Andy Coulson, a former top aide to Prime Minister David Cameron, was sentenced to 18 months in prison Friday for presiding over phone hacking on a massive scale when he was editor of a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid.
Coulson, 46, was the only one of seven defendants to be convicted last week after one of the longest and most expensive trials in British history. The trial – with its peek into the often-seamy relationships among the press, politicians and police, plus the testimony of celebrity witnesses such as actor Jude Law – has riveted many in Britain since last October.
Three other former journalists and a private investigator at the now-defunct News of the World, who all pleaded guilty to accessing voicemail messages left on victims' cellphones, were also sentenced Friday at London's Old Bailey courthouse.
Neville Thurlbeck, former senior reporter, and Greg Miskiw, ex-news editor, were handed jail terms of six months each. Former reporter James Weatherup was given a suspended sentence of four months and ordered to perform community service.
Private detective Glenn Mulcaire, who has already spent time behind bars for a previous phone-hacking conviction, received a suspended six-month jail term.
The sentences were pronounced by a judge who called it "unforgivable" that the News of the World had gone as far as tapping into the voicemail messages of a 13-year-old girl who had been kidnapped and who was later found killed.
Revelations of that incident shocked Britain three years ago and triggered a public and political backlash against Murdoch, whose media empire had made him one of this country's most influential people. He shut down the 168-year-old News of the World and was summoned to answer questions before Parliament.
Lawmakers and senior police officials who had cozied up to the Australian media magnate and his newspapers also came in for withering criticism. The head of Scotland Yard resigned.
Murdoch's trusted lieutenant, Rebekah Brooks, stepped down as head of his British newspapers and went on trial alongside Coulson. Brooks, 46, was accused of conspiring to hack phones, bribery and obstruction of justice, but the jury acquitted her of all charges. Her husband and former personal assistant were also cleared.
Coulson, who was both Brooks' colleague at the News of the World and her lover when both were married to other people, faces a retrial on corruption charges stemming from allegations that he paid police for a phone directory of the royal household.
Coulson's phone-hacking conviction is acutely embarrassing for British leader Cameron, who promoted him to chief communications advisor after he resigned as editor of the News of the World. By that point, phone-hacking was already a known practice at the paper, but Cameron accepted Coulson's assurances that he himself was unaware of it and that the practice was confined to one or two "rogue" reporters.
Evidence has emerged that the tabloid hacked phones on an almost industrial scale, targeting hundreds of movie stars, lawmakers, athletes and even crime victims. Weatherup, one of the former journalists who pleaded guilty, said at a sentencing hearing last week that the illegal interception of voicemails was "endemic" and "condoned and encouraged by very senior management" at the News of the World.
Cameron has apologized before Parliament for hiring Coulson, but the opposition Labor Party continues to lambaste him for bringing a criminal into his inner circle at 10 Downing St.
Cameron said Friday's sentences showed that "it's right that justice should be done and no one is above the law."