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phone hacking scandal

Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks leaves the Old Bailey Courthouse in London Oct. 31, 2013. Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, two former editors of Rupert Murdoch's now defunct News of the World tabloid, were having an affair at the time their reporters are accused of hacking into phones, a court heard on Thursday.TOBY MELVILLE/Reuters

British tabloids love to write about the royal family so when the biggest tabloid, The Sun, got a chance to buy a picture of Prince William attending a costume party wearing a bikini, it allegedly didn't hesitate to pay £4,000 for it. There was only one problem: the payment was illegal.

The saga of the photo, taken in 2006 when Prince William was an officer cadet at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and how it ended up at the paper has surfaced during the trial of former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, once one of the most powerful people in the British media. Ms. Brooks was also editor of News of the World, which folded because of the scandal, and ran the British operations of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. which owned both papers.

The trial opened this week and it has already caused a sensation – with details emerging about years of illegal phone tapping, secret cash payments and revelations that Ms. Brooks had an affair with co-defendant Andy Coulson, who worked with her at News of the World before becoming an adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron. She and Mr. Coulson face charges related to phone hacking and paying public officials (Ms. Brooks is also charged with obstruction of justice). Six others are also on trial including Ms. Brooks's husband, Charles Brooks. All defendants have denied any wrongdoing.

This week the court was told that three other former editors from the News of the World and a man hired by the paper to hack phones have already pleaded guilty to charges concerning tapping into voicemails. The central issue in the current trial is whether Ms. Brooks, Mr. Coulson and other senior editors authorized the misconduct.

On Friday lead prosecutor Andrew Edis told jurors how a soldier at Sandhurst, John Hardy, became a source for one of The Sun's royal reporters, Duncan Larcombe. At one point in June 2006, according to the prosecutor, Mr. Hardy offered the photo of Prince William to Mr. Larcombe, saying he wanted £4,000 ($6,600) in cash. Mr. Hardy needed the money quickly because he wanted to pay for a course his wife planned to take. Mr. Larcombe sent an e-mail to one of the section editors seeking approval for the payment.

"My best contact at Sandhurst who has provided a string of great stuff over a period of months is offering us a picture of William at a James Bond party dressed as a Bond girl. He is wearing a bikini and an open Hawaiian shirt," the e-mail said. The editor forwarded the request to Ms. Brooks and asked: "What do you think boss?" Mr. Edis said that within 10 minutes Ms. Brooks replied "okay."

The e-mails were shown on a screen to the jurors in the courtroom.

The payment was one of many approved by Ms. Brooks, according to Mr. Edis. He also said she authorized another reporter repeatedly to pay a senior military official in cash for information. Mr. Edis read out a long list of e-mails from the reporter tallying up dozens of payments to the official for various stories, including non-public details about soldiers who had died or been injured. "Could you please approve a payment of £4,000 for my number one military contact, to be paid through Thomas Cook. Cheap at the price again I think," read one e-mail to Ms. Brooks, who allegedly quickly approved in a reply e-mail.

Mr. Edis also outlined how Mr. Coulson allegedly knew about the hacking of Prince Harry's voicemail in 2005, which uncovered that the prince had asked his private secretary, a former solider, for help with an essay he had to write as part of his officer training at Sandhurst. The hacking led to a major exclusive for the News of the World and in a series of e-mails, Mr. Coulson was kept abreast of the development of the story and how it originated, Mr. Edis said.

Mr. Edis is expected to finish his opening statement early next week and then the first of what could be up to 100 witnesses will take the stand. The trial will last at least six months.