- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 24, 2012

LONDON (AP) - Britain’s phone hacking scandal entered a new and expanded criminal phase Tuesday, with charges brought against two former members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s inner circle over a campaign of illegal espionage that has rocked the country’s establishment.

The Crown Prosecution Service announced Tuesday that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks _ both former editors of Rupert Murdoch’s now-shuttered News of the World tabloid _ were among eight people being charged with conspiring to intercept the communications of at least 600 people between 2000 and 2006. The alleged victims included everyone from a murdered teenager to Hollywood power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Coulson and Brooks, who had previously been charged in related cases, have both denied any wrongdoing and vowed to fight the charges.

The charges may further embarrass Cameron, who hired Coulson as his chief communications adviser and once counted Brooks and her horse training husband Charlie in his circle of friends. The prime minister is Brooks‘ neighbor in the well-to-do Cotswolds town of Chipping Norton, and would swing by the News Corp. executive’s house for Christmas parties, go horseback riding with her husband, and text her weekly.

The developing criminal investigation will shortly be overshadowed by the long-awaited London Olympics, but the prospect of having Cameron’s former associates in the dock during lengthy trials could prove an unwelcome sideshow as the prime minister battles to get Britain’s recession-scarred economy back on track.

“Of course we don’t yet know what the outcome of these trials will be, but the fact that this is rumbling along is deeply unhelpful for a prime minister who is in some trouble,” said Stephen Fielding, the director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Nottingham.

The long running scandal has spread beyond the Murdoch’s News Corp., damaging the reputation of British journalists as well as politicians and police suspected of getting too cozy with the press.

Phone hacking first came to public attention in 2006, when police arrested private investigator Glenn Mulcaire and the News of the World’s then-royal editor Clive Goodman on suspicion of hacking into the voicemails of members of Britain’s royal household. Coulson quit as the tabloid’s editor after the pair was convicted, but insisted he’d had no inkling of their wrongdoing.

For the next five years, the tabloid’s owner, Murdoch’s News Corp., would claim that the illegal activity was an aberration _ the work of single rogue reporter. But a stream of lawsuits as well as enterprising reporting by the Guardian and The New York Times eventually exposed a massive cover-up.

Prodded by the media, police reopened their investigation. At News Corp., stony denials turned into apologies sweetened with big settlements. Under pressure, Coulson stepped down from his job as Cameron’s adviser.

Still, it wasn’t until the Guardian revealed that the News of the World had hacked into the voicemail of 13-year-old Milly Dowler _ a school girl whose 2002 disappearance and murder transfixed the nation _ that the scandal really exploded. Britons who might’ve shrugged off intruding on celebrities’ lives were horrified by the news that reporters had violated the privacy of a dead girl to hunt for scoops about her whereabouts.

The ensuing furor shook the British establishment like an earthquake.

Once so powerful that many referred to him as a permanent cabinet minister, Rupert Murdoch’s influence in Britain crumbled, and politicians who once assiduously courted the Australian tycoon have rushed to distance themselves from him.

Meanwhile Murdoch has distanced himself _ and his son James _ from News Corp.’s British newspaper arm, News International. Murdoch has shut the News of the World, resigned from a series of directorships, and pulled James back to New York.

Three of Scotland Yard’s top officers have resigned over their failure to get to grips with the scandal; dozens of journalists, media executives, and public figures have been arrested or resigned. The country’s media regulator _ widely discredited by the scandal _ has been scrapped.

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