Ex-News Corp execs hauled to trial in hacking case
The trial that begun Monday of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, both former high-ranking executives at News Corp, is the culmination of more than two years of turmoil for Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
The newspaper phone-hacking scandal which exploded in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2011, following revelations that journalists from News Corp paper the News Of The World hacked the cellphone of a murdered schoolgirl, shook News Corp to its foundations.
It saw Murdoch and his son James hauled in front of U.K. lawmakers, derailed News Corp's bid for British cable network BSkyB, and led to the division of News Corp into News Corp and 21st Century Fox. There were even worries that the company might be charged under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, over allegations that its employees had bribed public officials in the U.K.
Now, Brooks and Coulson, who were once among the country's most influential figures, are on trial over charges which they both vigorously deny.
(Read more: Ex-Murdoch Editor Brooks Denies Hacking Charges)
The controversy shone an unflattering light on the close relationship between politics, the media, the police and business in the U.K and shook the reputation of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had hired Coulson as his press chief and had socialized with Brooks.
Text messages between them which have been made public suggest a close friendship, with Brooks writing in one that they were "working together." And a minor storm erupted when it emerged that Cameron had ridden a horse which Brooks had been given by the Metropolitan Police.
It is the stuff of films—and a film of Brooks's story, with "Rocky" producer Gene Kirkwood, is already in the works.
Brooks faces five charges of conspiracy to hack phones, conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. Her old Etonian husband Charlie, Coulson and five other ex-employees of News International, the U.K. newspaper arm of News Corp, are in the dock alongside her. All have entered not guilty pleas.
The others charged are: ex-News of the World news editor Ian Edmondson; the newspaper's former royal editor Clive Goodman; ex- managing editor Stuart Kuttner; Brooks's former PA Cheryl Carter and Mark Hanna, a former head of security at News International.
The trial began Monday with the selection of the jury at London's historic Old Bailey, one of the world's most august courts.The prosecution team is expected to start outlining its case Tuesday.
Possible implications of the trial
The outcome of the trial could have serious implications for News Corp and other operators in the U.K. media. News UK, the reconfigured News International, is still under investigation over possible "corporate suspect" charges by U.K. police—meaning it could face criminal charges as a corporation.
Further embarrassing revelations about the formerly close relationship between News International (the previous incarnation of News UK) executives and the U.K. government might jeopardize News Corp's chances of buying the shares it doesn't already own in U.K. satellite operator BSkyB. And fellow tabloid newspaper publisher Trinity Mirror is also facing trials of employees on similar charges.
(More from CNBC: Rebekah Brooks denies hacking charges)
News Corp paid £238 million ($385 million) in legal fees over the scandal up until the end of June 2013, and estimates it could pay out a further £42 million this year, according to its most recent accounts.
The journalists crowding into the annex to Court 12 to cover the case will be aware that it already marks a turning point for their profession. There are severe reporting restrictions on the trial, because of worries some of the details which emerge may jeopardize other trials relating to the investigation into the scandal. U.K. politicians have been warned not to discuss the trial in Parliament.
U.K. police have launched follow-up investigations into allegations of payments to public servants, computer hacking and the attempts to cover up phone hacking by journalists. A public inquiry into media standards by Lord Justice Leveson, known as the Leveson Inquiry, subsequently ruled that there should be greater supervision and sanctions placed on the U.K. press.
Whatever unfolds in the Old Bailey over the next few months will be crucial to the press's future.
- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle. Twitter: @cboylecnbc.