LONDON - One of Rupert Murdoch's most trusted lieutenants and five people close to her were charged Tuesday with conspiring to hide evidence of phone hacking, bringing the scandal that has raged across Britain's media and political elite uncomfortably close to Prime Minister David Cameron.
The charges against former tabloid editor Rebekah Brooks, her husband, Charlie, and four aides are the first prosecutions since police reopened inquiries 18 months ago into wrongdoing by the country's scandal-hungry press.
Brooks, 43, faces three separate allegations of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice - an offense that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, though legal experts said prison terms of anywhere from several months to four or five years were more likely if convicted.
For years, Brooks was the star in Murdoch's media empire, the top editor of two of his tabloids, a friend of his daughter Elisabeth and a close friend of Cameron, who has known her husband, Charlie Brooks, since they both went to an elite high school. Cameron is a neighbor, a friend, and an occasional horse-riding companion of the couple.
The prospect that courts will hear potentially explosive accusations against Brooks and her husband could rock both Murdoch's global media empire and Cameron's political career.
The lawbreaking allegedly involved removing computers and files in the frantic days last summer when Murdoch shut down his tainted 168-year-old News of the World tabloid in an attempt to halt a tide of public disgust over the hacking furor.
Between July 6 and July 19 last year - the period covered in the charges - Brooks was struggling unsuccessfully to remain as chief executive of News International, the British division of Murdoch's News Corp. Faced with a revolt by advertisers and public uproar at the behavior of his journalists, Murdoch announced his decision to close the News of the World on July 7, while Brooks quit her high-profile role July 15.
Alison Levitt, the legal adviser to Britain's director of public prosecutions, said Brooks and the others are alleged to have concealed documents, computers, and electronic equipment from police who were conducting inquiries into phone hacking and the alleged bribery of public officials.
With her former personal assistant Cheryl Carter, Brooks is also accused of removing seven boxes of materials from News International archives, Levitt said.
Brooks and her husband rejected the charges. Standing in front of their lawyers' office in London, Charlie Brooks slammed what he described as a "witch-hunt" targeting his wife.
"I have no doubt that the lack of evidence against me will be borne out in court, but I have grave doubts that my wife can ever get a fair trial, given the huge volume of biased commentary which she has been subjected to," the 49-year-old racehorse trainer said.
Rebekah Brooks, looking grave, said she was baffled and furious at the charges.
"I cannot express my anger enough that those close to me have unfairly been dragged into this," she said.
Daithi Mac Sithigh, a legal expert at the University of East Anglia who has given evidence to the ethics inquiry, said the decision to prosecute Brooks could have far-reaching consequences.
"It is safe to say that the relationship between the press, the public, and the law will not be the same again," he said.
Rebekah Brooks also remains on police bail over separate allegations related to illegal eavesdropping and will face more questions from detectives on that issue in the coming months.