London (AFP) – The first trial from the phone-hacking scandal that sank Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World opened on Monday with his key aide Rebekah Brooks and the prime minister’s former media chief Andy Coulson in the dock.
They are among eight defendants who will face a jury for the first time over the scandal two years ago that rocked the British newspaper industry and sent shockwaves through the establishment.
Flame-haired Brooks, 45, arrived at the Old Bailey court in London to a storm of photographers’ flashes, accompanied by her racehorse trainer husband Charlie, who is also on trial.
Dressed in a camel-colored coat, Brooks looked relaxed and smiled as she walked into the court building. Coulson, also 45, arrived with his legal team.
The defendants face charges ranging from illegally hacking the mobile phone voicemails of 600 people including a murdered schoolgirl and celebrities such as Paul McCartney, plus bribing public officials for stories and hiding evidence.
Brooks tapped out notes on an iPad as she sat alongside the other defendants in the dock, listening as judge John Saunders heard legal arguments and set reporting restrictions ahead of the jury’s selection on Monday.
The jury is expected to hear explosive testimony about the scandal that forced Australian-born Murdoch to shut down the News of the World in disgrace in 2011, and threatened to drag in Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.
Dubbed the “trial of the century” by one media commentator, proceedings opened on Monday but the prosecution’s opening statement is not expected until Tuesday at the earliest.
The trial was originally scheduled to last four months, but due to its complexity it could now run for six months.
The main players are Brooks, formerly chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspaper operations, and Coulson, the savvy tabloid journalist who became director of communications for Cameron.
Brooks, who rose from a secretary to edit the News of the World aged just 32 and became one of Murdoch’s closest confidantes, denies phone hacking, conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office, and perverting the course of justice.
Murdoch tweeted about the trial last month: “Remember, everyone innocent until proven guilty, entitled to fair trial in most countries.”
Brooks’ 50-year-old husband, her personal assistant Cheryl Carter, 49, and former News International security chief Mark Hanna, 50, deny obstructing justice along with Brooks herself by concealing evidence in the frantic last days of the News of the World.
Coulson, also a former News of the World editor, denies hacking and paying officials for a Buckingham Palace phone directory containing contact details for senior royals.
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 the paper’s royal editor Clive Goodman, who is charged along with Coulson for bribing officials. Goodman also pleads not guilty.
A public inquiry ordered by Cameron and led by judge Brian Leveson heard evidence on the scandal, but it is the first time that criminal charges will be put to the alleged key players.
A second trial involving several journalists of The Sun tabloid accused of bribing officials will take place next year.
The scandal erupted in July 2011 with revelations that the News of the World had hacked the mobile phone voicemails of Milly Dowler, a missing 13-year-old girl who was later found murdered, and led to the closure of the 168-year-old paper.
At the time of the hacking revelations, Conservative leader Cameron faced questions about his decision to employ Coulson, who was his media chief from 2007 until 2011, as well as his friendship with Brooks and her husband.
The eight people on trial are among dozens arrested as part of a huge police investigation into criminal practices by Britain’s famously raucous press.
The fallout from the scandal is still being felt.
Murdoch’s New York-based News Corp has paid out millions of pounds (dollars, euros) to hacking victims and the tycoon has divided his empire into two companies, separating the television and film business from the newspaper and publishing arm.
Britain’s newspaper industry is fighting the introduction of tough regulatory measures in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.
The papers are threatening to take legal action to challenge the government’s plan for a press standards body backed by a so-called “royal charter.”
They say the plan is tantamount to state regulation of the press.