LONDON — Britain's epic tabloid phone-hacking trial ended Wednesday with a hung jury on two final counts — and a judge's rebuke for Prime Minister David Cameron, whose televised comments about the case while it was still underway almost scuttled proceedings.
Cameron is already under pressure for his ties to the only person convicted at the trial, former News of the World tabloid editor — and ex-Downing Street communications director — Andy Coulson.
Coulson's conviction for conspiracy to hack phones was also unwelcome news for Rupert Murdoch, his former employer, and raises the possibility of a corporate prosecution for Murdoch's media behemoth, News Corp.
Senior Murdoch executives have already been questioned by U.K. police investigating wrongdoing at his British tabloids and the Guardian newspaper reported Wednesday that detectives want to question Murdoch "under caution" — meaning as a potential suspect.
Neither the police nor News Corp. would comment on that report.
On Tuesday, a jury at London's Old Bailey unanimously convicted Coulson of conspiring to hack phones. Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of Murdoch's British newspapers, was acquitted on charges related to phone hacking, bribing officials and obstructing police. Her husband Charlie Brooks and three of her former employees also were cleared.
Media industry analyst Claire Enders said Murdoch and his executives would likely be relieved, even with the mixed verdicts.
"The conviction of Andy Coulson has definitely created the possibility of a corporate prosecution," Enders said. "But that is a small worry compared to what would have occurred if Rebekah Brooks had been found guilty. The charges of which she was acquitted, in particular perverting the course of justice, would have been difficult to shift from her ultimate boss."
Judge John Saunders ended the trial on Wednesday — the 139th day of proceedings — after jurors said they could not agree on whether Coulson and ex-News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman were guilty on two counts of paying police officers for royal phone directories. Prosecutors plan to announce Monday whether they will seek a retrial on those charges.
Coulson, who served as Cameron's communications chief between 2007 and 2011, faces up to two years in jail on the hacking charge. He is due to be sentenced next week, along with five former News of the World staffers who pleaded guilty before the trial began.
The eight-month trial — one of the longest and most expensive criminal cases in British history — was triggered by revelations that the scandal-hungry News of the World had routinely eavesdropped on the voicemails of politicians, celebrities and others in the public eye.
The resulting furor led Murdoch to shut down the 168-year-old newspaper and triggered police investigations in which dozens of journalists, police officers and other officials have been arrested.
The Metropolitan Police says those investigations have cost more than 32 million pounds ($54 million) and identified 5,500 potential hacking victims.
News Corp. has spent more than $500 million on costs related to the scandal, including payments to hundreds of people whose phones were hacked.
The trial of Brooks and Coulson — once powerful insiders with close ties to Cameron and other top political figures — drew intense interest in Britain.
Coulson's lawyers repeatedly sought to have the case dismissed, arguing that their client could not receive a fair trial given the vast amount of speculation about the case. Their final attempt was spurred by Cameron's televised apology Tuesday for hiring Coulson in 2007 — after Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were briefly jailed for hacking the phones of royal aides.
"It is astonishing, we say unprecedented, for a prime minister to make public comments of such a crucial juncture in trial proceeding," said Coulson's lawyer, Timothy Langdale.
The judge did not throw out the case but admonished Cameron, saying it was "unsatisfactory, so far as justice and the rule of law are concerned ... when politicians regard it as open season."
In the House of Commons, Cameron apologized again for his "wrong decision" in hiring Coulson but opposition leader Ed Miliband said an apology was not good enough.
"This is about his character, his judgment and the warnings he ignored," Miliband said of Cameron. "For four years the prime minister's hand-picked closest adviser was a criminal and brought disgrace to Downing Street."
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