LONDON – It was a simple trick – punching in passcodes to listen to messages left on other people’s phones.
For years the illegal technique, known as phone hacking, helped Britain’s News of the World tabloid get juicy stories about celebrities, politicians and royalty.
But the fallout eventually led to the shutdown of the country’s best-selling newspaper, split Rupert Murdoch’s powerful media empire and brought a storm of outrage down on the country’s rambunctious press.
On Tuesday, the scandal brought a criminal conviction for former editor Andy Coulson on a charge of conspiring to hack phones – and an apology from Prime Minister David Cameron, who employed Coulson as his spin doctor.
Fellow News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, a Murdoch protege who was the chief executive of his British newspaper operation, was acquitted of all charges, as were her husband and three other defendants.
The nearly eight-month trial – one of the longest and most expensive in British history – was triggered by disclosures in 2011 about the scale of the News of the World’s illegal eavesdropping.
Several reporters and editors at the tabloid have pleaded guilty to hacking, as has private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who was paid almost 100,000 pounds (now about $168,000) a year by the paper for his scoop-gathering prowess.
Prosecutors argued that senior figures such as Brooks, who was editor from 2000 to 2003, and Coulson, who was her deputy and then succeeded her, must have known about the practice, a claim both denied.
After deliberating for seven days, a jury at London’s Old Bailey unanimously found 46-year-old Coulson guilty of conspiring to eavesdrop on mobile-phone voicemails. The charge carries a maximum two-year jail sentence.
The jury is still considering charges against Coulson and former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman that they paid police officers for royal phone directories.
Brooks was acquitted of plotting to hack phones and of conspiring to bribe officials and obstruct a police investigation. The jury also found former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner not guilty of phone hacking.
Brooks’ husband, Charles, her former secretary Cheryl Carter and News International security chief Mark Hanna were all acquitted of conspiring to pervert the course of justice by attempting to hide files, computers and other potential evidence from police.