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London - Britain's phone hacking scandal took a dramatic turn Tuesday with the filing of criminal charges against eight people, including a onetime confidant of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and a former senior aide to Prime Minister David Cameron.
Prosecutors announced that Rebekah Brooks, who ran Murdoch's British newspapers, and Andy Coulson, who served as Cameron's communications adviser, were among those charged with illegally tapping into the cellphones of celebrities, politicians and other public figures while working at the now-shuttered News of the World tabloid.
Over a six-year period starting in the fall of 2000, Brooks, Coulson and five of the other suspects conspired to break into the phones of more than 600 people, prosecutor Alison Levitt said. On the list of victims: actors Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Jude Law, singer Paul McCartney, soccer player Wayne Rooney and at least one Cabinet minister.
The alleged hacking was part of the News of the World's relentless pursuit of sensational stories and extended as far as accessing the voicemail messages left on the phone of a 13-year-old kidnapping victim who was later found slain.
"Prosecution is required in the public interest," Levitt said, adding that enough evidence existed "for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction."
The announcement came a year after Britain was rocked by the revelation that the phone of Milly Dowler, the young kidnapping victim, had been hacked by a private investigator hired by the News of the World.
Amid the uproar that followed, Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old tabloid, issued a public apology and was hauled before Parliament for questioning. Top executives at News International, the British arm of his giant News Corp., resigned in disgrace, including Brooks, once one of the Australian-born media magnate's most trusted lieutenants.
Brooks maintained her innocence Tuesday, despite having been editor of the News of the World in 2002, at the time that the scandal sheet tapped into the teen's phone.
"I did not authorize, nor was I aware of, phone hacking under my editorship," Brooks said in a statement, describing herself as both "distressed and angry."
The hacking charges add significantly to the pressure on Brooks, one of Britain's most influential women before her spectacular fall from grace. In May, she was charged with trying to obstruct justice; prosecutors allege that, while she was still head of News International, she tried to conceal or remove documents, computers and other electronic equipment relevant to the police investigation of phone hacking.
While shining an uncomfortable light on the cozy relationships among the British press, police and politicians, the scandal has proved particularly embarrassing - and damaging - for the prime minister.
Cameron's judgment has been called into question over his friendship with Brooks and his decision to admit Coulson to his inner circle at 10 Downing St., even though the latter had had to step down as editor of the News of the World after one of his reporters went to jail for hacking into the cellphones of aides to the royal family.
Coulson resigned from Cameron's staff in January 2011. He said Tuesday that he would fight the charges against him, particularly accusations that he was involved in tapping Dowler's phone even as police were searching for the teen.
Besides Brooks and Coulson, five other former News of the World journalists were charged with conspiring to hack cellphones between October 2000 and August 2006. The eighth suspect, a private investigator hired by the paper, was not charged with respect to the entire six-year period but does stand accused of tapping into the phones of specific individuals during that time.
The penalty for hacking is up to two years in prison. The eight suspects are expected to appear in court next month.
Levitt, the prosecutor, said there was insufficient evidence to warrant charges against three additional suspects in the case, whom she declined to identify. At the request of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service is also deferring a decision on whether to charge two other people.
Over the last year, Scotland Yard has arrested dozens of suspects, mostly journalists, in three separate investigations encompassing phone hacking, computer hacking and improper payments to public officials for information.
Since last July, the government has launched a judicial inquiry into media ethics and practices that is supposed to produce new proposals for regulating Britain's unruly media establishment.