British prosecutors accused former Rupert Murdoch aide Rebekah Brooks and five others of obstructing justice Tuesday in the first criminal charges from the News of the World phone hacking scandal.
The ex-News International (NI) chief executive, her husband Charlie Brooks and four people who worked for her were charged with trying to hide evidence from police investigating wrongdoing at the now-closed tabloid.
Brooks, 43, and her husband, 49, who is a former racehorse trainer and schoolfriend of Prime Minister David Cameron, said the decision was “weak and unjust”.
Senior prosecutor Alison Levitt said in a television statement that there was “sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction” in six cases of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
The charges are a stunning fall from grace for the woman who started on the bottom rung of Murdoch’s empire more than two decades ago but eventually became so close to him that she was dubbed his “fifth daughter.”
Instantly recognisable with her shock of flame-red hair, Brooks also moved in the highest circles of British politics, and testified to a press ethics inquiry just last week about her close relationship with Cameron.
The others to be charged are Cheryl Carter, Rebekah Brooks’s personal assistant; Mark Hanna, head of security at NI; Brooks’s chauffeur Paul Edwards, who was employed by NI, and Daryl Jorsling, who provided security for Brooks that was supplied by NI.
All six are due to appear in court in London at a later date, Levitt said.
The maximum sentence for perverting the course of justice is life imprisonment, but jail terms are normally far shorter.
Rebekah and Charlie Brooks condemned the charges — and effectively broke the news of them by releasing a statement several minutes before prosecutors officially announced them.
“We deplore this weak and unjust decision. After the further unprecedented posturing of the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) we will respond later today after our return from the police station,” the couple said.
Brooks was charged with conspiring to conceal material from Scotland Yard officers between July 6 and July 19, 2011, at the height of the hacking scandal, prosecutor Levitt said.
Brooks and Carter were charged with conspiring to remove seven boxes of material from the archives of News International, the British newspaper wing of Murdoch’s US-based News Corp. empire, between the same dates.
All five except Carter were also charged with conspiring to “conceal documents, computers and other electronic equipment from officers of the Metropolitan Police Service” between July 15 and 19, 2011.
A seventh person arrested has been released without charge.
Brooks and her husband were arrested in March over the allegations.
She was initially arrested in July over separate allegations of phone hacking and bribing public officials, and she remains on police bail for those accusations.
Brooks resigned as head of News International in July in the wake of her arrest and of the closure of the News of the World, amid public revulsion that it had hacked the phone of a murdered schoolgirl.
The charges announced Tuesday are the first since Scotland Yard opened a huge new investigation into hacking and bribery in which more than 40 people have been arrested.
A News of the World journalist and a private detective were jailed for hacking in 2007 but the paper insisted they were rogue operators.
The arrests continued on Tuesday, with police detaining a British customs official and a woman in a dawn raid on a house in northwest London as part of the bribery probe.
Brooks started work at the News of the World in 1989 at the age of 20 and became editor of Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper in 2000 aged 31, running a series of controversial campaigns including one to “name and shame” paedophiles.
In 2003, she became the first female editor of The Sun, the News of the World’s sister paper, and in 2009, she became chief executive of NI.
But it was her access to British politicians that has raised question about the influence of Murdoch’s empire.
Cameron and Charlie Brooks were schoolfriends at the elite Eton college and he attended the Brooks’s wedding in 2009.