LONDON – Criminal charges are being considered against 11 people in four cases related to investigations into tabloid phone hacking and other alleged misconduct by British newspapers, the country’s chief prosecutor said Wednesday.
Four reporters, one police officer and six other people are involved in the cases, the first to be referred to prosecutors since new police investigations were triggered by revelations that journalists at Rupert Murdoch’s now-shuttered News of the World tabloid routinely intercepted voice mail messages of those in the public eye.
Keir Starmer, head of Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, made the announcement as he laid out new guidelines to help his lawyers assess whether reporters broke the law.
Though he declined to say how long deliberations would take, Starmer indicated potential criminal prosecutions over tabloid wrongdoing were drawing near.
“We are now entering a period where we are likely to make a decision one way or another,” Starmer said.
The Crown Prosecution Service reviews cases submitted by police and advises on the appropriate charges that should be filed against suspects.
A total of 43 people have been arrested in three parallel investigations into alleged bribery of public officials, phone voice mail hacking and computer hacking. Some have been arrested more than once on suspicion of different offences.
Those questioned include at least 25 past and present employees of News International, the British newspaper division of Murdoch’s News Corp. â€” including Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International, and Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World and Prime Minister David Cameron’s ex-communications director.
Police began their new inquiries amid public revulsion that journalists at Murdoch’s News of the World had routinely intercepted voice mails of celebrities and victims of crime.
Murdoch closed down the 168-year-old tabloid in July, while Cameron ordered a sweeping, judge-led inquiry into British media ethics.
The Crown Prosecution Service refused to disclose the identities of those involved in the cases which have been referred, though Starmer acknowledged prosecutors have a delicate task given the high-profile nature of the scandal.
“The decisions we are going to make are going to be extremely difficult and extremely sensitive,” Starmer said. “We have got to make a decision because these cases are coming. We cannot duck that.”
The service said one case involves a journalist and a police officer accused of misconduct in a public office and data protection offences, while another relates to a journalist and six other individuals accused of perverting the course of justice.
A third case relates to an allegation of witness intimidation, while the fourth covers a journalist’s purported breaches of laws which cover covert surveillance â€” potentially phone hacking.
Starmer acknowledged one case related to police inquiries into Brooks and her racehorse trainer husband Charlie Brooks over alleged attempts to cover up of the scale of phone hacking.
“These just happen to be the four files we have got, there may be others. We don’t know,” Starmer said.
Misconduct in a public office and perverting the course of justice are both offences which carry maximum prison terms of life in jail, while unlawful interceptions of communications can lead to a two-year prison sentence. Witness intimidation can be punished with a maximum five-year jail term.
Starmer insisted that prosecutors would consider whether journalists were seeking to uncover information in the public interest and the rights of reporters to protect confidential sources.
“Freedom of expression and the public right to know about important matters of public debate are an essential foundation of our society â€” but there are limits for those who cross the line into criminality,” he said.
“Journalists, and those who work with them, are not afforded special status under the criminal law, but the public interest served by their actions is a relevant factor in deciding whether they should be prosecuted in an individual case.”