Prosecution case to open in Britain's phone-hacking trial

LONDON - The prosecution was to open its case against former top aides of Rupert Murdoch on Wednesday, in the long-awaited trial over the phone-hacking scandal that brought down his News of the World tabloid.

Two former editors of the newspaper - Murdoch's protegee Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, who was later Prime Minister David Cameron's media chief - and six other defendants face charges at the Old Bailey ranging from illegally hacking celebrities' phones to concealing evidence and bribing officials for stories.

The scandal forced Murdoch to shut down the 168-year-old News of the World in disgrace in July 2011, rocked the British establishment and sparked an overhaul of the way Britain's raucous press is regulated.

British newspapers were on Wednesday set to ask the High Court for permission to mount a legal challenge against the government's plans for a new system of regulation backed by a so-called "royal charter".

Newspaper owners say the plan is tantamount to state regulation of the press.

Brooks and Coulson, both 45, are the most recognisable defendants in the high-profile trial, the first time criminal charges have been put to the alleged key players in the scandal at a tabloid that was renowned for its celebrity scoops.

The trial is set to last up to six months. All eight defendants deny the charges against them.

'British justice is on trial'

Flame-haired Brooks rose from a secretary to become chief executive of Murdoch's British newspaper wing News International, which has recently been rebranded News UK.

She is accused of conspiring to hack the mobile phone voicemail messages of more than 600 celebrities, public figures and crime victims, hiding evidence, and paying a defence official for a story.

Brooks was editor in 2002 when the News of the World hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler - the explosive revelation that sank the paper nearly a decade later - and Coulson was her deputy.

Coulson, who rose to editor before becoming Cameron's media chief in 2007, is accused of phone hacking as well as bribing officials for a Buckingham Palace phone directory.

Brooks' racehorse trainer husband Charlie is on trial alongside her, accused of helping to hide evidence in the chaotic last days before the paper was closed, as are her former assistant Cheryl Carter and former News International security chief Mark Hanna.

Also appearing are the tabloid's managing editor Stuart Kuttner and head of news Ian Edmondson - charged with phone hacking - and royal editor Clive Goodman, who is accused of bribing officials.

Judge John Saunders told the jury on Tuesday that there was "perhaps an unprecedented amount of publicity" surrounding the case.

"Not only are the defendants on trial, but British justice is on trial," he told the nine women and three men on the panel.

"It is absolutely vital that you decide this case solely on the evidence and the arguments that you hear in court."

He warned the jurors to ignore comments about the trial on social networking sites, many of which he said were ill-informed or inaccurate.

More than 100 people have been arrested since July 2011 as part of a huge police investigation into criminal practices by the British press.

Cameron also ordered a public inquiry in the wake of the scandal, which exposed the close relationship between British politicians and the Murdoch press.

The premier has faced questions over his friendship with Rebekah and Charlie Brooks - who he knew from his days at the elite Eton boarding school - and his decision to employ Coulson.

Coulson was forced to resign in 2011 over persistent allegations that he knew more about hacking at the News of the World than he previously admitted.

Several journalists from the News of the World's sister paper, The Sun, are due to go on trial separately next year accused of paying officials for stories.