LONDON - The trial of two former top editors of Rupert Murdoch's defunct News of the World began Monday with the selection of a jury to hear the complex and high-profile case sparked by a tabloid phone-hacking scandal that has shaken Murdoch's media empire and tarnished the image of British journalism.
Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson — both one-time senior Murdoch aides and associates of British Prime Minister David Cameron — are charged with conspiring to hack the phones of celebrities and other people in the public eye and with making illegal payments to officials for information. They sat side-by-side in the dock at London's Central Criminal Court along with six other defendants on the first day of a trial that Judge John Saunders said could last up to six months.
This is the first criminal trial stemming from revelations in 2011 of tabloid phone-hacking — a scandal that exposed a murky web of ties binding Britain's media, political and police establishments. Exposure of illegal eavesdropping by the News of the World led Murdoch to shut the 168-year-old newspaper and spurred a judge-led, media-ethics inquiry and several wide-ranging criminal investigations. Dozens of journalists and officials have been arrested.
The judge told about 80 prospective jurors that the case centred on allegations of criminal activity at the News of the World and its sister paper, The Sun. He warned them not to discuss the case or seek information about it so they could hear the arguments "free from any preconceptions."
A jury of 12 will be chosen and sworn in Tuesday. The prosecution will then begin its opening arguments, outlining in detail the allegations of wrongdoing against the former media high-flyers.
The eight defendants — all but one former Murdoch employees — chatted in the glass-enclosed dock in a windowless courtroom dotted with more than a dozen bewigged lawyers. All the defendants deny the charges.
WHO IS ON TRIAL?
The three highest-profile defendants are Brooks, 45, a former editor of the News of the World and former chief executive of Murdoch's British newspapers; Coulson, 45, another former News of the World editor who was Cameron's communications chief until 2011; and Brooks' 50-year-old husband Charles Brooks, a racehorse trainer.
Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, both snapped by a crowd of photographers and TV cameras as they arrived in court, have become the faces of the scandal, though neither has been convicted of wrongdoing.
He was the elusive figure — rarely photographed — behind Cameron's canny media strategy. She was the flame-haired executive who exchanged text messages with her friend and neighbour Cameron while overseeing Murdoch's politically powerful British newspapers.
They face trial alongside former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner; ex-news editor Ian Edmondson; former royal editor Clive Goodman; Rebekah Brooks' former assistant Cheryl Carter; and Mark Hanna, former security chief at Murdoch's News International.
WHAT ARE THE CHARGES?
Brooks and Coulson are charged with conspiracy to intercept communications — phone hacking — and with conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office, which covers bribing officials such as police and prison guards. The other former News of the World journalists face related charges.
Rebekah Brooks, Charles Brooks, Carter and Hanna are also accused of conspiring to pervert the course of justice by removing material from the company's archive and withholding computers and documents from the police.
HOW DID THE ALLEGATIONS ARISE?
The charges stem from the scandal that erupted in 2011, when it was revealed that journalists at the News of the World eavesdropped on the cellphone voicemail messages of celebrities, politicians, crime victims and others in the public eye.
The furor led Murdoch to close the News of The World and triggered police investigations into phone hacking, computer hacking and the bribery of officials, which have expanded to take in possible wrongdoing at other British newspapers.
More than 30 people have been charged, including senior journalists and editors from the News of the World and The Sun.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES IN THE TRIAL?
The central questions are: What did Brooks and Coulson know, and how widespread were the illegal practices when they ran the newspaper? Brooks edited the paper between 2000 and 2003; in 2002, it hacked the mobile phone voicemails of a murdered 13-year-old, Milly Dowler, while police were searching for her. (Brooks denies knowing about any of the hacking). Coulson was in charge from 2003 to 2007.
WHAT SENTENCES COULD THEY GET?
The maximum sentence for phone hacking is two years in prison, while the other charges carry a maximum life sentence, although the average term imposed is much shorter.
WILL THE TRIAL PUT AN END TO THE SAGA?
Not likely. The hacking scandal convinced many politicians and members of the public that Britain's press was out of control. Cameron ordered a judge-led inquiry into media ethics, which recommended an independent press regulator be set up with state backing. Many editors and journalists fear that could lead to state regulation, but they may find it hard to resist amid a new blare of publicity about media misdeeds.
"I think this will return us to some of the outrage that was felt when the scale of the phone hacking became apparent," said Steven Barnett, a professor of communications at the University of Westminster. "We are going to get not just a rehash of the revelations that emerged two years ago; I think there will be new revelations."
Revelations at the trial also could heap new pressure on Murdoch, who remains atop his now-fractured media empire. The scandal led him to shut down his bestselling newspaper, pay millions to settle lawsuits from hacking victims and split his News Corp. into two businesses, a publishing company and a media and entertainment group.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless