LONDON — Rebekah Brooks, the former head of Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper empire and a close friend of Prime Minister David Cameron, was formally charged Tuesday, along with her husband and four others, of perverting the course of justice in the hacking scandal that has burrowed deeply into British public life.
It was the first time that charges had been brought since the police reopened inquiries into the long-running scandal 16 months ago. The accusations are an important watershed in a wider criminal investigation that has resulted in about 50 people being arrested and released on bail by Scotland Yard teams that are delving into phone hacking, payments to public officials, and other accusations of wrongdoing at two tabloid newspapers owned by Murdoch.
Those investigations seem sure to produce their own raft of criminal charges in the coming months, and could result in Brooks’s being indicted again. She was arrested twice by the Scotland Yard investigators, once last year on suspicion of phone hacking and corruption, then again in March in the perversion of justice case. Legal specialists said that the charges brought Tuesday would almost certainly lead to a high-profile trial, in nine months or so, before High Court judges at the Old Bailey, Britain’s most famous criminal court.
The charges relate to a two-week period of high drama last summer when the full extent of the scandal was emerging: Phone hacking at News of the World was revealed as having included a 13-year-old London schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, whose voice mail was intercepted after she had been abducted and before her body was discovered. That prompted Murdoch and his son James to fly to London and close down the 168-year-old tabloid. Brooks, a former editor of the paper, quickly resigned as chief executive of News International, the Murdoch newspaper subsidiary in Britain. She was arrested the first time shortly afterward.
According to the charges made public by the Crown Prosecution Service on Tuesday, it was in the midst of those events - between July 6 and July 19, 2011 - that Brooks, her husband, Charlie, and the four others, including her private assistant at News International, her chauffeur, and a bodyguard, were engaged in concealing documents, computers, and electronic devices from Scotland Yard investigators.
The decision to prosecute Rebekah and Charlie Brooks was seen as a blow to Rupert and James Murdoch, who put Rebekah Brooks on the fast track to one of the most powerful positions in the News Corp. worldwide empire and who have stood by her as the scandal has grown. It was a blow, too, to Cameron. By his account and Rebekah Brooks’s, he has maintained a cozy social relationship with her and Charlie Brooks, a prominent racehorse trainer, when he was in the opposition and, since 2010, as prime minister.
But the charges drew a combative response from the Brookses even before prosecutors announced the details.
In what one BBC commentator described as a move worthy of the tabloids to scoop the opposition, the couple issued a highly combative statement before the criminal charges had been formally announced.
“We have this morning been informed by the Office of the Department of Public Prosecutions that we are to be charged with perverting the course of justice,’’ the couple said in a statement.
“We deplore this weak and unjust decision,’’ they added. “After the further unprecedented posturing of the [Crown Prosecution Service], we will respond later today after our return from the police station.’’
Later, outside of her lawyer’s office in London, Rebekah Brooks and her husband made a characteristically defiant statement decrying the prosecution, denying wrongdoing, and questioning whether the decision to charge them had been motivated by public pressure.
Charlie Brooks said he felt he and the others arrested with his wife were being used “to ratchet up the pressure’’ on Rebekah Brooks, who he said was “the victim of a witch hunt.’’ She could not, he said, expect a fair trial.