It’s a scandal that has shaken London’s newspaper business, caused widespread public outrage and brought down one of Britain’s best-selling tabloids. And now a criminal trial has begun in London into the heart of the allegations: that senior editors at Rupert Murdoch’s media empire allowed staff to hack cellphones to get stories, bribe public officials and block a police investigation.
The trial is among the most sensational in years in Britain and is expected to not only probe the inner workings of the once mighty News of the World, which closed in 2011 because of the allegations, but also expose the complicated ties between reporters, politicians and the police at some newspapers.
Among the eight defendants on trial are Andrew Coulson, a former News of the World editor who was also once a communications adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron, and Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of the News of the World and the Sun who also served as chief executive of Mr. Murdoch’s British newspapers.
The two 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 in the dock 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.
All eight defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Roughly 100 witnesses will be called over the course of the trial. Jury selection began Monday amid a crush of reporters from around the world. 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-flyers.
The trial could prove uncomfortable not only for those involved. It will examine the tight relationships that existed between senior editors and politicians, Mr. Cameron in particular. Ms. Brooks was on friendly terms with Mr. Cameron and her husband, Charles Brooks, who is also on trial, attended Eton with the Prime Minister and lent him horses to ride. After serving as editor, Mr. Coulson became Mr. Cameron’s director of communications in 2007.
The crux of the case will be whether Ms. Brooks and Mr. Coulson knew about the alleged illegal activity at the paper, which included accessing the voice mails of celebrities, hacking computers and bribing police officers.
The scandal was set off in 2011 after allegations surfaced that News of the World journalists had hacked into the cell phone of 13-year-old Milly Dowler when police were searching for her in 2002. The teenager had a generic voice-mail message that indicated when the box was full. While the search was under way her mother called the cell phone frantically, filling up the voice mail.
However at one point she was able to leave a message, raising hope that that Milly was alive. The girl’s body was found six months later and her killer convicted. The News of the World eventually admitted that its journalists had hacked into her cell phone, prompting public anger and a series of investigations.
Regardless of the outcome of the trial, newspapers and the government continue to spar over the creation of new regulations for the media as recommended by a public inquiry. The government is now planning to go it alone and has drafted a plan, backed by the three major political parties, to create a new regulator. Several newspaper companies oppose the plan and are preparing a court challenge.