LONDON // British prosecutors will charge a former aide to the prime minister, a former protege of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch and six others in the ever-widening phone hacking scandal.
They are accused of playing key roles in a lengthy campaign of illegal espionage that victimised hundreds, including celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
Yesterday's announcement was a major development in a saga that has shaken Britain's establishment and shows little sign of winding down. A senior police official said this week that her force was investigating two other newspaper groups, as well as more than 100 claims of computer hacking, improper access to medical records and other illegal behaviour.
Alison Levitt, of the Crown Prosecution Service, said that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, both former editors of Mr Murdoch's News of the World tabloid which ceased publication as a result of the scandal, were among those being charged with conspiring to intercept the communications of more than 600 people between October 3, 2000, and August 9, 2006.
Others being charged included senior tabloid journalists Stuart Kuttner, Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck, James Weatherup and Ian Edmondson. Private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, whose extensive notes were at the centre of the scandal, is also being prosecuted.
Ms Levitt said there was "sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction in relation to one or more offences". The penalty for unlawful interception of communications is up to two years in prison and a fine.
The charges are another embarrassment for David Cameron, the British prime minister, who hired Mr Coulson as his chief communications adviser and once counted Ms Brooks and her husband Charlie, a racehorse trainer, among his close circle of friends.
His judgment has come under scrutiny as the scandal has spread - as have his and other politicians' links to News Corp, Mr Murdoch's formidable media empire.
Phone hacking first came to public attention in 2006, when police arrested Mr Mulcaire and the News of the World's royal editor Clive Goodman on suspicion of hacking into the voicemail messages of members of Britain's royal family. Mr Coulson resigned from his post as editor when the pair were convicted the following year but always insisted he was kept in the dark about the wrongdoing.
For the next five years, News Corp subsidiary News International insisted that the illegal activity was an aberration - the work of a rogue reporter. But a growing stream of lawsuits - and investigative reporting by TheGuardian and The New York Times - eventually put the lie to the cover-up. Under pressure, police reopened their phone hacking investigation and revisited Mr Mulcaire's voluminous notes.
As a result, News International began to change its tune. Stony denials turned into apologies, sweetened with big settlements, and officers arrested Mr Thurlbeck, the paper's chief reporter, and Mr Edmonson, its news editor.
When TheGuardian revealed that the News of the World had hacked into the voicemail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler, a schoolgirl whose 2002 disappearance and murder shocked the country, the scandal exploded. Britons who might have shrugged off celebrity intrusion were horrified that reporters had violated the privacy of a dead girl in the hunt for scoops.
The ensuing furore ran like an earthquake through the British establishment. Once so powerful some referred to him as a permanent cabinet minister, Rupert Murdoch's influence imploded.
Politicians who once assiduously courted him rushed to distance themselves. Mr Murdoch distanced himself - and his son, James - from News Corp's British newspaper arm, resigning from a series of News International directorships and moving James to New York. Three of the country's top police officers have resigned over their failure to get to grips with the scandal. Dozens of journalists, media executives and public figures have been arrested or resigned.
The country's media regulator - widely discredited by the scandal - is to be replaced. The saga has also tarnished the reputation of many who, like the culture and media secretary Jeremy Hunt, were sympathetic to News Corp's far-flung interests.
The detail of the charges reads like a Who's Who of Britain's tabloid pantheon. Mr Miskiw and Mr Weatherup are accused of intercepting the messages of the actor Jude Law, along with associates of his ex-wife, Sadie Frost, and former girlfriend Sienna Miller.
Mr Edmondson and Mr Weatherup are accused of spying on the former Beatle Paul McCartney, his ex-wife Heather Mills, and politicians including the former deputy prime minister John Prescott. Mr Thurlbeck and Mr Weatherup are alleged to have eavesdropped on associates of Ms Jolie and Mr Pitt.
Mrs Brooks denied the accusations yesterday and said she was "distressed and angry" at the decision to charge her. The allegation she conspired to spy on Milly Dowler was "particularly upsetting."
Mr Thurlbeck said he would make it clear that he always acted "under the strict guidance and advice of News International's lawyers and under the instructions of the newspaper's editors."
* Associated Press