Murdoch exec Rebekah Brooks and husband charged in hacking case

LONDON — She once had the ear of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Prime Minister David Cameron. Through newspapers such as the Times of London and the Sun, she exerted a powerful influence on British society.

But in a spectacular fall from grace, Rebekah Brooks was charged Tuesday with three counts of trying to obstruct justice in the phone-hacking and media corruption scandal that has rocked Britain. Brooks’ husband, Charlie, and four of her former colleagues were also charged Tuesday with two counts each of “conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.”

The decision to press charges represents a turning point in a long-running saga that has produced dozens of arrests and shaken up Murdoch’s global media empire.

The charges are the most serious allegations of wrongdoing to emerge so far from the police investigations of news-gathering practices at the News of the World and the Sun tabloids, including illegally accessing private voicemail and paying public officials for information.

Until last summer, Rebekah Brooks, 43, oversaw those papers from her lofty perch as head of News International, the British subsidiary of Murdoch’s giant News Corp. She was forced to quit after the revelation that the News of the World, under her editorship, had tapped into the cellphone of a kidnapped teenager who was later found slain.

Prosecutors allege that, in the two weeks after that disclosure, Brooks and the others tried to conceal or remove documents, computers and other electronic equipment germane to Scotland Yard’s investigation.

“There is sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction,” prosecutor Alison Levitt said, adding that no charges would be filed against an unidentified seventh suspect.

The charges can carry a heavy penalty, including, at least in theory, life imprisonment, but sentences usually range from four months to two years per count.

Brooks and her husband issued a statement denouncing the charges as “weak and unjust” and accused prosecutors of “unprecedented posturing.”

“I have to question today whether the decision was made on a proper, impartial assessment of the evidence,” Rebekah Brooks told reporters Tuesday afternoon, with her husband at her side. “I understand and know that there needs to be a proper and thorough investigation, and I am baffled by the decision to charge me today.”

Looking pale, her face framed by her famous cascade of curly red hair, Brooks expressed anger that people close to her had been dragged “unfairly” into the investigation, and said that time would expose the charges against her as “nothing more than an expensive sideshow, a waste of public money.”

Charlie Brooks, 49, a writer and horse trainer, described himself as a scapegoat chosen to “ratchet up the pressure on my wife, who I also believe is the subject of a witch hunt.” He said he had “grave reservations that my wife can ever get a fair trial, given the huge volume of biased commentary that she is constantly subjected to.”

Charlie Brooks found himself ensnared in the scandal when a security guard at the couple’s London apartment building discovered a laptop computer and various documents in a garbage bag stuffed into a trash can. The guard handed the items over to the police, from whom Charlie Brooks tried to reclaim them, saying he had thrown them out by mistake in a mix-up with a colleague.

The others charged Tuesday include Rebekah Brooks’ chauffeur and her former personal assistant, Cheryl Carter. One of the counts alleges that Brooks and Carter, 48, tried to remove seven boxes of material from the archive of News International.

The decision to charge Brooks is apt to be embarrassing for Cameron, the prime minister, who socialized with her and her husband, a childhood friend, before the couple became political poison.

Just last Friday, at a judicial inquiry on media ethics, Brooks testified that Cameron sent her text messages once or twice a week “on average,” which he sometimes signed “LOL,” thinking it meant “lots of love.” Brooks’ account of hobnobbing with prime ministers and other high-ranking government officials offered a look at the often-cozy relationships that exist between members of Britain’s political, media and social elites.

Before her resignation, Brooks was at the peak of a meteoric career that saw her shoot up through the ranks of News International to become one of Murdoch’s closest confidants. After her stint at the News of the World, she served as the first female editor of the racy Sun, Britain’s bestselling daily newspaper.

Police have arrested dozens of journalists at the two tabloids as part of three separate investigations spawned by the hacking scandal. On Tuesday, Scotland Yard announced the arrests of two more people in connection with its investigation of allegations that public officials had been bribed by public officials.