Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, former lead editors of the News of the World tabloid in Britain, are among eight former News Corp. (NWSA:US) journalists being charged with conspiring to intercept voice mail to get stories.
The group sought between 2000 and 2006 to hack the mobile-phone messages of more than 600 people, including U.S. actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and murdered British schoolgirl Milly Dowler, who went missing in 2002, the Crown Prosecution Service said in London today.
“There is sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction,” Alison Levitt, the top legal adviser to Britain’s director of public prosecutions, said at a press conference. The criminal cases are “in the public interest.”
News Corp., controlled by Chairman Rupert Murdoch, a friend of Brooks, is splitting the company to move on from the scandal that resulted in about 60 arrests and revealed cozy ties between the company’s U.K. publishing unit and politicians. Coulson served as Prime Minister David Cameron’s press chief until last year when questions emerged about his role in the scandal.
Murdoch closed the 168-year-old tabloid a year ago to contain public outrage over the practice and resigned last week from three of the New York-based company’s boards, including the News International newspaper division in the U.K. He has said the company’s planned split isn’t related to the scandal.
The others charged are former managing editor Stuart Kuttner, former news editor Ian Edmondson, former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, former assistant editor Greg Miskiw, former assistant news editor James Weatherup and former private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who worked for the tabloid.
The journalists, who have been free on bail since being arrested throughout last year, are being charged as they arrive at police stations in London and are scheduled to appear in court Aug. 16. The charges could lead to two-year prison terms.
The agency decided against charging three others who were under investigation and will announce a decision later in relation to two more suspects after the Metropolitan Police Service asked for a delay. Prosecutors made today’s decision based on evidence from police, who opened a new probe into phone-hacking in January 2011.
“I am not guilty of these charges,” Brooks said today in an e-mailed statement. “I did not authorize, nor was I aware of, phone hacking under my editorship.”
Coulson said in a televised statement outside his home that he didn’t do anything to harm the police probe a decade ago into Dowler’s disappearance.
“The idea that I would sit in my office dreaming up schemes to undermine the investigation is simply untrue,” Coulson said.
Coulson quit as Cameron’s top media adviser in January 2011 over allegations phone hacking took place when he edited the tabloid. The ex-editor was charged in relation to politicians David Blunkett and Charles Clarke and reality-television star Calum Best, the son of soccer player George Best.
Six of the journalists, including Brooks, Coulson and Thurlbeck, were charged in relation to Dowler. The revelation that the News of the World hacked the 13-year-old’s phone triggered public outrage that prompted Murdoch to close what had been Britain’s best-selling newspaper.
Thurlbeck, who was fired and arrested last year, was one of the first people detained in the phone-hacking probe, known as Operation Weeting.
“I have always operated under the strict guidance and advice of News International’s lawyers and under the instructions of the newspaper’s editors, which will be abundantly clear when this matter comes to court,” Thurlbeck said in a statement issued by his lawyer Henri Brandman.
Edmondson, who was fired in January 2011, said in a statement through his law firm that he looks forward to clearing his name at trial “when the truth finally emerges.”
“For the past 18 months my family and I have suffered in silence,” he said. “I have not given interviews or spoken out in order to get my points across or to correct reported lies or inaccuracies.”
The group, aside from Mulcaire, was charged with conspiring to intercept communications “without lawful authority,” the CPS said. They each face separate claims related to specific victims, including politicians and family members of celebrities.
This is the second time the scandal has triggered criminal charges, though the first round in 2006 involved only Mulcaire and the tabloid’s former royal reporter, Clive Goodman. Both men pleaded guilty in that case and served as much as six months in prison in 2007.
“I am extremely disappointed by today’s decision, given that in 2006 I was the subject of a comprehensive police investigation,” Mulcaire said in an e-mailed statement. “I intend to contest these allegations strenuously.”
Daisy Dunlop, a spokeswoman for News International, declined to comment.
Operation Weeting runs parallel to investigations of computer hacking and bribery by reporters and editors at the News of the World and another News Corp. tabloid, the Sun, Britain’s best-selling daily title, where the bribery arrests have focused.
Brooks, who was chief executive officer of News International, was also charged in relation to Andy Gilchrist, a former union leader who sued the company in February alleging his phone was hacked.
Brooks was previously charged in May with perverting the course of justice by conspiring with her husband and others, including her longtime assistant, to remove evidence from the company’s archives and cover up the hacking scandal.
Weatherup was charged in relation to hacking the phones of Pitt, Jolie, England soccer player Wayne Rooney and actress Sienna Miller, whose 2010 lawsuit against News International uncovered evidence of hacking that triggered the new police probe. He was also charged with hacking the phone of former Beatle Paul McCartney and his ex-wife Heather Mills.
Other victims involved in the latest criminal charges include U.K. actor Jude Law, his ex-wife, Sadie Frost, former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and John Tulloch, a former professor who was seated next to a suicide bomber in the 2005 terror attacks on London’s trains and buses.
News International seeks to settle about 50 civil lawsuits filed by victims before a joint trial scheduled for February. A trial scheduled for earlier this year was canceled after a group of dozens of initial victims settled, including Welsh singer Charlotte Church.
“It’s not a day that reflects well on politics or the press,” U.K. lawmaker John Whittingdale told Sky News television. “But it’s a part of the process of ensuring that this sort of thing can never happen again.”
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