LONDON — One of Rupert Murdoch's most trusted lieutenants and five people close to her were charged Tuesday with conspiring to hide evidence of phone hacking, bringing the scandal that has raged across Britain's media and political elite uncomfortably close to Prime Minister David Cameron.
The charges against former U.K. tabloid editor Rebekah Brooks, her husband Charlie and four aides are the first prosecutions since police reopened inquiries 18 months ago into wrongdoing by the country's scandal-hungry press.
Brooks, 43, faces three separate allegations of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice — an offense that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
For years, Brooks was the star in Murdoch's media empire, the top editor of two of his tabloids, a friend of his daughter Elisabeth and a close friend of Cameron, who has known her husband Charlie Brooks since they both went to an elite high school. Cameron is a neighbor, a friend and an occasional horse-riding companion of the couple.
The prospect that courts will hear potentially explosive accusations against Brooks and her husband could rock both Murdoch's global media empire and Cameron's political career.
To critics, however, Brooks was "The Witch of Wapping" — a ruthless figure at the heart of a media company in that London neighborhood that showed little remorse over its frequently intrusive reporting on celebrities and ordinary people in thrust into the public glare.
The law-breaking allegedly involved removing computers and files in the frantic days last summer when Murdoch shut down his tainted 168-year-old News of the World tabloid in an attempt to halt a tide of public disgust over the hacking furor.
Between July 6 and July 19 last year Brooks was struggling unsuccessfully to remain as chief executive of News International, the British division of Murdoch's News Corp. Faced with a revolt by advertisers and public uproar at the behavior of his journalists, Murdoch announced his decision to close the News of The World on July 7, while Brooks quit her high-profile role on July 15.