A jury at London’s Old Bailey court cleared Brooks unanimously but found Andy Coulson, her former lover and prime minister David Cameron’s ex-media chief, guilty of conspiring to intercept messages to break news about royalty, celebrities and victims of crime.
The jury is still deliberating over whether Coulson sanctioned illegal payments to public officials to generate lurid exclusives for the News of the World, which was Britain’s biggest-selling title until the scandal forced its closure.
On hearing the verdict, Brooks looked stunned and drew a sharp intake of breath. Visibly shaking, she was led away by a court nurse. Coulson, who faces jail, was impassive.
Brooks later walked from the court through a scrum of photographers, clutching the hand of her husband, Charlie, who was cleared of attempting to hinder the police investigation.
Several court staff waved goodbye to Brooks, called Murdoch’s “fifth daughter” by British media because she was so close to the media tycoon.
Brooks’s lawyer Jonathan Laidlaw had argued that the prosecution failed to produce a “smoking gun” during her 14 days of intense questioning. He likened the authorities’ decision to take her to court to a mediaeval witch hunt.
Both Coulson and Brooks were former editors of the News of the World, the 168-year-old tabloid Murdoch closed in July 2011 amid a public outcry over revelations that journalists had hacked into the voicemails of hundreds of people including murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
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, who was a close friend of the last three British prime ministers, spent 14 days in the witness box, facing questions about her private life, professional career, and her ties to top politicians.
“If what you saw was a mask, Mrs Brooks must be a witch with truly supernatural powers,” her lawyer told the jury.
“No human mask could withstand that amount of scrutiny without cracking.”
Brooks was cleared of being part of a conspiracy to hack phones, of authorising illegal payments to public officials, and of trying to hinder the police investigation.
The scandal began to emerge in November 2006 when the News of the World’s former royal editor Clive Goodman and its private detective Glenn Mulcaire admitted hacking the phones of aides to the royal family.
For years, News International insisted the crime was limited to a single rogue reporter and aggressively rejected any suggestions otherwise.
Police now believe there were probably more than 1,000 victims of hacking, including Princes William and Harry, and William’s wife Kate, and possibly as many as 5,500. Politicians, celebrities, sporting figures and rival journalists were all targeted in a desperate bid to find exclusive stories.
The maximum jail term for phone hacking is two years.