LONDON // The first trial from the phone-hacking scandal that sank Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World opens in Britain on Monday with his key aide Rebekah Brooks and the prime minister’s former media chief Andy Coulson among the defendants.
In what media commentators have dubbed the “trial of the century”, eight people will appear at the Old Bailey in London for the start of up to four months of hearings on a scandal that shook the British establishment and rocked Mr Murdoch’s media empire and the entire British newspaper industry.
The charges range from illegally hacking the mobile-phone voicemails of more than 600 victims, including a murdered schoolgirl and celebrities such as Paul McCartney, to bribing public officials for stories and hiding evidence.
The trial is expected to hear explosive testimony about the scandal that forced Australian-born Murdoch to shut down the weekly tabloid in disgrace in 2011, and threatened to drag in David Cameron’s government.
The trial will formally open on Monday but the prosecution’s opening statement is expected to be delayed by the selection of a jury and by legal arguments.
The main players are Brooks, the flame-haired former chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspaper operations, and Coulson, the journalist-turned-media-lynchpin for Mr Cameron.
Ms Brooks, 45, who rose from a secretary to edit the News of the World and its daily sister paper The Sun while becoming one of Mr Murdoch’s closest confidantes, denies phone hacking, conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office, and perverting the course of justice.
Her husband Charlie, 50, a racehorse trainer, her personal assistant Cheryl Carter, 49, and former News International security chief Mark Hanna, 50, deny obstructing justice along with Ms Brooks herself by concealing evidence in the frantic last days of the News of the World.
Mr Coulson, 45, a former editor of the newspaper, denies hacking and paying officials for a Buckingham Palace phone directory containing the royal family’s contact details.
Also on trial are former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner and head of news Ian Edmondson, who both deny phone hacking.
The final defendant is royal editor Clive Goodman, who is charged along with Mr Coulson for bribing officials and also pleads not guilty.
A public inquiry ordered by Mr Cameron and led by judge Brian Leveson heard evidence on the scandal, but it is the first time that criminal charges will be put to the alleged key players.
The political commentator Peter Oborne wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper: “The Old Bailey will host the trial of the century. While the Leveson Inquiry generated dramatic headlines, all the most important areas of criminal investigation were out of bounds.”
Oborne said that “much of the fascination will be human” but stressed that the trial was of “extraordinary political significance”.
A second trial involving several Sun journalists accused of bribing officials is provisionally due to start in February.
The scandal erupted in July 2011 with revelations that the News of the World had hacked the voicemails of Milly Dowler, a missing schoolgirl who was later found murdered, and led to the closure of the paper after 168 years in print.
Dowler is the subject of specific charges against Mr Coulson, Ms Brooks and Mr Kuttner.
At the time of the hacking revelations, Conservative leader Mr Cameron faced questions about his employment of Mr Coulson, who was his media chief from 2007 until 2011, as well as his friendship with Ms Brooks and her husband.
The eight people going on trial on Monday are the first among the dozens that have been arrested as part of a huge, multi-faceted police investigation into criminal practices by Britain’s famously raucous press.
The shockwaves from the scandal are still being felt two years later.
Mr Murdoch’s New York-based News Corp has paid out millions of pounds to hacking victims and faces further bills to come. He has divided News Corp into two companies, separating the television and film business from the newspaper and publishing arm.
Britain’s newspaper industry is meanwhile fighting the introduction of tough regulatory measures in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.
The papers said last week they would take legal action to challenge the government’s plan for a press standards organisation backed by a so-called “royal charter”.
They say the plan is tantamount to state regulation of the press.
* Agence France-Presse