|Top Murdoch Aide Is Charged in Hacking Case|
Anthony Devlin/Press Association, via Associated Press
Rebekah Brooks arrived on Tuesday at a London police station, where she was charged with attempting to conceal evidence.
By JOHN F. BURNS and ALAN COWELLPublished: May 15, 2012
LONDON — Rebekah Brooks, the former head of Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper empire and a close friend of Prime Minister David Cameron, was formally charged on Tuesday, along with her husband and four others, of perverting the course of justice in the phone hacking scandal that has burrowed deeply into British public life.
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It was the first time that charges had been filed since the police reopened inquiries into the long-running scandal 16 months ago. The accusations, based on evidence that Ms. Brooks and the others tried to hide or destroy files and equipment, are an important watershed in a wider criminal investigation that has resulted in about 50 people being arrested and released on bail by Scotland Yard teams delving into the hacking, payments to public officials and other accusations of wrongdoing at two tabloids owned by Mr. Murdoch.
Those investigations seem sure to produce their own raft of criminal charges in the coming months, and could result in Ms. Brooks’s being indicted again, since she was arrested twice by the Scotland Yard investigators, once last year on suspicion of phone hacking and corruption, then again in March over the possible perversion of justice, an accusation akin to obstruction. Legal experts said that the charges on Tuesday would almost certainly lead to a trial, in nine months or so, before a High Court judge at the Old Bailey, Britain’s most famous criminal court.
The charges stem from Britain’s most intensive criminal inquiry in years, one that has cost $65 million and involved 185 police officers. Lawyers familiar with the investigation said that the Crown Prosecution Service was working in a politically charged climate that necessitated an early decision, after months of police work, on a high-profile prosecution.
By choosing a case that centers on an alleged cover-up, they said, they accomplished two objectives: moving against Ms. Brooks, who after Mr. Murdoch and his son James has been the most visible and controversial figure in the saga; and doing so in a case that was likely to be easier to prosecute than later cases that go to the heart of the suspected newsroom wrongdoing.
The charges on Tuesday relate to cover-up activities suspected to have occurred in a two-week period last summer, involving six people, and issues that will be easier for prosecutors to put to a jury, the experts said. By contrast, the allegations of phone hacking involve as victims at least 800 politicians, celebrities, crime victims and others, and a lengthy roll call of editors, reporters and investigators at the two tabloids who may have been involved. Complex issues of “who said what to whom and when” are likely to come up in any phone-hacking trials, as well as a likely argument from the defense that legal red lines were crossed in pursuit of issues that were in the public interest.
The heightened scrutiny of the tabloid practices began last summer when it was disclosed that hacking at The News of the World included the cellphone of a 13-year-old London schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, whose messages had been intercepted after she was abducted and before her body was discovered. That prompted Rupert and James Murdoch to fly to London and close the 168-year-old tabloid. Ms. Brooks, a former editor of the paper, quickly resigned as chief executive of News International, the Murdoch newspaper subsidiary in Britain. She was arrested the first time shortly afterward.
The two Murdochs then went before Parliament to testify about the affair, denying any cover-up by News International or News Corporation, the New York-based media conglomerate controlled by the Murdoch family. But by then the scandal, revealing the widespread contacts and influence that the Murdochs and their aides had at the heart of government, had developed a strong political taint, and Rupert Murdoch bowed to the mounting scrutiny by withdrawing a $12 billion takeover bid for BSkyB, the country’s most lucrative satellite broadcasting network.
It was in the midst of those events — between July 6 and July 19, 2011 — prosecutors said on Tuesday, that Ms. Brooks, her husband and the four others, including her private assistant at News International, her chauffeur and a bodyguard, were engaged in concealing documents, computers, electronic devices and archive material from Scotland Yard investigators.
The decision to prosecute Ms. Brooks and her husband was seen as a major blow to Rupert Murdoch, who put Ms. Brooks on the fast track to one of the most powerful positions in News Corporation’s worldwide empire, and who stood by her as the scandal spread. It was a blow, too, to Mr. Cameron. By his own account, he has maintained a cozy social relationship with Ms. Brooks and her husband, Charlie Brooks — a prominent racehorse trainer who, like Mr. Cameron, was educated at Eton — both when he was in the opposition and, since 2010, as prime minister.
The charges drew a combative response from the Brookses even before prosecutors announced the details. In a statement, they left little doubt that their defense would rest on claims that they are high-profile scapegoats and that a trial is an attempt to deflect some of the pressure that the scandal has placed on politicians and the police.
“We deplore this weak and unjust decision,” they said of the charges, which they dismissed in a meeting with reporters later as nothing more than a “witch hunt” and an “expensive sideshow.”
Before a bank of cameras under rainy skies in London, Ms. Brooks and her husband decried the prosecution, denied wrongdoing and questioned whether the decision to charge them had been motivated by public pressure.
Mr. Brooks said that he felt he and the others arrested with his wife were being used “to ratchet up the pressure” on Ms. Brooks. She could not, he said, expect a fair trial. Ms. Brooks said she was “baffled by the decision to charge me today,” questioned whether it was “made on a proper, impartial assessment of the evidence” and said she was angry that those around her — her husband and former colleagues — had been “dragged into this.”
The prosecution service said it had received a file of evidence from the police on March 27 concerning Ms. Brooks, her husband and five other suspects. The prosecutors’ statement identified the other suspects as Cheryl Carter, Ms. Brooks’ personal assistant; Mark Hanna, the head of security at News International; a chauffeur, Paul Edwards; and two security consultants, Daryl Jorsling and a second suspect who was not named. The unidentified suspect was not charged.
Alison Levitt, a top lawyer at the Crown Prosecution Service, said all the suspects conspired to “conceal material” from police officers and to “remove seven boxes of material from the archive of News International.” Ms. Brooks, Mr. Brooks, Mr. Hanna, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Jorsling also conspired “to conceal documents, computers and other electronic equipment” that bore on the continuing police investigations into phone hacking and corruption of public officials by The News of the World and The Sun, Ms. Levitt said.
While the maximum legal penalty for the offense is life in prison, legal experts said Ms. Brooks and the others accused, if found guilty, could receive jail terms of several months, or as much as four or five years, if convicted. Fleeting glimpses of what may emerge at the trials of Ms. Brooks and the others have emerged in newspaper coverage of the scandal.
According to two former staff members at The News of the World who did not want to be identified because they were discussing a topic that was the subject of a police investigation, Ms. Carter, the former personal assistant, was fiercely loyal to Ms. Brooks.
An individual who was present on the day that Ms. Brooks cleared out her office after her resignation was announced on July 15, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Ms. Brooks and Ms. Carter were seen carrying items to a parked car. Friends of Ms. Carter’s have said that she was subsequently required to surrender her passport to the police and cancel plans to emigrate to Australia. A lawyer for Ms. Carter said that she vigorously denied the charges.
It is unclear what Mr. Brooks, who has strong ties to Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party, is suspected of having done. But The Guardian reported in July that he was involved in a peculiar episode featuring a laptop left in a bag in a garbage can in a parking garage near the London apartment he shares with his wife.
According to the newspaper, the bag, which also held some papers, was unearthed by security guards, who called the police. Mr. Brooks then tried to reclaim the items but could not prove they were his. A spokesman for Mr. Brooks told The Guardian that he had “left the bag with a friend who was returning it, but dropped it in the wrong part of the garage.”
Ravi Somaiya and Sandy Macaskill contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared in print on May 16, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Hacking Case: Aide Charged In Obstruction.