Explosive evidence expected as Britain's phone-hacking trial opens

LONDON (AFP) - Prime Minister David Cameron's former press chief Andy Coulson and his friend and one-time Rupert Murdoch sidekick Rebekah Brooks stand accused on Monday over the phone-hacking scandal that rocked Britain's media and politics.

Brooks and Coulson are among eight defendants who will appear at London's Old Bailey, Britain's top criminal court, in the first trial arising from the scandal that sank Murdoch's News of the World newspaper.

The charges range from illegally hacking mobile phone voicemails and bribing public officials for stories.

Brooks, a former chief executive of Murdoch's News International (NI) operation, her racehorse trainer husband Charlie and NI's former security chief Mark Hanna are also charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by hiding potential evidence.

The evidence set to be presented about the furore that forced Murdoch to shut down the Sunday tabloid in 2011 could cause further discomfort for Britain's establishment and reveal the links between newspapers, politicians and police.

Cameron faces embarrassment given his close friendship with Brooks and his decision to hire Coulson as his director of communications after he quit as editor of the News of the World over the hacking scandal.

The hacking of voicemail is believed to have been carried out on more than 600 victims, including a murdered schoolgirl and celebrities such as Paul McCartney.

The trial - expected to last four months - will formally open on Monday, following a six-week delay for legal reasons, but the prosecution's opening statement is expected to be held up by the selection of a jury and by legal arguments.

Brooks, 45, who rose from a secretary to edit the News of the World and its daily sister paper The Sun while becoming one of Murdoch's closest confidantes, denies phone hacking, conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office, and perverting the course of justice.

Her husband Charlie, former security chief Hanna and personal personal assistant Cheryl Carter also deny perverting the course of justice.

Coulson, 45, denies hacking and paying officials for a Buckingham Palace phone directory containing the royal family's contact details.

Also on trial are former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner and head of news Ian Edmondson, who both deny phone hacking.

The final defendant is royal editor Clive Goodman, who is charged along with Coulson for bribing officials and also pleads not guilty.

A second trial involving several journalists from the Sun - a stablemate of the News of the World - accused of bribing officials is provisionally due to start in February 2014.

A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office has warned politicians not to exploit their parliamentary privilege - which gives them legal immunity for comments made in parliament - to speak out about the trial.

The scandal erupted in July 2011 with revelations that the News of the World had hacked the voicemails of Milly Dowler, a missing schoolgirl who was later found murdered, and led to the closure of the paper after 168 years in print.

Dowler is the subject of specific charges against Coulson, Rebekah Brooks and Kuttner.

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