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UK PM's ex-aide charged in hacking scandal

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Andy Coulson served as the prime minister's former communications and information chief [AFP]British authorities have charged an ex-aide to the British prime minister, a former protege of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and six others in the ever-widening phone hacking scandal, accusing them of key roles in a lengthy campaign of illegal espionage that victimised hundreds of people.

The Crown Prosecution Service's Alison Levitt made the announcement in a televised statement on Tuesday, saying that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, both former editors of Murdoch's now-shuttered News of the World tabloid, were among those being charged with conspiring to intercept the communications of more than 600 people between Oct. 3, 2000, and Aug. 9, 2006.

Others being charged include senior tabloid journalists Stuart Kuttner, Greg Miskiw, Neville Thurlbeck, James Weatherup and Ian Edmondson. Private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, whose extensive notes have been at the center of the scandal, is also being prosecuted.

Levitt said that, with reference to the suspects, "there is sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction in relation to one or more offenses." The penalty for "unlawful interception of communications" is up to two years in prison and a fine.

The charges are another potential embarrassment for Prime Minister David Cameron, who had hired Coulson as his chief communications adviser and once counted Brooks and her race horse riding husband Charlie in his circle of friends. The prime minister's judgment has come under scrutiny as the scandal has spread - as have his and other politicians' links to News Corp., Murdoch's formidable media empire.

Judgment questioned

Coulson took up the role as the Conservative Party's director of communications six months after he stood down as editor of the now-defunct newspaper following the jailing of one of his reporters for phone hacking. In his role with the Conservatives, he helped to shape Cameron's bid to become prime minister.

Critics say Cameron appointed Coulson in order to secure the backing of the journalist's former boss, Murdoch, and say the appointment showed a lack of judgment.

Phone hacking first came to public attention in 2006, when police arrested Mulcaire and the News of the World's then-royal editor Clive Goodman on suspicion of hacking into the voicemail messages belonging to members of Britain's royal household. Coulson resigned from his post as editor after the pair was convicted the following year, but always insisted he was kept in the dark about their wrongdoing.

For the next five years, News Corp. subsidiary News International would insist that the illegal activity was an aberration - the work of single rogue reporter. But a growing stream of lawsuits - and enterprising reporting by the Guardian and The New York Times - eventually exposed a far more complex situation. Under pressure, police reopened their phone hacking investigation and revisited Mulcaire's voluminous notes.

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