Criminal charges are being considered against 11 people in four cases related to investigations into phone hacking and other alleged misconduct by British newspapers, the country's chief prosecutor said Wednesday.
Four journalists, one police officer and six other people are involved in the cases, the first to be referred to prosecutors since new police investigations were triggered by revelations that reporters at Rupert Murdoch's now-shuttered News of the World routinely intercepted voice mail messages of those in the public eye.
Keir Starmer, head of Britain's Crown Prosecution Service, made the announcement as he laid out new guidelines to help his lawyers assess whether reporters broke the law. Although he declined to say how long deliberations would take, Starmer indicated that potential criminal prosecutions over tabloid wrongdoing were drawing near.
"We are now entering a period where we are likely to make a decision one way or another," Starmer said.
The Crown Prosecution Service reviews cases submitted by police and advises on the appropriate charges that should be filed against suspects.
In all, 43 people have been arrested in three parallel investigations into alleged bribery of public officials, phone voice mail hacking and computer hacking. Some have been arrested more than once on suspicion of different offenses.
Those questioned include at least 25 past and present employees of News International, the British newspaper division of Murdoch's News Corp. They including such high-profile executives as Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International, and Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World who also worked as Prime Minister David Cameron's ex-communications director.
Police began their new inquiries amid public revulsion that journalists at Murdoch's News of the World had routinely intercepted voice mails of celebrities and crime victims. Murdoch closed down the 168-year-old tabloid in July, while Cameron ordered a sweeping, judge-led inquiry into British media ethics.
The Crown Prosecution Service refused to disclose the identities of those involved in the cases that have been referred.
Starmer acknowledged that one of the files related to police inquiries into Brooks and her racehorse trainer husband Charlie Brooks over alleged attempts to cover up of the scale of phone hacking.
"These just happen to be the four files we have got, there may be others. We don't know," Starmer said.
In a statement, ex-News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck identified himself as among those whose cases are being considered. Thurlbeck has been arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications, though the case now being reviewed relates to a separate allegation of witness intimidation.
"I am pleased that the legal process is moving forward to what I believe will be a conclusion that these allegations are completely and utterly without foundation," Thurlbeck said.
Prosecutors said another case involves a journalist and a police officer accused of misconduct in a public office and data protection offenses, while a third file relates to a journalist and six other individuals accused of perverting the course of justice.
The fourth case covers a journalist's purported breaches of laws that cover covert surveillance _ potentially phone hacking.
Misconduct in a public office and perverting the course of justice are both offenses that carry maximum prison terms of life in jail, while unlawful interceptions of communications can lead to a two-year prison sentence. Witness intimidation can be punished with a maximum five-year jail term.
Starmer insisted that prosecutors would consider whether journalists were seeking to uncover information in the public interest and the right of reporters to protect confidential sources.
"Freedom of expression and the public right to know about important matters of public debate are an essential foundation of our society _ but there are limits for those who cross the line into criminality," he said.
"Journalists, and those who work with them, are not afforded special status under the criminal law, but the public interest served by their actions is a relevant factor in deciding whether they should be prosecuted."