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British tabloids are legendary for aggressive reporting and fierce competitiveness. But the lengths one paper went to for exclusives are being revealed in a London courtroom, with allegations that senior editors co-ordinated a phone-hacking operation so extensive they paid a professional hacker more than $160,000 annually.

The trial got under way Wednesday in London's historic Old Bailey and it promises to lift the lid on the murky world of tabloid journalism and lead to more calls for press regulation. It's the culmination of a phone-hacking scandal that has gripped Britain for two years and already prompted a public inquiry into press ethics, three police investigations and a push by the government to set up a new body to oversee the media.

Standing in a packed courtroom, prosecutor Andrew Edis told jurors how a group of former editors at The Sun and the defunct News of the World condoned years of illegal phone tapping and approved regular payments to police officers and a senior military staffer for stories.

"What you must consider is whether these people were doing their jobs properly in which case they must have known where some of these stories were coming from," he said. The News of the World only came out once a week, he added. "It wasn't War and Peace, it wasn't an enormous document."

The former editors include Rebekah Brooks, once among the most powerful people in the British media, and Andy Coulson, who was also a former adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron. They have denied any wrongdoing, arguing that they knew nothing about illegal phone hacking at the News of the World or illegal payments to public officials at The Sun.

The News of the World, which closed in 2011 because of the scandal, and The Sun are part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. media empire.

Ms. Brooks and Mr. Coulson sat at the back of the courtroom with six other defendants in a row of seats, sealed off with a long plate of glass.

Mr. Edis slowly outlined the case against the defendants, citing internal e-mails, recorded conversations and a detailed list of hundreds of alleged cases of phone tapping. Some involved singer Sir Paul McCartney, his former wife Heather Mills, actor Jude Law and people connected to model Kate Moss.

Much of the skullduggery was done by Glenn Mulcaire, who worked for the News of the World from 2000 to 2006 and specialized in figuring out how to access voice messages. Mr. Mulcaire became so good at hacking that the paper kept him on a $168,000 annual retainer even when finances got tight, Mr. Edis said.

Royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, relied on Mr. Mulcaire so much that he paid the hacker extra cash on top of his retainer to tap into phones belonging to the royal family.

In 2007, Mr. Mulcaire and Mr. Goodman pleaded guilty to illegally tapping into the phones of Prince William, Prince Harry as well as several celebrities.

The paper's owner insisted at the time that the men had acted alone . London police did not take the case any further but soon several celebrities began filing civil lawsuits alleging their phones had been tapped as well.

In 2011, the police reopened the case amid public pressure and began pouring over Mr. Mulcaire's notebooks which contained thousands of pages of intricate details about the phone taps.

Three other editors at the News of the World have now pleaded guilty to phone hacking as well, Mr. Edis told the jury, proving that there was a conspiracy to tap phones. He added that the evidence will show that Ms. Brooks and the other editors on trial "wanted [the hacking] to happen. They were party to the conspiracy to make sure it continued."

Ms. Brooks also approved several payments to public officials for stories during her tenure at The Sun, where she was editor from 2003 to 2009, Mr. Edis said. That included paying around $70,000 in cash to a senior Ministry of Defence official for information.