Two former confidants of Britain's prime minister have been charged with conspiring to pay public officials in exchange for stories and information — the latest development in the country's establishment-shaking scandal over media malfeasance.
Britain's Crown Prosecution Services said Tuesday that former tabloid editors Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks were among five people being charged with conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office.
Prosecutors said that Brooks, a neighbor, close friend, and political ally of Prime Minister David Cameron, conspired with journalist John Kay to funnel as much as 100,000 pounds ($160,000) to Ministry of Defense employee Bettina Jordan Barber in return for a stream of stories that were published in Murdoch's The Sun newspaper.
In a statement, the prosecutors alleged that Coulson, who until last year served as Cameron's top press aide, conspired with journalist Clive Goodman to pay officials for access to a royal phone directory known as the "Green Book."
The charges stem from the phone hacking scandal that erupted last year at Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, which Brooks and Coulson used to edit before she took a job as chief executive of News International and he went to work for the government.
The scandal exploded after it was revealed that News of the World routinely journalists hacked phones and paid bribes to win scoops. The scale of wrongdoing was staggering; ruthless reporters violated the privacy of some 600 victims, from powerful ministers to well-known celebrities and even crime victims.
Coulson and Brooks already face charges in relation to phone hacking; in July prosecutors charged the pair with conspiring to intercept the communications of hundreds of people between 2000 and 2006. Brooks faces separate charges of obstruction of justice relating to her alleged attempts to hide evidence from police. Coulson is charged with perjury in relation to evidence he gave at a 2010 trial in Scotland.
The pair have in the past repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Coulson said Tuesday he would fight the charges, while a lawyer for Kay declined comment. A message left with Brooks' law firm was not immediately returned.
The gradual pile-up of charges could further embarrass Cameron, who hired Coulson as his chief communications adviser and once counted Brooks and her horse-trainer husband Charlie in his circle of friends. Cameron ignored persistent warnings about the pair's ethics and promised to stand by Coulson even as an increasing number of reports implicated him in tabloid wrongdoing.
The scandal shows little sign of winding down. London's police force, chastened by its failure to uncover the scandal earlier, has kept up a steady drumbeat of arrests and American officials are still weighing whether Murdoch's company violated U.S. anti-corruption laws. In Britain, the legal process is still grinding forward. Mark Lewis, a prominent victims' lawyer, recently announced lawsuits against the Daily Mirror newspaper over allegations of phone hacking — further expanding the circle of tabloid suspects.
The scandal is likely to be a watershed moment for Britain's rambunctious press. A judge-led inquiry into the ethics and practices of the country's media set up in the wake of the scandal is due to report shortly, and its recommendations could lead to sweeping changes in the way that the British media operates.