LONDON (Reuters) – The former communications chief of British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared in court on Thursday, accused with six others over hacking the phones of Hollywood stars, politicians and crime victims.
Andy Coulson, former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, resigned from Cameron’s staff last year amid a scandal that rocked Murdoch’s media empire and raised questions over the prime minister’s judgment
Coulson is charged with conspiring with others to intercept voicemails.
The now defunct News of the World was Britain’s best-selling newspaper, a brash Sunday tabloid with a reputation for exposing the activities of celebrities, politicians and wrongdoers.
Alongside Coulson in the dock stood the paper’s former managing editor Stuart Kuttner, former news editor Greg Miskiw, former head of news Ian Edmondson, ex-chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck and former reporter James Weatherup.
The seventh man is a former private detective Glenn Mulcaire.
All seven, dressed in suits, did not exchange a word or even appear to acknowledge each other as they looked around Westminster Magistrates’ Court, which was packed with lawyers and reporters.
Rebekah Brooks, a close friend of Cameron’s who oversaw Murdoch’s British newspaper arm, has also been charged with illegally intercepting voicemail messages and will appear before the same court on September 3.
Prosecutors allege that in order to obtain exclusive stories, the group illegally accessed on a systematic basis the voicemails of mobile phones of celebrities, sports stars and politicians.
Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Jude Law, England soccer player Wayne Rooney, former Beatle Paul McCartney, former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and two former home secretaries (interior ministers) were among the victims, prosecutors said.
Another alleged victim was Milly Dowler, a missing schoolgirl later found murdered. It was the revelation that she had been targeted which created a public uproar last year, and led to Murdoch closing down the 168-year-old title.
Coulson has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
The seven men spoke only to confirm their name, age and address. A clerk then read out all the charges which took almost 20 minutes. The case will now go to Southwark Crown Court on September 26.
They remain on bail on the condition they do not contact each other and that they tell the police in advance if they plan to travel abroad.
Phone-hacking first became public knowledge seven years ago when senior aides to members of Britain’s royal family realized their voicemails had been listened to when private stories appeared in the News of the World.
Following a now much-criticized police investigation, the paper’s royal correspondent and a private detective were jailed.
For years, Murdoch’s British newspaper arm News International said only a “rogue” reporter was to blame. However, a new police probe was launched in January last year which led to the current charges.
(Reporting by Kate Holton and Michael Holden- Editing by Steve Addison and Robin Pomeroy)