Murdoch Protegee Rebekah Brooks Cleared of Hacking Charges

Former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, center, along with her husband Charlie, right, arrives at Central Criminal Court in London, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013. AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

LONDON (Reuters) - Rebekah Brooks, the former boss of Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper arm, was acquitted on Tuesday of orchestrating a campaign to hack into phones and bribe officials in the hunt for exclusive news.

A jury at London's Old Bailey cleared Brooks unanimously but found Andy Coulson, Prime Minister David Cameron's former media chief and ex-editor of one of Murdoch's British titles, guilty of being part of the phone-hacking conspiracy after a seven-month trial.

The conviction will embarrass Cameron: a spokesman said the prime minister would honor his promise to apologize that was made at the height of the scandal in July 2011.

On hearing the verdict, Brooks showed little immediate emotion but was led out of the court by a nurse and later rushed through a group of photographers into a taxi. She was followed by her husband Charlie who was also cleared of any attempt to hinder the investigation.

Brooks's lawyer had argued the prosecution failed to produce a "smoking gun" during her 14 days of intense questioning on the stand, and likened the decision of the authorities to take her to court to a medieval witch hunt.

Both were former editors of Murdoch's News of the World, the 168-year-old tabloid the media mogul closed in July 2011 amid a public outcry over revelations that journalists had hacked into the voicemails on the mobile phone of a murdered schoolgirl. The scandal shocked Britain's political elite, with prime ministers from both main parties shown to have been close to Murdoch and his senior staff including Brooks. Cameron ordered a public inquiry into press ethics in the immediate aftermath.

The 46-year-old Brooks was cleared of being part of a conspiracy to hack into phones to find exclusive stories, of authorizing illegal payments to public officials and of trying to hinder the police investigation.

Police said there were probably more than 1,000 victims of hacking, including Queen Elizabeth's grandsons, Princes William and Harry, and William's wife Kate, and possibly as many as 5,500. Politicians, celebrities, prominent sporting figures and even rival journalists were all targeted in a desperate attempt to find exclusive stories for Britain's top-selling newspaper.

Coulson, who admitted during the trial he had been aware of one hacking incident, said staff had kept the widespread criminal activity from him.

Murdoch's British newspaper operation said it had changed the way it did business. "We said long ago, and repeat today, that wrongdoing occurred, and we apologized for it. We have been paying compensation to those affected and have cooperated with investigations," a News UK spokesman said.