LONDON, (Reuters) – Rebekah Brooks, a close confidante of Rupert Murdoch, was charged today with interfering with a police investigation into a phone hacking scandal that has rocked the tycoon’s media empire and sent shockwaves through the British political establishment.
Brooks, 43, was charged with concealing material from detectives, conspiring to remove boxes of archive records from Murdoch’s London headquarters, and hiding documents, computers and other electronic equipment from the police. If found guilty she could face a prison sentence.
The charges are the first since police re-launched an investigation into alleged illegal practices at Murdoch’s British newspapers following accusations the extent of wrongdoing had been covered up.
The news is a personal blow for the world’s most powerful media boss and also embarrassing for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was close friends with Brooks and sent her text messages of support when the alleged offences took place.
The action against Brooks comes as Murdoch is increasingly under fire in Britain. He has been forced to close one newspaper, withdraw a major takeover bid for a TV station and been described by a parliamentary committee report as someone who is not fit to run a major international company.
Murdoch’s closeness to Brooks, instantly recognisable for her mane of flame-red hair, was highlighted last year, when the mogul flew into London to tackle the hacking scandal, put his arm around her and declared that she was his top priority.
“I have concluded … there is sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction,” said Alison Levitt, Principal Legal Advisor to Britain’s Director of Public Prosecutions in a rare televised statement.
“All these matters relate to the ongoing police investigation into allegations of phone hacking and corruption of public officials in relation to the News of the World and The Sun newspapers,” Levitt said.
Also charged were Brooks’s racehorse trainer husband Charlie Brooks, her secretary and other staff including her driver and security officials from News International, the British newspaper arm of Murdoch’s News Corp media empire.
The maximum sentence for perverting the course of justice is theoretically a life prison term although such a lengthy sentence would be unlikely.
“We deplore this weak and unjust decision,” Rebekah and Charlie Brooks, who was at school with Cameron at the exclusive Eton College, said in a statement.
Rebekah Brooks was today being questioned at a London police station. There was no comment from Cameron’s office.