Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, two top editors at the now-defunct paper News of the World, have been indicted in the phone-hacking scandal that caused the paper’s shutdown and rocked Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire. Coulson, before stepping down last year, was actually the communications director for British Prime Minister David Cameron. Five News of the World journalists were also indicted.
The criminal charges — and the possibility of prison terms if prosecutors win convictions — are a sharp turning point in the affair, adding the drama of high-profile trials to a saga that has already thrown the worlds of politics, policing and journalism in Britain into a prolonged fit of self-examination and shaken the foundations of the Murdoch empire.
After Tuesday’s announcement by Alison Levitt, the senior legal adviser at the Crown Prosecution Service, headlines in Britain focused on Mr. Coulson and Ms. Brooks, both of whom have strong personal links to Mr. Cameron — Mr. Coulson through his years at Mr. Cameron’s side, in and out of government, and Ms. Brooks because of the friendship she and her husband, Charlie Brooks, had with Mr. Cameron before the scandal erupted.
Political analysts said the fact that the two now face criminal trials that seem certain to run on at least through the next year, attracting wide news coverage, posed a potentially serious hazard to the prime minister. With a general election due in 2015, the analysts said, Mr. Cameron and the Conservative Party are now potentially vulnerable to any new revelations that might emerge from the trials, in the form of hitherto unpublished e-mails or testimony touching on the prime minister’s dealings with Mr. Coulson or Ms. Brooks.
Scandals like this have a way of lingering. The phone hacking scandal has already generated plenty of attention, not only for the seedy facts of the case, which include journalists intercepting phone messages and using the information in a series of scoops, but for the closeness of the perpetrators to the Cameron government. The general closeness of the British establishment, including the press, the media and the law enforcement apparatus, has also been laid bare in the case. If Cameron and the Conservatives lose the next election, the poor economy and the ravages of austerity will almost surely be the reason. But the phone hacking scandal does indicate a certain corruption swirling around the inner circle at 10 Downing Street, and calls into question the Cameron government for their relationships to some of the top figures under indictment.
As for Murdoch and News Corp, this just extends what has been a damaging scandal for them, though the man and the company will probably survive intact. Brooks and the others are likely to fight the charges, opening up a potentially painful discovery phase where more revelations about News of the World are likely to come out. So this adds an unpredictable element into the controversy, never a good thing for a multinational firm.