David Cameron's former spin-doctor Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, were charged with phone-hacking crimes against hundreds of people yesterday, raising fresh questions over Scotland Yard's first inquiry into Rupert Murdoch's newspaper empire.
Prosecutors announced that seven executives at the News of the World and the paper's private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, would face a total of 19 charges of conspiracy to hack mobile-phone voicemails.
Between 2000 and 2006, the journalists – who all held senior positions in Mr Murdoch's UK newspaper group – were alleged to have targeted 600 individuals.
They were also accused of conspiring to hack the phones of newsworthy individuals, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie – the first time the Hollywood stars have been officially identified as victims – the Labour MP David Blunkett and the cookery writer Delia Smith.
The film stars Jude Law, Sadie Frost and Sienna Miller, the former England football coach Sven Goran Eriksson and the Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney were also among 23 individuals named on the charge sheet.
All eight facing charges will appear at Westminster magistrates' court on 16 August, the Crown Prosecution Service said. Mr Coulson and Ms Brooks' charges are deeply embarrassing for the Prime Minister, as the three are close friends. The other executives – former news editors Greg Miskiw, James Weatherup and Ian Edmondson, the managing editor Stuart Kuttner and Neville Thurlbeck, the chief reporter – were the core of the News of the World's management for years.
The charges are the first prosecutions in connection with phone hacking at the News of the World for six years. They follow the launch last year of a new police investigation, Operation Weeting. After criticism of the original investigation, police officers justified their decision to prosecute only two individuals on the basis they could only prove hacking took place against a dozen victims. Now Scotland Yard is saying that there are at least 600.
In the most significant blow for Downing Street, Mr Coulson, Mr Cameron's director of communications until last January, is charged with conspiring to hack the phone of Milly Dowler. Ms Brooks, who edited the News of the World between 2000 and 2003, also faces the same charge.
The incendiary claim that the Sunday newspaper targeted the missing schoolgirl's mobile phone prompted public outrage and its closure last July.
Speaking outside his home in south-east London, Mr Coulson, who edited the NOTW between 2003 and 2007, said he was "extremely disappointed" by the allegations – which include that he conspired to hack the phones of Milly Dowler, the politicians David Blunkett and Charles Clarke, and the TV contestant Calum Best. Mr Coulson said that anyone who had worked with him would know that he "didn't do anything to damage the Dowler investigation".
Ms Brooks, who also faces a charge relating to the former Fire Brigades Union boss Andy Gilchrist, said: "I am not guilty of these charges." She added: "The charge concerning Milly Dowler is particularly upsetting not only as it is untrue but also because I have spent my journalistic career campaigning for victims of crime."
Saying he was "most surprised and disappointed", Mr Thurlbeck said he hoped to clear his reputation in court. In a statement, he said: "I have always operated under the guidance and advice of News International's lawyers and under the instructions of the newspaper's editors."
The charges appear to conclude the 19-month Operation Weeting led by Sue Akers, the Met's Deputy Assistant Commissioner.
Following the conviction in 2007 for phone hacking of the News of the World's royal editor Clive Goodman, News International insisted that phone hacking was limited to one rogue reporter.
Announcing the charges at a press conference in London, the CPS's senior lawyer Alison Levitt, QC, said prosecutors had considered charges against 13 suspects.
She said she had concluded that, in relation to eight of those, "there is sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction", and that a prosecution would be in the public interest. No further action will be taken against the former NOTW reporter Ross Hall, a sports reporter, Raoul Simons, and Terenia Taras, a former partner of Greg Miskiw.
Police have asked the CPS to defer making a decision over two remaining suspects who have been re-bailed while officers make further inquiries. The BBC said it understood they are the former NOTW deputy editor Neil Wallis and the former reporter Dan Evans.
The case to prove: How the law works
The charges are for conspiracy under the 1977 Criminal Law Act, with instances of law-breaking outlawed by the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
The charges are in two parts. Firstly, all seven journalists are charged with conspiring to hack the phones of 600 unnamed people. Secondly, together with Glenn Mulcaire, they are all charged with the same offence against a varying number of individuals within a pool of 23 named people. The Crown Prosecution Service will not have to prove that the defendants actually hacked phones, merely that they agreed, or plotted, to do so.