfriend Sienna Miller.

Edmondson and Weatherup are accused of spying on former Beatle Paul McCartney, his ex-wife Heather Mills, and politicians including former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Thurlbeck and Weatherup, meanwhile, are alleged to have eavesdropped on associates of Jolie and Pitt, one of Hollywood’s most famous couples.

Brooks, Coulson and Thurlbeck all promised Tuesday to fight the charges.

Brooks, who resigned as chief executive of News International after the Dowler story broke, said she was “distressed and angry.” She called the allegation that she conspired to spy on Milly “particularly upsetting.” Coulson insisted he would never have done anything to harm the investigation into Milly’s disappearance.

Thurlbeck, meanwhile, said he would make it clear that he always acted “under the strict guidance and advice of News International’s lawyers and under the instructions of the newspaper’s editors.”

The phone hacking fallout is far from finished.

As the charges were revealed, Justice Brian Leveson announced the end of his long-running inquiry into the culture and practices of Britain’s press, which was set up in the wake of the hacking scandal. He said he would release his recommendations as soon as possible, although that is expected to be months from now.

Police also continue chasing leads.

Scotland Yard’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers said Monday that detectives are seeking evidence from two newspaper companies that are rivals of Murdochs’ and looking into more than 100 claims of computer hacking, improper access to medical records and other misconduct stemming from the scandal.