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LONDON (Reuters) - Rebekah Brooks, a trusted confidante of Rupert Murdoch and friend to a succession of British prime ministers, appears in a London court on Wednesday accused of hindering a police investigation into phone hacking and corruption by staff at his British tabloids.
Huge media interest is guaranteed for the first appearance in the dock of the 44-year-old, a former editor of two of Britain's top-selling newspapers who counts the upper echelons of the British establishment and senior politicians in her network of friends.
Those include Prime Minister David Cameron whose close relationship with Brooks and other figures in Murdoch's media empire will come under the microscope when he appears before a public inquiry into press ethics on Thursday.
Brooks is charged with concealing material from detectives carrying out a major inquiry into alleged criminal activities at News International, the British newspaper arm of Murdoch's News Corp where she was chief executive until last year.
Police say she schemed to remove boxes of archive records from its London headquarters, concealing material from detectives, and hiding documents, computers and other electronic equipment.
Brooks, her racehorse trainer husband Charlie, her secretary and three other staff from News International are due to appear at London's Westminster Magistrates Court on Wednesday to face charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Instantly recognizable for her mane of flame-red hair, she and her husband have already vigorously denied the charges and claimed she was being made a scapegoat. If found guilty, they face a probable jail term.
"I have grave doubts that my wife will ever get a fair trial, given the volume of biased commentary which she has been subject to," Charlie Brooks said.
The charges the group face are the first brought by detectives since they reopened an investigation in January 2011 into claims journalists at Murdoch's News of the World tabloid illegally accessed voicemails on mobile phones.
Officers are also examining if reporters bribed public officials including police officers to get stories.
Some 50 people have since been arrested, including many senior figures from the News of the World and News International.
Amid public anger at the scale of phone hacking which reached a frenzy last July when it was reported that reporters had illegally accessed the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl, Murdoch closed the 168-year-old News of the World, one of the tabloids which Brooks used to edit.
He also had to withdraw a major takeover bid for lucrative TV group BSkyB while Brooks was forced to quit her job running News International.
Before that, she had been considered one of the most powerful women in Britain, and was particularly friendly with Cameron, who went to the exclusive Eton College school with her husband.
During day-long questioning at the inquiry into media standards last month, Brooks said she and Cameron had frequently exchanged text messages and that he would occasionally sign them off "LOL", by which he meant "lots of love".
Cameron has already had the embarrassment of seeing his former communications chief Andy Coulson being charged with perjury, after denying in court any knowledge of phone hacking at the News of the World which he had also edited.
Both Coulson and Brooks are amongst those still being investigated by detectives over the phone hacking allegations and possible corruption offences, and could face further charges.
Editing by Jon Hemming