LONDON (AP) — Rebekah Brooks — a friend of Prime Minister David Cameron and once one of the most powerful people in the British media — on Wednesday formally denied charges of phone hacking, bribing public officials and trying to thwart a police investigation into tabloid wrongdoing.
Brooks, the former chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International, answered “not guilty” in a firm voice to five charges during a hearing at London’s Southwark Crown Court.
The period covered by the charges stretches over more than a decade — from 2000, when Brooks was the youngest-ever editor of the News of the World, though her tenure as editor of its sister paper, The Sun, to her time as CEO of Murdoch’s British newspaper operation.
Brooks is a key figure in the phone-hacking scandal that has rattled Britain’s press, police and political establishments.
The phone hacking scandal erupted in 2011, after it was revealed that journalists at Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid routinely eavesdropped on the mobile phone voicemail messages of celebrities, members of the royal household and other people in the public eye, including crime victims and a murdered 13-year-old girl.
The scandal led Murdoch to close down the News of The World and led to extensive police investigations into phone hacking, computer hacking and the bribery of officials.
WHO WAS INVOLVED?
News International maintained for several years that phone hacking had been the work of a single rogue reporter and a private investigator, who were jailed in 2007 for intercepting the voice mails of royal aides.
That claim began to unravel in 2011. To date more than 30 people have been charged, including senior journalists and editors from both the News of the World and The Sun.
Allegations of wrongdoing have spread to other papers outside the Murdoch empire, as well as to police, prison officers and former members of the armed forces alleged to have sold information to newspapers.
Only a handful of suspects have stood trial so far, including three former police officers convicted of selling or trying to sell information. One constable, Paul Flattley, was sentenced to two years in jail for selling information to The Sun about high-profile cases on 39 occasions over three years.
Several suspects have been cleared, including former Sun defense correspondent Virginia Wheeler. Charges against her were dropped on Wednesday.
The scandal spurred Cameron to set up a judge-led public inquiry into media ethics, which found last year that there had been a subculture of unethical behavior in the British press and advocated tougher regulation. Attempts to set up a new system of regulation have been resisted by the media, however, and are currently stalled.
The furor has hit both the reputation and the bottom line of Murdoch’s News Corp. The company has fired a slew of executives — some of whom now face trial — and paid out millions to settle lawsuits from hundreds of targets of illegal eavesdropping. Victims including actor Jude Law; Prince Andrew’s ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson; soccer star Ashley Cole; and singer Charlotte Church have received payouts of tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds.
In February, News Corp. revealed that settlements, official inquiries and police investigations stemming from the scandal had cost it $56 million.
THE LEGAL LABYRINTH
The sheer number of defendants means a long, complicated legal road ahead.
Wednesday’s crammed pre-trial hearing saw Brooks appear in court along with a dozen other former News International employees, close to 30 bewigged lawyers and a large press pack.
Brooks, 45, denied five counts of intercepting voicemail messages, conspiracy to commit misconduct involving public officials and obstructing a police investigation by withholding evidence.
Several former News of the World staff, including ex-chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, former news editor James Weatherup and former managing editor Stuart Kuttner, also denied intercepting voice mails.
Defendants including Brooks’ racehorse trainer husband Charlie Brooks; former News International security staff members Mark Hanna, Lee Sandell and David Johnson; driver Paul Edwards; and Rebekah Brooks’ former assistant, Cheryl Carter, denied trying to pervert the course of justice by concealing documents, computers and other material from the police.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless