London • One of Rupert Murdoch’s most trusted lieutenants and five people close to her were charged Tuesday with conspiring to hide evidence of phone hacking, bringing the scandal that has raged across Britain’s media and political elite uncomfortably close to Prime Minister David Cameron.
The charges against former U.K. tabloid editor Rebekah Brooks, husband Charlie and four aides are the first prosecutions since police reopened inquiries 18 months ago into wrongdoing by the country’s scandal-hungry press.
Brooks, 43, faces three separate allegations of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice — an offense that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
For years, Brooks was the star in Murdoch’s media empire, the top editor of two of his tabloids, a friend of his daughter, Elisabeth, and a close friend of Cameron, who has known her husband since they both went to an elite high school. Cameron is a neighbor, a friend and an occasional horse-riding companion of the couple.
The prospect that courts will hear potentially explosive accusations against Brooks and her husband could rock both Murdoch’s global media empire and Cameron’s political career.
To critics, however, Brooks was “The Witch of Wapping” — a ruthless figure at the heart of a media company in that London neighborhood that showed little remorse over its frequently intrusive reporting on celebrities and ordinary people in thrust into the public glare.
The law-breaking allegedly involved removing computers and files in the frantic days last summer when Murdoch shut down his tainted 168-year-old News of the World tabloid in an attempt to halt a tide of public disgust over the hacking furor.
Between July 6 and July 19 last year — the period covered in the charges — Brooks was struggling unsuccessfully to remain as CEO of News International,the British division of Murdoch’s News Corp. Faced with a revolt by advertisers and public uproar at the behavior of his journalists, Murdoch announced his decision to close the News of The World on July 7, while Brooks quit her high-profile role on July 15.
Alison Levitt, the legal adviser to Britain’s director of public prosecutions, said Brooks and the others are alleged to have concealed documents, computers and electronic equipment from police who were conducting inquiries into phone hacking and the alleged bribery of public officials.
With her former personal assistant, Cheryl Carter, Brooks is also accused of removing seven boxes of materials from News International archives, Levitt said.
Brooks and her husband rejected the charges. Standing side-by-side in front of their lawyers’ office in London, Charlie Brooks slammed what he described as a “witch hunt” targeting his wife.
Rebekah, looking grave, said she was baffled and furious at the charges.
In testimony last week before Britain’s media ethics inquiry, Brooks acknowledged her close links to Cameron and detailed how their families mingled at dinners and Christmas parties. She said she had traded text messages with Cameron at least once a week and that he had offered a message of support after she stepped down amid the hacking scandal.
Daithi Mac Sithigh, a legal expert at the University of East Anglia who has given evidence to the ethics inquiry, said the decision to prosecute Brooks could have far-reaching consequences.
“It is safe to say that the relationship between the press, the public and the law will not be the same again,” he said.
Known for her striking red curls and storybook rise from a junior employee to chief executive at News International, Brooks also remains on police bail over separate allegations related to illegal eavesdropping, and will face more questions from detectives on that issue in the coming months.
Police said all six people charged Tuesday will appear for a hearing next month at a central London court.
Carter, 48, faces two charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice; so too does Charlie Brooks; the ex-head of security at News International Mark Hanna, 49; Brooks’ ex-chauffeur Paul Edwards, 47; and Daryl Jorsling, 39, a member of the firm’s security staff.
Henri Bradman, lawyer for Carter said in a statement that Brooks’ former assistant “vigorously denies” involvement in any offense. Hanna said in a statement he believed he would be “totally exonerated.”
Levitt confirmed that a seventh person, a 38-year-old man who was also a member of News International’s security staff, would not face any charges.
The criminal charges are the first to be filed since police launched a new inquiry into phone hacking in January 2011. Previously, two people were jailed briefly in 2007 for hacking into the phones of members of the royal household, and investigators initially accepted the company’s claims that malpractice was not widespread.
In other developments:
— Two more people were arrested in investigations into the alleged bribery of public officials by tabloid reporters seeking scoops. A 50-year-old man who works for Britain’s Revenue and Customs department was detained on suspicion of misconduct in a public office. A 43-year-old woman was arrested over an allegation of assisting misconduct in a public office and money laundering offenses.
— Brian Leveson, the judge leading Britain’s media ethics inquiry, said News Corp. lobbyist Frederic Michel and Adam Smith, a former adviser to current Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, will give evidence later this month. Hunt’s handling of a decision on whether News Corp. could be allowed to take full control of British Sky Broadcasting, a satellite broadcaster in which Murdoch’s company already holds a 39-percent stake, has been questioned.
The ethics inquiry has previously published 163 emails sent by Michel that alleged either Hunt or his office had leaked sensitive information to Murdoch’s company and had indicated their support of the News Corp. takeover.
Smith quit following the disclosures, while Hunt denies any wrongdoing. Murdoch dropped the takeover bid for BSkyB in mid-2011.
— Cameron faced questions on a separate front, after Leveson called for more information on security clearances held by communications directors to the British prime minister. That came amid concern over the status of Andy Coulson, an ex-News of The World editor who also previously served as Cameron’s chief press aide.
Coulson wasn’t initially subjected to developed vetting, the highest form of security clearance. Critics suspect that Cameron may have kept Coulson from more stringent vetting amid worries it could expose his involvement in phone hacking. Coulson has been arrested by police but has not been charged with any offense.
Cameron’s office insists the decision was made amid efforts to reduce the number of aides with top security clearances.