LONDON - Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, the British newspaper division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of obstruction of justice, according to a person with knowledge of the arrest.
Her husband, Charlie, a friend of Prime Minister David Cameron from their days at Eton three decades ago, was also arrested.
Police said in a statement that six people in and outside of London had been arrested Tuesday as part of Operation Weeting, the criminal investigation into phone hacking and other illegal activities at News of the World and other newspapers. None were formally charged with a crime; in the British system, that can occur months later or not at all.
Following standard procedure, the police statement did not identify those arrested. But a person with knowledge of the arrests said that besides Rebekah Brooks and her husband, they included Mark Hanna, the head of security for News International.
The police statement said the six had been arrested between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. and were being interrogated at different police stations on suspicion of “conspiracy to pervert the course of justice,’’ the British equivalent of obstruction of justice. This could relate to activities such as destroying e-mails, computers, and other evidence.
Two former editorial staff members at News International said they were hearing from inside the company that the questioning was related to e-mail messages that were deleted before police widened their phone hacking investigation last year.
Rebekah Brooks, 43, is a confidante of Murdoch and erstwhile friend of Cameron, who attended her wedding in 2009. She worked as the editor of now-defunct News of the World and the editor of The Sun tabloid before being named chief executive of News International. Before Tuesday’s arrest, she had been arrested last summer, on suspicion of phone hacking and illegally paying police.
So far, police have arrested but not charged more than 40 people in Operation Weeting and two other ancillary investigations: Operation Tuleta, which is looking into accusations of computer hacking, and Operation Elveden, which is looking into accusations that journalists paid police officers and government officials for information.
Brooks is the highest-ranking News International official to be arrested. Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor who went on to become the chief spokesman for the prime minister, was arrested last summer as part of Operation Weeting. Other suspects include some of the most prominent reporters and editors at News of the World and The Sun, a Murdoch-owned tabloid that is Britain’s most popular daily newspaper.
Brooks and Coulson have maintained that they knew nothing about phone hacking or other illegal activities. David Wilson, a spokesman for the Brookses, did not return a call seeking comment.
According to a statement from the Metropolitan Police, the ages of the suspects arrested Tuesday ranged from 38 to 49, and all but one were men. Five were arrested at home: two in Oxfordshire (these are believed to be the Brookses); one in Hampshire; one in West London; one in Hertfordshire; and one in East London. The sixth suspect, the police said, was arrested at a business address in East London.
It is unclear what Charlie Brooks, a horse trainer with strong conservative ties who appears to have been drawn into the investigation by virtue of his marriage, is suspected of doing. But The Guardian reported in July that he was involved in a peculiar episode featuring a mysterious laptop left in a bag in a garbage can in an underground parking garage near the London apartment he shares with his wife.
According to the article, the bag with the computer, as well as some papers, was unearthed by security guards, who called the police. Charlie Brooks then tried to reclaim the items but could not prove they were his.
A spokesman for Charlie Brooks told The Guardian that he had “left the bag with a friend who was returning it but dropped it in the wrong part of the garage.’’ When asked how the bag ended up in a garbage can, the spokesman replied: “The suggestion is that a cleaner thought it was rubbish and put it in the bin’’ and said that it was “nothing to do with Rebekah.’’
Charlie Brooks was in the news when it emerged last month that police had loaned his wife a horse that had been retired from active service. The loan was relevant because of the close ties between Rebekah Brooks and the police, and because of the close ties between Charlie and Rebekah Brooks and Cameron.