LONDON — The trial of two former top editors of Rupert Murdoch’s defunct News of the World began Monday with the selection of a jury to hear the complex case sparked by a tabloid phone-hacking scandal that has shaken Murdoch’s media empire and tarnished the image of British journalism.
Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, both one-time senior Murdoch aides and associates of Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, are charged with conspiring to hack the phones of celebrities and other people in the public eye and with making illegal payments to officials for information.
They sat side by side at London’s Central Criminal Court along with six other defendants on the first day of a trial that Judge John Saunders said could last up to six months.
This is the first criminal trial stemming from revelations in 2011 of tabloid phone-hacking — a scandal that exposed a murky web of ties binding Britain’s media, political, and police establishments.
Exposure of illegal eavesdropping by the News of the World led Murdoch to shut the 168-year-old newspaper and spurred a judge-led media-ethics inquiry and several wide-ranging criminal investigations. Dozens of journalists and officials have been arrested.
The judge told about 80 prospective jurors that the case centered on allegations of criminal activity at the News of the World and its sister paper, The Sun.
He warned them not to discuss the case or seek information about it, instead urging them to hear the arguments “free from any preconceptions.”
A jury of 12 will be chosen and sworn in Tuesday. The prosecution will then begin its opening arguments, outlining in detail the allegations of wrongdoing against the former media high-fliers.
The eight defendants — all but one former Murdoch employees — chatted in the glass-enclosed dock in a windowless courtroom dotted with more than a dozen bewigged lawyers. All the defendants deny the charges.
The three highest-profile defendants are Brooks, 45, a former editor of the News of the World and former chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspapers; Coulson, 45, another former News of the World editor who was Cameron’s communications chief until 2011; and Brooks’s 50-year-old husband, Charles Brooks, a racehorse trainer.
Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, both snapped by a crowd of photographers and TV cameras as they arrived in court, have become the faces of the scandal.
He was the elusive figure — rarely photographed — behind Cameron’s canny media strategy.
She was the flame-haired executive who exchanged text messages with her friend and neighbor Cameron while overseeing Murdoch’s politically powerful British newspapers.
They face trial alongside former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner; former news editor Ian Edmondson; former royal editor Clive Goodman; Rebekah Brooks’s former assistant, Cheryl Carter; and Mark Hanna, former security chief at Murdoch’s News International.
Brooks and Coulson are charged with conspiracy to intercept communications — phone hacking — and with conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office, which covers bribing officials such as police and prison guards. The other former News of the World journalists face related charges.
Rebekah Brooks, Charles Brooks, Carter, and Hanna are also accused of conspiring to pervert the course of justice by removing material from the company’s archive and withholding computers and documents from the police.