One of Rupert Murdoch's most trusted lieutenants and five people close to her were charged Tuesday with conspiring to hide evidence of phone hacking, bringing the scandal that has raged across Britain's media and political elite uncomfortably close to Prime Minister David Cameron.
The charges against former U.K. tabloid editor Rebekah Brooks, her husband and four aides are the first prosecutions since police reopened inquiries 18 months ago into wrongdoing by the country's scandal-hungry press.
Ms. Brooks, 43, faces three separate allegations of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice – an offence that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
For years, Ms. Brooks was the star in Mr. Murdoch's media empire, the top editor of two of his tabloids, a friend of his daughter Elisabeth and a close friend of Mr. Cameron, who has known her husband, Charlie Brooks, since they both went to an elite high school. Mr. Cameron is a neighbour, a friend and an occasional horse-riding companion of the couple.
The prospect that courts will hear potentially explosive accusations against Ms. Brooks and her husband could rock both Mr. Murdoch's global media empire and Mr. Cameron's political career.
To critics, Ms. Brooks was "The Witch of Wapping" – a ruthless figure at the heart of a media company in that London neighbourhood that showed little remorse over its frequently intrusive reporting on celebrities and ordinary people it thrust into the public glare.
The law-breaking allegedly involved removing computers and files in the frantic days last summer when Mr. Murdoch shut down his tainted 168-year-old News of the World tabloid in an attempt to halt a tide of public disgust over the hacking scandal.
Alison Levitt, the legal adviser to Britain's director of public prosecutions, said Ms. Brooks and the others are alleged to have concealed documents, computers and electronic equipment from police who were conducting inquiries into phone hacking and the alleged bribery of public officials.
With her former personal assistant Cheryl Carter, Ms. Brooks is also accused of removing seven boxes of materials from News International archives, Ms. Levitt said, adding: "All these matters relate to the ongoing police investigation into allegations of phone hacking and corruption of public officials in relation to the News of the World and The Sun newspapers.
Ms. Brooks and her husband rejected the charges. Standing side by side in front of their lawyers' office in London, Mr. Brooks slammed what he described as a "witch hunt" targeting his wife.
Ms. Brooks, looking grave, said she was baffled and furious at the charges. "I cannot express my anger enough that those close to me have unfairly been dragged into this," she said.
In testimony last week before Britain's media ethics inquiry, Ms. Brooks acknowledged her close links to Mr. Cameron and detailed how their families mingled at dinners and Christmas parties. She said she had traded text messages with the Prime Minister at least once a week and that he had offered a message of support after she stepped down amid the scandal.
Daithi Mac Sithigh, a legal expert at the University of East Anglia who has given evidence to the ethics inquiry, said the decision to prosecute Brooks could have far-reaching consequences. "It is safe to say that the relationship between the press, the public and the law will not be the same again," he said.
Known for her striking red curls and storybook rise from a junior employee to chief executive at News International, Ms. Brooks also remains on police bail over separate allegations related to illegal eavesdropping, and will face more questions from detectives on that issue in the coming months.
Police said all six people charged Tuesday will appear for a hearing next month at a central London court.
The criminal charges are the first to be filed since police launched a new inquiry into phone hacking in January, 2011. Previously, two people were jailed briefly in 2007 for hacking into the phones of members of the royal household. Investigators initially accepted the company's claims that malpractice was not widespread.