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In Britain today, a scandal has translated into criminal charges against two former news executives at Rupert Murdoch's newspapers. One of them had already been charged with interfering with a police investigation. But as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, now, they're accused of conspiring to hack the phones of celebrities, politicians and a murdered schoolgirl, all as grist for tabloid headlines.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The conspiracy was said to have been born in the heart of the newsroom of Britain's best-selling Sunday paper with the active participation of former top editors Rebekah Brooks, Andrew Coulson, four other senior editors and the paper's chief correspondent. A private investigator paid by the paper to do its dirty work also faces charges. The lead prosecutor in the case, Alison Levitt, gave a fairly clinical reading of what were allegations against people who ran the nation's most popular newspapers.
ALISON LEVITT: Rebekah Brooks will face two additional charges. The first relates to the voicemails of the late Milly Dowler.
FOLKENFLIK: That's the murdered schoolgirl.
LEVITT: Andrew Coulson will face four additional charges relating to the following victims: Milly Dowler; the Right Honorable David Blunkett, M.P.
FOLKENFLIK: Other named targets of hacking include Jude Law, Sienna Miller, Angelina Jolie, top government officials and soccer star Wayne Rooney. David Sherborne is a lawyer representing the actor Hugh Grant, among others. He testified today at a judicial inquiry sparked by the scandal.
DAVID SHERBORNE: The press have been merrily drinking away in the last-chance saloons so-called for years and years now, and while they've been doing so, we have witnessed possibly the most outrageous and largest criminal malpractice this country's press has ever known.
FOLKENFLIK: Prosecutors believe there were hundreds of actual victims and several thousand targets, but the biggest names today belonged to defendants Brooks and Coulson. Brooks was editor of the News of the World, then editor of the larger and more influential daily tabloid The Sun before becoming chief executive over News Corp.'s entire British newspaper arm. She was a protege of Murdoch and a close friend of Prime Minister David Cameron. Andrew Coulson resigned in 2006 as editor of News of the World after the first court cases were brought over phone hacking, but his career was reborn as Prime Minister Cameron's P.R. chief, ultimately joining him at 10 Downing Street.
Both Brooks and Coulson have resigned, and the Murdoch family shut down the tabloid last summer. Both said they'd fight charges in court. Here's Coulson addressing reporters today.
ANDREW COULSON: Anyone who knows me or who's worked with me will know that I wouldn't and more importantly that I didn't do anything to damage the Milly Dowler investigation. At the News of the World, we worked on behalf of the victims of crime, particularly violent crime, and the idea that I would then sit in my office dreaming up schemes to undermine investigations is simply untrue.
FOLKENFLIK: Of course, Coulson wasn't accused of intentionally seeking to damage the investigation, just criminally hacking her voicemail messages while police were trying to find her.
DAVID GORDON: The thing that prompted the phone hacking investigation, the Milly episode was clearly unbelievable, completely unbelievable.
FOLKENFLIK: That's David Gordon, the former chief executive of The Economist and of ITN, a rival British commercial broadcast news outfit to Murdoch's Sky News. He tells NPR the mandate was clear.
GORDON: If the story sounds good, run it. We'll check for facts afterwards. And if we have to pay a fine to somebody, well, so be it. That was the culture of the place that gave rise to the phone-hacking scandal, and it starts at the top with Mr. Murdoch.
FOLKENFLIK: Murdoch and News Corp. had no comment. Today's criminal charges are the latest in a series of percussive blows to Murdoch, to his beloved papers and to his legacy. Earlier this summer, Murdoch announced plans to spin off his global publishing empire and his Australian holdings from the rest of his company. He says he's still committed to newspapers, but as other investigations into bribery and computer hacking continue, speculation is ripe in the U.K. that he intends to abandon the British print market altogether. David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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