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U.K. set for phone-hacking ‘trial of century’

AFP-JIJI

The first trial from the phone-hacking scandal that sank Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid opens in Britain on Monday with key aide Rebekah Brooks and Prime Minister David Cameron’s former media chief, Andy Coulson, among the defendants.

In what media commentators have dubbed the “trial of the century,” eight people will appear at the Old Bailey in London for the start of up to four months of hearings on a scandal that shook the British establishment and rocked Murdoch’s media empire and the country’s newspaper industry.

The charges range from illegally hacking the mobile phone voice mails of more than 600 victims, including a murdered schoolgirl and celebrities such as Sir Paul McCartney, as well as bribing public officials for stories and burying evidence.

The trial is expected to hear explosive testimony about the scandal that forced the Australian-born Murdoch to shut down the weekly News of the World in disgrace in 2011 and threatened to drag in Cameron’s government.

The trial will formally open Monday, but the prosecution’s opening statement is expected to be delayed by the selection of a jury and by legal arguments.

The main players are Brooks, the flame-haired former chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspaper operations at News International, and Coulson, a journalist-turned-media linchpin for Cameron.

Brooks, 45, who rose from a secretary to edit the News of the World and its daily sister paper The Sun while becoming one of Murdoch’s closest confidantes, denies hacking phone calls, conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office and perverting the course of justice.

Brooks’ racehorse trainer husband, Charlie, 50, her personal assistant, Cheryl Carter, 49, and former News International security chief Mark Hanna, 50, deny obstructing justice in cahoots with Brooks by concealing evidence in the frantic final days of the News of the World.

Coulson, 45, a former News of the World editor, denies hacking and paying officials for a Buckingham Palace phone directory containing the royal family’s contact details.

Also on trial are former News of the World Managing Editor Stuart Kuttner and head of news Ian Edmondson, who both deny phone hacking. The final defendant is royal editor Clive Goodman, who is charged along with Coulson for bribing officials and is also pleading not guilty.

A public inquiry ordered by Cameron and led by Judge Brian Leveson heard evidence on the scandal, but this is the first time criminal charges will be put to the alleged key players.

Political commentator Peter Oborne wrote in The Daily Telegraph newspaper: “The Old Bailey will host the trial of the century. While the Leveson Inquiry generated dramatic headlines, all the most important areas of criminal investigation were out of bounds.”

Oborne said that “much of the fascination will be human” but stressed that the trial will be of “extraordinary political significance.”

A second trial involving several journalists at The Sun accused of bribing officials is provisionally due to start in February.

The phone-hacking scandal erupted in July 2011 with revelations that the News of the World had accessed the voice mails of Milly Dowler, a missing schoolgirl who was later found murdered, and led to the closure of the 168-year-old paper.

Dowler is the subject of specific charges against Coulson, Rebekah Brooks and Kuttner.

At the time of the hacking revelations, the prime minister faced questions about his employment of Coulson, who was his media chief from 2007 until 2011, as well as his friendship with Brooks and her husband.

The eight people going on trial Monday are the first among the dozens that have been arrested as part of a huge, multifaceted police investigation into criminal practices by Britain’s famously raucous press.