UK PM's ex-aide, Murdoch protege face charges in phone-hacking scandal
British authorities on Tuesday charged an ex-aide to the British prime minister, a former protege of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and six others in the ever-widening phone-hacking scandal. Prosecutors accused those charged of key roles in a lengthy campaign of illegal espionage that victimized hundreds, including top celebrities Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
The announcement was a major development in a saga that has transfixed and at times horrified Britons and one that shows no signs of ending. A senior police official told The Associated Press earlier this week that her force was investigating more than 100 claims including computer hacking and illegal access to medical records stemming from the scandal.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that Andy Coulson, Cameron's communications director for four years until 2011, and Rebekah Brooks, who oversaw Murdoch's News International, would face charges of conspiracy to intercept communications.
The alleged offenses were committed between 2000 and 2006 when both served as editor of the News of the World, the salacious Sunday tabloid that Murdoch was forced to close a year ago amid public disgust at the phone-hacking revelations.
Among the alleged victims were two former British home secretaries, former England soccer manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, Hollywood stars Jolie and Pitt, former Beatle Paul McCartney and a minor member of the royal family, Lord Frederick Windsor, the son of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent.
Brooks and Coulson are also both accused of involvement in hacking the telephone of Milly Dowler, a missing teenage girl who was later found murdered in 2002.
Coulson: 'I will fight these allegations'
It was the revelation that News of the World journalists had hacked her phone that triggered a furor that engulfed Murdoch's News International and ultimately led to the closure of the 168-year-old tabloid.
"I am extremely disappointed by the [prosecutors'] decision today. I will fight these allegations when they eventually get to court,” Coulson said in a statement quoted by Britain's The Guardian newspaper.
"I would like to say one thing today about the Milly Dowler allegation. Anyone who knows me, or who worked with me, would know that I wouldn't, and more importantly that I didn't, do anything to damage the Milly Dowler investigation," the statement said.
Brooks sounded a defiant tone.
"I am not guilty of these charges," she said in a statement. "I did not authorize, nor was I aware of, phone hacking under my editorship.
"The charge concerning Milly Dowler is particularly upsetting not only as it is untrue but also because I have spent my journalistic career campaigning for victims of crime. I will vigorously defend these allegations," her statement said.
Others being charged are senior tabloid journalists Stuart Kuttner, Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck, James Weatherup and Ian Edmondson.
Also being charged is private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, whose extensive notes have been at the center of the scandal since it was first unearthed.
The maximum sentence for the phone-hacking charges is two years in prison or a fine -- or both.
The development is particularly embarrassing for Cameron because Coulson was also charged with hacking the phones of David Blunkett and Charles Clarke, two former home secretaries from the now-opposition Labour Party. The home secretary is Britain’s top law enforcement official, roughly akin to an American attorney general.
"That is an astonishing development and I think that is almost inevitably going to rebound on Cameron," Steven Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster University, said. "That is going to pose some very, very awkward questions for the prime minister."
Alison Levitt, Principal Legal Adviser to the Director of Public Prosecutions, said she had concluded there was sufficient evidence to charge the eight suspects with 19 offenses over the illegal accessing of voicemails on the cellphones belonging to politicians, celebrities and sports figures.
News International had for years denied that phone hacking was widespread after the tabloid's former royal reporter and private detective were jailed in 2007 for the crime.
Coulson resigned in the aftermath, and took up the role as director of communications of Cameron's Conservative Party, helping to shape his campaign to become prime minister.
Neil Hall / Reuters, file
Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, shown leaving London's Southwark Crown Court on June 22, will face charges in the phone-hacking scandal
Critics say Cameron appointed Coulson in order to secure the backing of the journalist's former boss, Murdoch, and say the appointment showed a shocking lack of judgment.
The involvement of Coulson and Brooks -- a close friend of Cameron’s -- turned the long-running hacking story into a national political scandal that has laid bare the collusion between senior politicians, the police and the media.
Brooks, her husband and her personal staff have already been charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice over the hacking case, while Coulson has been charged in Scotland with perjury after he denied in an unrelated court case any knowledge of phone hacking.
Brooks, wooed by a string of politicians and prime ministers first in her role as editor of the News of the World and Sun tabloid, and then as the head of Murdoch's British newspaper arm News International, was one of the most powerful women in Britain, instantly recognizable by her long, curly red hair.
She was also close to Cameron, socializing with him over Christmas breaks, and both were embarrassed earlier this year when an inquiry into media ethics read out text messages sent between the two.
Cameron used to sign his frequent text messages to Brooks with an affectionate "LOL", which he thought stood for "lots of love."
Damaging, but not fatal, to Cameron's political fortunes
Paul Farrelly, an opposition Labour lawmaker who questioned Rupert Murdoch and his son James as part of a parliamentary committee investigation into the hacking, said Tuesday's developments were damaging, but not fatal, for Cameron.
"My view is that what happens to Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks reflects on David Cameron's judgment in both the appointment of Coulson and in being seen to be so close to a certain newspaper empire," he said.
"Because it's been going on so long, it's in no way fatal to his premiership. What is more important to the survival of his premiership and the coalition is the economy," Farrelly added.