LONDON — The trial of two former top editors of Rupert Murdoch’s shuttered News of the World tabloid began Monday with the selection of a jury to hear the lengthy, high-profile case sparked by Britain’s phone-hacking scandal.
Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson — both former senior Murdoch aides and associates of British Prime Minister David Cameron — are charged with phone hacking and illegal payments to officials. They sat in the dock at London’s Central Criminal Court alongside 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 a tabloid phone-hacking scandal that erupted two years ago. Revelations of illegal eavesdropping by the News of the World sparked the closure of the 168-year-old newspaper and led to a judge-led media-ethics inquiry and several wide-ranging criminal investigations that have seen dozens of journalists and officials arrested.
The judge told about 80 prospective jurors, from whom a 12-member jury will be chosen, not to discuss the case or seek information about it so they could hear the arguments “free from any preconceptions.”
Brooks arrived early for the hearing alongside her husband Charles, who faces a related charge of obstructing justice.
The eight defendants — all former Murdoch employees except for Charles Brooks — chatted in the glass-enclosed dock in a windowless courtroom dotted with more than a dozen bewigged lawyers set to argue the complex case. All the defendants deny the charges.
The prosecution is expected to begin opening arguments on Tuesday.
WHO IS ON TRIAL?
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’ 50-year-old husband Charles, a racehorse trainer.
Coulson and Rebekah Brooks have become the faces of the scandal, though neither has been convicted of wrongdoing.
He was the elusive figure — rarely photographed — behind Cameron’s canny media strategy. She was the flame-haired, high-flying editor 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;, ex-news editor Ian Edmondson; former royal editor Clive Goodman; Rebekah Brooks’ former assistant Cheryl Carter; and Mark Hanna, former security chief at Murdoch’s News International unit.
WHAT ARE THE CHARGES?
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 or 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.
HOW DID THE ALLEGATIONS ARISE?
The charges stem from the scandal that erupted in 2011, when it was revealed that journalists at the News of the World eavesdropped on the cellphone voicemail messages of celebrities, politicians, crime victims and others in the public eye.
The furor led Murdoch to close the News of The World and triggered police investigations into phone hacking, computer hacking and the bribery of officials, probes that have expanded to take in possible wrongdoing at other British newspapers.
More than 30 people have been charged, including senior journalists and editors from the News of the World and its sister paper, The Sun.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES IN THE TRIAL?
The central questions are: What did Brooks and Coulson know, and how widespread were the illegal practices when they ran the newspaper? Brooks edited the paper between 2000 and 2003; in 2002, it hacked the mobile phone voicemails of a murdered 13-year-old, Milly Dowler, while police were searching for her. (Brooks denies knowing about any of the hacking). Coulson was in charge from 2003 to 2007.
WHAT SENTENCES COULD THEY GET?
The maximum sentence for phone hacking is two years in prison, while the other charges carry a maximum life sentence, although the average term imposed is much shorter.
WILL THE TRIAL PUT AN END TO THE SAGA?
Not likely. The hacking scandal convinced many politicians and members of the public that Britain’s press was out of control. Cameron ordered a judge-led inquiry into media ethics, which recommended an independent press regulator be set up with state backing. Many editors and journalists fear that could lead to state regulation but they may find it hard to resist amid a new blare of publicity about media misdeeds.
Revelations at the trial also could heap new pressure on Murdoch, who remains atop his now-fractured media empire. The scandal led him to shut down his best-selling newspaper, pay millions to settle lawsuits from hacking victims and split his News Corp. media empire into two businesses, a publishing company and a media and entertainment group.