LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron’s former media chief Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, the former boss of Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper business, were charged on Tuesday with conspiring to make illegal payments to officials for information for stories.
The charges against the pair, who were both close to Cameron, relate to their former roles as editors of the Murdoch-owned News of the World Sunday tabloid and its sister daily paper the Sun.
Prosecutors accuse Coulson of conspiring to obtain private information about Britain’s royal family, while Brooks was charged over payments of 100,000 pounds ($160,100) to a civil servant from the Ministry of Defence to garner details for news stories.
The decision to charge them is a blow to the reputation of Cameron, who has been forced to defend his hiring of Coulson since a phone-hacking scandal exploded last year at the now-closed News of the World.
Critics say Cameron - who meets Queen Elizabeth once a week - ignored warnings about Coulson’s reputation to appoint him to shape his media strategy to connect better with ordinary voters.
The charge against Brooks, whose friendly texts and emails to Cameron were laid bare at a public inquiry into press standards, compounds the embarrassment for him.
Asked if hiring Coulson and being so close to Brooks reflected badly on his judgment, Cameron said: ”I have made it clear (my) regret on many occasions on this issue.
“I have also said very clearly that we should allow the police and prosecuting authorities to follow the evidence wherever it leads, I think that is very important,” he told reporters during a visit to Northern Ireland.
Since resigning from his Downing Street post in 2011, Coulson has been charged with conspiracy to hack into phone messages and perjury, possible first steps to what would be politically charged court cases.
He said in a statement he would fight the latest charges in court. Lawyers for Brooks, 44, were not immediately available to comment but she has previously denied any wrongdoing.
They were both bailed to appear at Westminster Magistrates Court on November 29.
Like Coulson, Brooks, a former editor of the News of the World and the daily Sun tabloid, has already been charged with conspiring to hack into phones.
She has also been charged with attempts to pervert the course of justice, after years in which she was courted by prime ministers from Labour’s Tony Blair to Conservative Cameron as the boss of hugely popular and influential newspapers.
“This is a man (Cameron) with a red face over Coulson that is now turning from crimson to scarlet,” Roy Greenslade, author of several books on the British press and a former senior editor at the Sun, told Reuters.
The string of accusations have marked the fall from grace for two of Britain’s most connected media executives, and have damaged not only Cameron but their former boss Murdoch.
The new charges stem from a wider investigation into the British press initiated by disclosures that journalists at the News of the World had hacked into phone messages on an industrial scale.
Facing a public backlash, Murdoch closed the mass-selling Sunday title last year and formed an internal committee to cooperate with the police.
In a worrying development for the rest of Murdoch’s British business, prosecutors also charged, for the first time, an employee of the Sun. John Kay, the paper’s chief reporter from 1990 to 2011, declined to comment.
Prosecutors said they would also charge the former Royal correspondent of the News of the World, Clive Goodman, for conspiring to pay public officials for the so-called “Green Book” of Royal contact details.
“We have concluded, following a careful review of the evidence, that Clive Goodman and Andy Coulson should be charged with two conspiracies,” senior prosecutor Alison Levitt said.
A spokesman for the Royal Family and a spokeswoman for Murdoch’s British newspaper arm, News International, declined to comment.
Police have arrested 52 people in connection with making payments to public officials, including numerous staff from the Sun, the police and a member of the armed forces.
Additional reporting by Ian Graham in Belfast; Editing by Alison Williams