LONDON (Reuters) - Rebekah Brooks, a close confidante of Rupert Murdoch, was charged on Tuesday with interfering with a police investigation into a phone hacking scandal that has rocked the tycoon’s empire and sent shockwaves through the British political establishment.
Brooks, 43, was charged with conspiring to remove boxes of archive records from Murdoch’s London headquarters, concealing material from detectives, and hiding documents, computers and other electronic equipment from the police.
If found guilty she could face a prison sentence.
The charges against Brooks, her husband and four others are the first since police re-launched an investigation into alleged illegal practices at Murdoch’s British newspapers following accusations that the extent of wrongdoing had been covered up.
The news is a personal blow for the world’s most powerful media boss and also embarrassing for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was close friends with Brooks and sent her text messages of support when the alleged offences took place.
Murdoch is facing increasing pressure in Britain.
He has been forced to close one newspaper, withdraw a major takeover bid for a lucrative TV group and been described in a parliamentary committee report as someone who is not fit to run a major international company.
Murdoch’s closeness to Brooks, instantly recognisable for her mane of flame-red hair, was highlighted last year when the mogul flew into London to tackle the hacking scandal, put his arm around her and declared that she was his top priority.
The charges relate to those frenzied days last July, when Murdoch shut the 168-year-old News of the World, a top-selling Sunday tabloid, and Brooks was first arrested.
Police said “unemployed” Brooks would face three charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. All six are due appear in court in London on June 13.
“I have concluded ... there is sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction,” said Alison Levitt, principal legal advisor to Britain’s director of public prosecutions, in a rare televised statement.
“All these matters relate to the ongoing police investigation into allegations of phone hacking and corruption of public officials in relation to the News of the World and The Sun newspapers,” Levitt said.
Also charged were Brooks’s racehorse trainer husband Charlie Brooks, her secretary and other staff including her driver and security officials from News International, the British newspaper arm of Murdoch’s News Corp media empire.
Rebekah Brooks said she was baffled by the decision to charge her. “I cannot express my anger enough that those close to me have unfairly been dragged into this,” she said, emerging from her lawyer’s offices with her husband, dressed in a dark trouser suit.
Charlie Brooks, who was at school with Cameron at the exclusive Eton College, said he believed his wife was the subject of a “witch hunt”, and that he and others were being used as scapegoats.
“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,” he said.
Earlier, photographers surrounded the London police station where Brooks was questioned, and chased her limousine down the street as she was driven away - something her newspapers routinely inflicted on others while she was in charge.
“Perverting the course of justice is a very serious offence,” said Mark Spragg, Consultant Solicitor at Keystone Law. “If found guilty, a custodial sentence is inevitable.”
The maximum sentence for the offence is theoretically a life prison term although that would be unlikely, with a sentence of between a few months and three or four years more common.
A spokesman for Cameron said the prime minister had not been informed in advance of Tuesday’s announcement, and would not be commenting further.
Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at London’s City University, said: “This is a symbolic moment for British media and politics.”
“This yet again raises questions about the prime minister’s judgment, that he chose to associate both professionally and socially with somebody who is facing charges which could result in imprisonment,” he said.
Prime Minister Cameron has also been criticised for hiring as his spokesman Andy Coulson, another ex-News of the World editor who resigned from the newspaper in 2007 after its royal reporter and a private detective were jailed for phone hacking.
News International long scapegoated the journalist as a “rogue reporter” and Coulson said he knew nothing of the illegal activities, but he quit Cameron’s office last year after police reopened their investigations. He has since been arrested.
More than 160 officers are examining claims that journalists at the News of the World routinely hacked into the phones of hundreds of celebrities, politicians and victims of crime to generate front-page stories.
They are also investigating whether staff hacked into computers and made illegal payments to public officials, including the police, to get ahead in their reporting.
Almost 50 people have been arrested, with a tax official and a woman the latest to be held by detectives on Tuesday morning.
“HORSEGATE” AND THE PYJAMA PARTY
The explosive saga has shone a light on close ties between the media, British politicians and the police, with Brooks one of the central characters.
Ministers who previously overtly courted Murdoch and the backing of his papers turned on him last year, forcing the 81-year-old to withdraw a $12 billion bid for British pay TV group BSkyB.
Under pressure, Cameron admitted he had gone riding with Charlie Brooks on a horse given to Rebekah by police, an admission that critics dubbed “horsegate” and seized on as evidence of an overly cosy relationship.
He also attended a Christmas party at the couple’s house in 2010, at a time when the government was deciding whether to approve the BSkyB deal.
Dubbed by some Murdoch’s “fifth daughter”, Brooks edited the News of the World from 2000 to 2003 and went on to become the first female editor of the Sun daily tabloid, Britain’s most widely read newspaper, for six years.
With her close links to the upper echelons of the British establishment including a string of prime ministers and senior police officers, Brooks was promoted to run Murdoch’s British newspaper arm from 2009 to 2011.
She had close ties with Cameron’s predecessor as prime minister, Gordon Brown of the now-opposition Labour party, whose wife Sarah hosted a sleepover in 2008 that was attended by Brooks and Murdoch’s wife Wendi and daughter Elisabeth.
Brooks was also close to Tony Blair.
But she was forced to stand down last July under a tide of revelations, and was arrested two days later over allegations of phone hacking and corruption.
Brooks was detained again in March this year, along with her husband, on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. Detectives have not concluded their investigations into the other potential offences.
During day-long questioning at a public inquiry into media ethics last week, 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”.
Chris Bryant, an opposition lawmaker and hacking victim, said: “I fear the prime minister will have some questions to answer about the kind of company he has been keeping.”
The others charged on Tuesday were Cheryl Carter, Brooks’s personal assistant, Mark Hanna, the head of security at News International, Paul Edwards, her chauffeur, and Daryl Jorsling, who provided security for Brooks.
Additional reporting by Tim Castle, Clare Kane and Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood