The ongoing investigations into the events at News Corporation's former 'News of the World' title took another twist this week when it was revealed that former editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson would face criminal charges for conspiring to make illegal payments to officials.
The charges came as a blow to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who is a close friend of Mrs Brooks and who previously hired Mr Coulson as his director of communications.
The pair were charged along with other senior former News Corp employees for separate incidents.
Mrs Brooks stands accused alongside The Sun's former chief reporter, John Kay, with conspiring to pay a senior Ministry of Defence official, Bettina Jordan-Barber, £100,000 over seven years for the inside track on defence stories. All three involved have been charged with conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office.
Mr Coulson is charged with authorising the payment of a bribe to obtain private information about the Royal Family whilst he was editor of the News of the World. He has been charged alongside former royal correspondent Clive Goodman, who has previously served a prison sentence for illegally intercepting royal phone messages. The pair have been charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office.
Misconduct in public office
The offence of misconduct in public office is a common-law offence triable on indictment, which means it can only be tried in a Crown Court. The offence only applies to those who hold public office and is committed when the office holder acts in a way that constitutes a breach of a duty of the office they hold. The offence carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The offence is difficult to prove and only exists at common law. This means that there is no parliamentary Act that creates the offence; it has simply arisen as a result of previous cases. Consequently, the Court of Appeal has previously stated that a statutory offence should be used instead, when one is available.
Charging under the common-law offence of misconduct in a public office is therefore reserved for situations when there is no relevant statutory offence, when there is one but it would be hard to prove, or when there is a statutory offence but the maximum sentence is too lenient for the seriousness of the misconduct.
Conspiracy is one of the 'inchoate' offences, this means that an offence did not actually take place, or cannot be proven to have taken place, but nevertheless two or more parties were in agreement to commit the offence. For the offence of conspiracy to be proven there need be more than a mental operation, there needs to be evidence of a spoken or written agreement, so that even if a party later decides not to go ahead the offence has still been committed.
The charges could have serious ramifications for Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, as any convictions for criminal offences in the UK can be used in the USA against officials of their American business. The US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act makes it an offence for an officer of a US company to bribe foreign officials.
Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson are also facing charges relating to phone hacking and Mr Coulson a separate charge of lying under oath when he previously gave evidence relating to phone hacking.
Prime Minster David Cameron said he had already expressed regret over his hiring of Mr Coulson, adding: "I have also said very clearly that we should allow the police and the prosecuting authorities to follow the evidence wherever it may lead and I think that is very, very important."
Any embarrassment felt by the Conservatives can be tempered by the fact that numerous Prime Ministers on both sides of the political divide have courted News Corp editors in the past. Most famously, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown hosted a 'slumber' party at Chequers in 2008 to celebrate Mrs Brook's fortieth birthday .