LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch’s former British newspaper chief and Prime Minister David Cameron’s ex-media head went on trial for phone hacking on Monday at the start of one of Britain’s most high profile court cases in years.
Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, both former editors of Murdoch’s now defunct News of the World tabloid, are accused of conspiring to illegally access voicemail messages on mobile phones belonging to politicians, the rich and famous, and victims of crime and ordinary people, to obtain exclusive news.
The two, who face trial with six others, deny all charges.
The scandal sent shockwaves through the British establishment and shook Murdoch’s News Corp empire.
It revealed the close ties between press barons, police chiefs and senior politicians. The media industry is still at loggerheads with Cameron’s government over how it should be regulated.
“This trial concerns allegations of criminal conduct at the News of the World and the Sun newspapers which preceded the closure of the News of the World,” the judge, Justice John Saunders, said as jury selection began for the trial.
“It’s an important case. The trial we are about to start will take a considerable length of time. It’s estimated the case may last until Easter.”
Detectives launched an investigation in January 2011 and since then more than 125 people have been arrested and more than 40 charged.
The most prominent are Coulson, 45, and Brooks, a close friend of Cameron. He attended her wedding in 2009 along with the then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Brooks, 45, was the first female editor of Murdoch’s top-selling Sun paper and had risen to become head of News International, News Corp’s British newspaper arm, when the furore over phone-hacking led to her resignation.
Coulson, who quit the News of the World in 2007, had acted as Cameron’s communications chief until he resigned in 2011 saying the issue had become a distraction for the government.
They were both arrested in July 2011 and later charged with conspiracy to illegally intercept communications.
Brooks is also accused of two counts of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office during her time at the Sun, and two counts of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by hampering the police inquiry.
Coulson is additionally charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office.
They sat next to each other in the dock as jury selection began in a small, modern courtroom packed with media and about 20 of Britain’s top lawyers.
The judge warned the potential jurors they must ignore any of the mass of details about the allegations that have appeared in the media and decide the case only on the evidence that would be put before them.
Joining Coulson and Brooks in the dock are Stuart Kuttner, the long-time former managing editor of the News of the World, Ian Edmondson, the tabloid’s ex-news editor, Clive Goodman, the paper’s former royal editor, Cheryl Carter, Brooks’s personal assistant, Brooks’s racehorse trainer husband Charlie, and Mark Hanna, News International’s head of security.
They all deny similar charges to those against Brooks and Coulson. The trial will get fully under way on Tuesday when prosecutors outline their case.
Dozens of other journalists are due to go on trial in connection with hacking next year following the conclusion of this case, while police are also actively considering bringing corporate charges against Murdoch’s British newspaper business.
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Barry Moody