After a year of furious controversy over the widespread phone hacking by one of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid newspapers, British prosecutors brought criminal charges on Tuesday against eight of the most prominent figures in the scandal, including Andy Coulson, who was Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications chief at 10 Downing Street until the scandal forced his resignation last year.
Also charged was Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of Mr. Murdoch’s newspaper empire in Britain until she, too, resigned last summer. Others who were indicted included four other journalists who played prominent roles at The News of the World, the tabloid where Ms. Brooks and later Mr. Coulson were the top editors at the time that the hacking is alleged to have occurred, from 2000 to 2006.
The eighth individual charged was Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who served a prison term in 2007, together with The News of the World’s reporter specializing in coverage of the Britain’s royal family, for hacking into the cellphones of younger members of the royal family and their aides. Those convictions remain the only ones so far in the hacking furor.
After Tuesday’s announcement by Alison Levitt, the senior legal adviser at the Crown Prosecution Service, headlines in Britain focused on Mr. Coulson and Ms. Brooks, both of whom have strong personal links to Mr. Cameron – Mr. Coulson through his years at Mr. Cameron’s side, in and out of government, and Ms. Brooks because of the friendship she and her husband, horse trainer Charlie Brooks, had with Mr. Cameron before the scandal erupted.
Political analysts said the fact that the two now face criminal trials that seem certain to run on at least through the next year, attracting wide news coverage, posed a potentially serious hazard to the prime minister. With a general election due in 2015, the analysts said, Mr. Cameron and the Conservative Party are now potentially vulnerable to any new revelations that might emerge from the trials, in the form of hitherto unpublished e-mails or testimony touching on his dealings with Mr. Coulson or Ms. Brooks.
The prime minister’s judgment in the affair – particularly his recruiting of Mr. Coulson as the Conservative Party’s media chief in 2007, and his decision to take him to Downing Street after the 2010 election, long after the hacking that took place on Mr. Coulson’s watch at The News of the World became known – is already a major dent in Mr. Cameron’s political armor.
With a bloc of about 100 Conservative members of Parliament already deeply restive about other aspects of his stewardship as prime minister, mostly because of the political compromises he has struck on important social and economic issues with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats who are junior partners in the ruling coalition, the criminal charges against Mr. Coulson, in particular, seem likely to aggravate questions that Conservative dissenters have been raising about his judgment.
The charges, the most significant so far in a scandal that has rocked British public life and shaken faith in the media, politics and the police, relate to allegations that hundreds of celebrities, politicians and others named in news stories had their voice mail messages intercepted by Mr. Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid in a search of scoops. They refer specifically to more than a dozen high-profile figures, including the actors Jude Law, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie who prosecutors say were targeted between 2000 and 2006.
Among the charges against Mr. Coulson and Ms. Brooks is “conspiracy unlawfully to intercept communications” in the case of Milly Dowler, a British schoolgirl who disappeared in 2002 and was subsequently discovered murdered. It was the revelation that her phone had been hacked that disgusted Britons and led to a tide of outrage and the closing of The News of the World last summer.
Also facing charges are the former managing editor of the tabloid, Stuart Kuttner; two of its senior editors, Ian Edmondson and Greg Miskiw; the reporters Neville Thurlbeck and James Weatherup; and Mr. Mulcaire, the private detective said to be at the heart of the scandal.
Ms. Brooks, once Mr. Murdoch’s protégé and confidante, released an immediate statement.
“I am not guilty of these charges,” she said, referring to her time as editor of The News of the World, “I did not authorize, nor was I aware of, phone hacking under my editorship.”
Mr. Coulson did not respond to a call seeking comment and a spokesman for Mr. Murdoch’s British media subsidiary, News International, also declined to comment.
Ms. Brooks also faces three counts of conspiring to obstruct justice. She, her husband and four members of Ms. Brooks’s staff at News International were accused of concealing documents, computers and other material from detectives investigating phone hacking at around the time The News of the World was closed. She has strenuously denied the charges.
Tuesday’s charges, which carry a maximum jail sentence of two years, mark a spectacular fall for Ms. Brooks, who joined The News of the World when she was 20 and by her early 40s had risen to the top of its parent company as one of Mr. Murdoch’s closest lieutenants. She and her husband were neighbors of Mr. Cameron and they have admitted to exchanging frequent text messages and riding horses together.
The eight defendants will appear in court in September, prosecutors said. But the charges brought on Tuesday are likely only the beginning: three police investigations, into the phone hacking, payments to public officials and data hacking continue, Scotland Yard has said. So far, more than 50 current and former journalists, public officials and others have been arrested and prosecutors have yet to decide whether they will be prosecuted.
Mr. Murdoch also faces dozens of civil suits which come from a pool of more than 2,000 people the police have notified might have been victims of phone hacking. And when all the court cases have been cleared, a process which could take years, a British public inquiry will begin sifting the evidence of wrongdoing in the Murdoch media empire once more.
If it is found that voice mail interceptions occurred on American soil, as some have alleged, Mr. Murdoch’s profitable American business interests could also suffer. A spokeswoman for Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service declined to comment on the issue, saying that the defendants are accused of conspiracy, not of actual interceptions.
Mr. Murdoch’s $53 billion global company, News Corporation, has announced that it would split into two companies – one for its profitable television and entertainment businesses, and the other for its troubled print assets including the scandal-hit British newspapers. Media analysts suggested the move was designed to prevent any scandal, and financial fallout, spreading across his interests.