LONDON - Rebekah Brooks, a close confidante of Rupert Murdoch, was charged on Tuesday with interfering with a police investigation into a phone hacking scandal that has rocked the tycoon's media empire and sent shockwaves through the British political establishment.
Brooks, 43, was charged with concealing material from detectives, conspiring to remove boxes of archive records from Murdoch's London headquarters, and hiding documents, computers and other electronic equipment from the police. If found guilty she could face a prison sentence.
The charges are the first since police re-launched an investigation into alleged illegal practices at Murdoch's British newspapers following accusations the extent of wrongdoing had been covered up.
The news is a personal blow for the world's most powerful media boss and also embarrassing for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was close friends with Brooks and sent her text messages of support when the alleged offenses took place.
The action against Brooks comes as Murdoch is increasingly under fire in Britain. He has been forced to close one newspaper, withdraw a major takeover bid for a TV station and been described by a parliamentary committee report as someone who is not fit to run a major international company.
Murdoch's closeness to Brooks, instantly recognizable for her mane of flame-red hair, was highlighted last year, when the mogul flew into London to tackle the hacking scandal, put his arm around her and declared that she was his top priority.
"I have concluded ... there is sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction," said Alison Levitt, Principal Legal Advisor to Britain's Director of Public Prosecutions in a rare televised statement.
"All these matters relate to the ongoing police investigation into allegations of phone hacking and corruption of public officials in relation to the News of the World and The Sun newspapers," Levitt said.
Also charged were Brooks's racehorse trainer husband Charlie Brooks, her secretary and other staff including her driver and security officials from News International, the British newspaper arm of Murdoch's News Corp media empire.
The maximum sentence for perverting the course of justice is theoretically a life prison term although such a lengthy sentence would be unlikely.
"We deplore this weak and unjust decision," Rebekah and Charlie Brooks, who was at school with Cameron at the exclusive Eton College, said in a statement.
Rebekah Brooks was on Tuesday being questioned at a London police station. There was no comment from Cameron's office.
The phone-hacking scandal first broke six years ago when the royal correspondent from the News of the World, a Sunday tabloid, and a private detective were arrested and later jailed for hacking the phones of aides to the royal family.
News International maintained the practice was limited to one rogue reporter until that defense crumbled last year as detectives reopened their investigation amid claims their initial probe had been insufficient.
About 160 officers are examining claims that journalists at the News of the World routinely hacked into the phones of hundreds of celebrities, politicians and victims of crime to generate front-page stories.
They are also investigating whether staff hacked into computers and made illegal payments to public officials, including the police, to get ahead in their reporting.
Almost 50 people have been arrested, with a tax official and a woman the latest to be held by detectives on Tuesday morning.