LONDON: Top executives at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World knew that staff were routinely hacking celebrities’ phones, British prosecutors said yesterday as they opened their case at the long-awaited trial over the scandal that sank the tabloid.
Two former editors of the newspaper — Murdoch’s protegee Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, a one-time media chief to Prime Minister David Cameron — are among eight defendants at the high-profile trial.
It is the first time that criminal charges have been put to alleged key players in the scandal that rocked the British media and the political world two years ago.
Brooks, Coulson and the six others are accused of offences ranging from plotting to illegally hack celebrities’ phones to concealing evidence and bribing officials for stories.
All the defendants deny the charges against them.
Opening the case at London’s Old Bailey court, prosecutor Andrew Edis said the jury had “quite a simple” question to consider.
“There was phone hacking,” he told the panel of nine women and three men. “Who knew?”
Three former senior journalists at the News of the World — Greg Miskiw, James Weatherup and Neville Thurlbeck — have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hack phones, Edis revealed.
Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old News of the World in disgrace in July 2011 amid a storm of allegations that its staff had hacked the mobile phone voicemail messages of a murdered schoolgirl as well as hundreds of celebrities and public figures.
Brooks and Coulson, both 45, are the most high-profile defendants in a trial that is set to last up to six months.
The prosecution stressed that the case was about more than just phone hacking. Edie said Brooks was accused of paying £40,000 to a Ministry of Defence official for information.
Flame-haired Brooks rose from a secretary to become chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspaper wing News International, which was rebranded News UK after the scandal.
Brooks is accused of conspiring to hack the mobile phone voicemail messages of more than 600 celebrities, public figures and crime victims, hiding evidence, and paying officials for stories.
Coulson, who was News of the World editor before becoming Cameron’s media chief in 2007, is accused of phone hacking as well as bribing officials to obtain a Buckingham Palace phone directory.
“The prosecution say that at a newspaper where there is a great deal of phone hacking going on — and which is intensely interested in the royal family — the acquisition of phone books with phone numbers is something of obvious significance,” Edis said.
“It would be very useful, wouldn’t it, in doing some phone hacking.”
Brooks’ racehorse trainer husband Charlie is on trial alongside her, accused of helping to hide evidence in the chaotic last days of the News of the World, as are her former assistant Cheryl Carter and former News International security chief Mark Hanna.
The tabloid’s head of news Ian Edmondson is charged with phone hacking, while royal editor Clive Goodman is accused of bribing officials.
The final defendant is former managing editor Stuart Kuttner — who also denies phone-hacking — but he was not in court yesterday for health reasons.
More than 100 people have been arrested since July 2011 as part of a huge police investigation into criminal practices by the British press.
Cameron also ordered a public inquiry in the wake of the scandal, which exposed the close relationship between British politicians and the Murdoch press.
The premier has faced questions over his friendship with Rebekah and Charlie Brooks — who he knew from his days at the elite Eton boarding school — and his decision to employ Coulson.
Coulson was forced to resign in 2011 over persistent allegations that he knew more about hacking at the News of the World than he previously admitted.
Several journalists from the News of the World’s sister paper, The Sun, are due to go on trial separately next year accused of paying officials for stories.