(CBS/AP) LONDON - British authorities on Tuesday charged an ex-aide to the British prime minister, a former protege of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and six others in the ever-widening phone hacking scandal, accusing them of key roles in a lengthy campaign of illegal espionage that victimized hundreds of people including top celebrities Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
The announcement was a major development in a saga that has shaken Britain's establishment and shows little sign of winding down. A senior police official said earlier this week that her force was investigating two new newspaper groups as well as more than 100 claims of computer hacking, improper access to medical records and other illegal behavior stemming from the scandal.
The Crown Prosecution Service's Alison Levitt made the announcement in a televised statement, saying that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, both former editors of Murdoch's now-shuttered News of the World tabloid, were among those being charged with conspiring to intercept the communications of more than 600 people between Oct. 3, 2000, and Aug. 9, 2006.
Others being charged include senior tabloid journalists Stuart Kuttner, Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck, James Weatherup and Ian Edmondson. Private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, whose extensive notes have been at the center of the scandal, is also being prosecuted.
Levitt said that, with reference to the suspects, "there is sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction in relation to one or more offenses." The penalty for "unlawful interception of communications" is up to two years in prison and a fine.
The charges are another potential embarrassment for Prime Minister David Cameron, who had hired Coulson as his chief communications adviser and once counted Brooks and her race horse riding husband Charlie in his circle of friends. The prime minister's judgment has come under scrutiny as the scandal has spread as have his and other politicians' links to News Corp., Murdoch's formidable media empire.
Phone hacking first came to public attention in 2006, when police arrested Mulcaire and the News of the World's then-royal editor Clive Goodman on suspicion of hacking into the voicemail messages belonging to members of Britain's royal household. Coulson resigned from his post as editor after the pair was convicted the following year, but always insisted he was kept in the dark about their wrongdoing.
For the next five years, News Corp. subsidiary News International would insist that the illegal activity was an aberration the work of single rogue reporter. But a growing stream of lawsuits and enterprising reporting by the Guardian and The New York Times eventually exposed a far more complex situation. Under pressure, police reopened their phone hacking investigation and revisited Mulcaire's voluminous notes.
News International began to change its tune. Stony denials turned into apologies sweetened with big settlements. And detectives swooped in on Thurlbeck and Edmonson, the paper's chief reporter and its news editor, respectively.
When the Guardian revealed that the News of the World had hacked into the voicemail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler, a school girl whose 2002 disappearance and murder transfixed the country, the scandal really exploded. Britons who might've shrugged off celebrity intrusion were horrified by the news that reporters had violated the privacy of a dead girl to hunt for scoops about her whereabouts.
The ensuing furor ran like an earthquake through the British establishment.
Once so powerful that many referred to him as a permanent cabinet minister, Rupert Murdoch's influence crumbled. Politicians who once assiduously courted him have rushed to distance themselves from the media mogul, while Murdoch has distanced himself and his son James from News Corp.'s British newspaper arm, resigning from a series of News International directorships and pulling James back to New York.
Three of the country's top police officers have resigned over their failure to get to grips with the scandal; dozens of journalists, media executives, and public figures have been arrested or resigned. The country's media regulator widely discredited by the scandal has been scrapped. The saga has also tarnished the reputation of many, such as British Olympics Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who were sympathetic to News Corp.'s far-flung interests.
The detail of the charges reads like a Who's Who of Britain's tabloid pantheon.
Miskiw and Weatherup are accused of intercepting the messages of actor Jude Law, along with associates of his ex-wife Sadie Frost and former girlfriend Sienna Miller. Edmondson and Weatherup are accused of spying on former Beatle Paul McCartney, his ex-wife Heather Mills, and politicians including former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Thurlbeck and Weatherup, meanwhile, are alleged to have eavesdropped on associates of Jolie and Pitt, one of Hollywood's most famous couples.
Brooks denied the accusations Tuesday, and said that she was "distressed and angry" at prosecutors' decision to charge her. She called the allegation that she conspired to spy on Milly "particularly upsetting" and vowed to defend herself "vigorously."
Thurlbeck also promised a vigorous courtroom fight, saying he would make it clear that he always acted "under the strict guidance and advice of News International's lawyers and under the instructions of the newspaper's editors."