Charges considered in UK hacking scandal

LONDON Wed Apr 18, 2012 9:02am EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - British police have handed prosecutors four files of evidence against 11 suspects in the Rupert Murdoch phone hacking scandal, a prosecutor said on Wednesday, bringing closer the likelihood of charges.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said his office would examine the files and advise police whether there was sufficient evidence to bring charges in the case that has rocked the British establishment.

Possible offences include perverting the course of justice, breaching the data prevention act and intimidating a witness. Interception of communications and harassment are other possible charges mentioned in the files.

Those named in the files include four journalists, one police officer and six other people. The names have not been made public.

"We are now entering a period where we are likely to take a number of decisions one way or another," Starmer told reporters, adding that he could not give a time frame for how long it would take.

Police are investigating staff at the now defunct News of the World tabloid over allegations that they routinely hacked the phones of hundreds of people from celebrities to crime victims to generate salacious front-page stories.

They are also investigating whether staff hacked into computers and made payments to public officials including the police to get ahead in their reporting.

They have arrested 43 people in total including two former editors of the paper, senior journalists and public officials, but Starmer said on Wednesday that some of those named in the files have not been arrested.

PUBLIC INTEREST

Starmer set out interim guidelines on how to weigh the issue of public interest when considering possible charges against journalists or public officials.

"We are now for the first time in recent history going to have to decide a large number of cases involving journalists and those that interact with them," he said.

The guidelines reflected existing practice, Starmer said, but their publication would make clear the approach that prosecutors would take.

"The decisions we are going to have to make are going to be extremely difficult and extremely sensitive," Starmer said. "We have got to make a decision because these cases are coming. We cannot duck that."

The phone hacking scandal, while damaging the reputation of Murdoch's News Corp media empire, has also embarrassed British politicians and police as it revealed the extremely close ties between the three sides.

Critics of Murdoch's influence in Britain cited this as one reason why the police and some politicians initially appeared reluctant to fully investigate the phone hacking allegations when they surfaced in 2006.

One of those who has been arrested is Andy Coulson, a former editor of the mass-selling Sunday tabloid and former spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron.

(Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)

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