The convoluted saga of the British phone-hacking scandal seems to have been dragging on longer than a back-to-back performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Yet despite the demise of Rupert Murdoch‘s News of the World, the launching of a public inquiry into British press standards, three police investigations and more than 40 arrests, the scandal has yet to draw real blood. The closest it has come was a report released this month by a Parliamentary committee, which accused Murdoch of turning a blind eye to the hacking at his paper and declared him “not a fit person” to run an international company — a damning conclusion that nonetheless seems to have had little immediate effect.
Today, however, came consequences with teeth: the U.K.’s Crown Prosecution Service made its opening move in the hacking case, charging Rebekah Brooks (who ran Murdoch’s British newspaper empire before being dethroned by the hacking scandal), her husband Charlie Brooks and four others of “conspiracy to pervert the course of justice” by concealing material from the British police investigating allegations of phone hacking and corruption of public officials. The maximum sentence for perverting the course of justice is life in prison, though the average sentence is far less. Former Member of Parliament Jeffrey Archer served just two years for the crime after being convicted in 2001.
Brooks herself is accused of conspiring with others in July 2011 to remove boxes of materials from the archives of News International (News Corp.’s U.K. newspaper publisher) and conceal documents, computers and “other electronic equipment” from the Metropolitan Police Service. The others charged include Brooks’ personal assistant, her chauffeur, a member of her personal security team and the head of security at News International. Brooks and her husband, both close friends of Prime Minister David Cameron, made statements this afternoon. Rebekah Brooks said she was “baffled” by the decision to charge her, calling the case “an expensive sideshow” and “a waste of public money.” Charlie Brooks called the charges “an attempt to use me and others as scapegoats,” adding that he believes his wife is “the subject of a witch hunt.”
The criminal charges will come as a heavy blow to both Murdoch and Cameron, whose chummy relationships with Brooks and her husband were underscored by the journalist’s testimony before the Leveson inquiry last Friday. There, Brooks revealed that she and Cameron texted frequently, with Cameron closing his missives with “LOL,” believing it to stand for “lots of love.” Her open discussion of the country house fêtes, birthday parties and yacht holidays that she had spent in the company of the U.K.’s political aristocracy drove home the point that British elites need not do something so vulgar as seek each other out for influence — many of them, such as Cameron and his school friend Charlie Brooks, have known each other since childhood. (Rebekah notably climbed her own way up.)
Now that Brooks and her husband have been charged, the pressure on politicians testifying at Leveson will undoubtedly intensify. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will appear before the end of May, and it is thought Tony Blair, who enjoyed a close friendship with Rebekah Brooks during his prime ministership, will also give evidence before the month is out. David Cameron is rumored to be testifying before the inquiry next week.
Brooks, whose mane of red curls, unadorned face and black, white-collared Leveson frock have led to comparisons in the media with a Salem witch, Medusa and even Charles II, has been cast as a prima donna who used her connections to push Murdoch’s agenda in Britain, including a bid to take over the British TV satellite broadcaster BSkyB. Yet in her testimony before the Leveson inquiry, Brooks pushed back, saying that most of the gossip about her swirling in the press was “gender-based,” and that British politicians didn’t have to listen to her if they didn’t want to. No doubt she will present a similarly spirited defense at any forthcoming trial. It’s not over until the fat lady, or in this case, red-headed lady sings. For now, however, the subject of her aria is anyone’s guess.