Andy Coulson, a former editor of News Corp. (NWSA:US)’s News of the World tabloid and ex-press chief of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, appeared in court for the first time with six other people charged with phone hacking.
Following a 30-minute hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Judge Daphne Wickham transferred the case to a higher criminal court where they will eventually enter pleas in the conspiracy case. A hearing at Southwark Crown Court was scheduled for additional proceedings on Sept. 26.
The group, including ex-managing editor Stuart Kuttner, 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, soccer player Wayne Rooney and murdered British schoolgirl Milly Dowler. The men were charged last month following a probe that started more than a year and a half ago.
Also in court today were ex-chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, former news editor Ian Edmondson, former assistant editors Greg Miskiw and James Weatherup, and former private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. Rebekah Brooks, who was chief executive officer of News Corp.’s U.K. unit until last year, faces the same charges and is scheduled to appear at a separate hearing on Sept. 3.
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 and U.K. politicians. Coulson, who edited the News of the World tabloid when the phone-hacking scandal started in 2006, was Cameron’s press chief until last year when questions emerged about his knowledge of the practice.
The men in court today were freed on bail on the condition they not speak to each other or two other suspects who still face potential charges, former News of the World journalists Dan Evans and Neil Wallis. The group must also tell police if they plan to leave the country.
Murdoch closed the 168-year-old tabloid in July 2011 to contain public outrage over the practice and resigned last month from three of the New York-based company’s boards, including News International’s. He has said the company’s planned split isn’t related to the scandal.
The journalists, who have been free on bail since being arrested throughout last year, were charged as they arrived at police stations in London last month. Brooks was charged Aug. 2, resulting in her later hearing date. The charges could lead to two-year prison terms.
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 and served as many as six months in prison in 2007. While the extent of the scandal remained unknown at the time, Coulson resigned as the News of the World’s editor in response to the pleas.
Police opened a new probe in January 2011 after evidence was uncovered in civil lawsuits. Coulson quit as Cameron’s top media adviser in response.
The group in today’s hearing, aside from Mulcaire, was charged with conspiring to intercept communications “without lawful authority,” the CPS said last month. They each face separate claims related to specific victims, including politicians and family members of celebrities.
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