LONDON (Reuters) - Rebekah Brooks, a trusted confidante of Rupert Murdoch and friend to a succession of prime ministers, made a preliminary appearance in a London court on Wednesday, accused of hindering a police investigation into phone hacking and corruption by staff at his British tabloids.
A large crowd of photographers and reporters greeted the arrival at court of the 44-year-old, a former editor of two of Britain's top-selling newspapers.
Brooks is charged with concealing material from detectives carrying out a major inquiry into alleged criminal activities at News International, the British newspaper arm of Murdoch's News Corp where she was chief executive until last year.
Police say she was involved in the removal of boxes of archive records from its London headquarters, concealing material from detectives, and hiding documents, computers and other electronic equipment.
Brooks, her racehorse trainer husband Charlie, her secretary and three other staff from News International face charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Wearing a blue skirt suit and a green scarf and clutching a black handbag, she sat in the dock at Westminster Magistrates Court between her husband and her personal assistant Cheryl Carter.
Brooks spoke only to confirm her address and date of birth before being granted bail. The cases of all the defendants were sent to Southwark Crown Court where the next hearing will be on June 22.
Instantly recognisable for her mane of flame-red hair, Brooks and her husband have already denied the charges and claimed she was being made a scapegoat. If found guilty, they face a probable jail term.
"I have grave doubts that my wife will ever get a fair trial, given the volume of biased commentary which she has been subject to," Charlie Brooks has said.
The charges the group face are the first brought by detectives since they reopened an investigation in January 2011 into claims journalists at Murdoch's News of the World tabloid illegally accessed voicemails on mobile phones.
Officers are also examining if reporters bribed public officials including police officers to get stories.
Some 50 people have since been arrested, including many senior figures from the News of the World and News International.
Amid public anger at the scale of phone hacking which reached a frenzy last July when it was reported that reporters had illegally accessed the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl, Murdoch closed the 168-year-old News of the World, one of the tabloids which Brooks used to edit.
He also had to withdraw a major takeover bid for lucrative TV group BSkyB while Brooks was forced to quit her job running News International.
Before that, she had been considered one of the most powerful women in Britain, and was particularly friendly with Prime Minister David Cameron, who went to the exclusive Eton College school with her husband.
During day-long questioning at an inquiry into media standards last month, Brooks said she and Cameron had frequently exchanged text messages and that he would occasionally sign them off "LOL", by which he meant "lots of love".
Cameron has already had the embarrassment of seeing his former communications chief Andy Coulson being charged with perjury, after denying in court any knowledge of phone hacking at the News of the World which he had also edited.
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)