LONDON — British authorities on Tuesday charged an ex-aide to the prime minister, a former protege of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and six others in the ever-widening phone hacking scandal, accusing them of key roles in a campaign of illegal espionage that victimized hundreds of people including top celebrities Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
The announcement was a major development in a saga that has shaken Britain’s establishment and shows no sign of winding down. Police said earlier this week they are probing new newspapers and dozens of fresh allegations.
The Crown Prosecution Service’s Alison Levitt announced Tuesday that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks — both former editors of Murdoch’s now-shuttered News of the World tabloid — were among those being charged with conspiring to intercept the communications of more than 600 people between Oct. 3, 2000, and Aug. 9, 2006.
"There is sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction in relation to one or more offenses," Levitt said. In Britain, the penalty for illegally intercepting communications is up to two years in prison and a fine. Coulson and Brooks, who had previously been charged in related cases, have both denied any wrongdoing.
The charges may further embarrass Prime Minister David 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 still-developing criminal investigation will shortly be overshadowed by the long-awaited London Olympics, but multiple trials dragging on for years could provide an unwelcome sideshow as Cameron works to get Britain’s recession-scarred economy back on track.
Also among those named Tuesday are senior News of the World journalists Stuart Kuttner, Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck, James Weatherup and Ian Edmondson. Private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, whose extensive notes have long been at the center of the scandal, is also being prosecuted.
Phone hacking first came to public attention in 2006, when police arrested 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 insist that the illegal activity was an aberration — the work of single rogue reporter. But lawsuits and enterprising reporting by the Guardian and The New York Times eventually exposed the cover-up. Under pressure, police reopened their investigation.
News Corp. began to change its tune. Stony denials turned into apologies sweetened with big settlements. And detectives swooped in on Thurlbeck, the paper’s chief reporter, and Edmonson, its news editor.
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 celebrity intrusion 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 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.
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, shutting the News of the World, resigning from a series of directorships and pulling 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.
The details of Tuesday’s charges read like a Who’s Who of British newspapers’ gossip pages.
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 said she was "distressed and angry" and 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.
Police also continue chasing leads.
On Monday, Scotland Yard’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers told Leveson 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.