By Alessandra Prentice
LONDON, June 22 (Reuters) - Former newspaper executive Rebekah Brooks, the woman at the heart of a scandal shaking Rupert Murdoch's media empire and the British government, appeared in court on Friday at the opening of her prosecution on charges of hiding evidence from police.
Brooks, who is close to Murdoch and was friends with successive British prime ministers, resigned as chief executive of Murdoch's British newspaper group in July 2011 over revelations of phone-hacking by reporters at one of her papers.
The publication of affectionate text messages she used to exchange with Prime Minister David Cameron has caused the government deep embarrassment.
Brooks and five others, including her well-connected husband Charlie and her former personal assistant, were charged in May with perverting the course of justice. They are accused of conspiring to hide boxes of documents and computers from police.
A composed Rebekah, whose striking long red curls make her one of Britain's most recognisable public figures, wore a tight-fitting black dress and glamorous high-heeled shoes with red soles for her appearance at London's Southwark Crown Court.
In court, the six defendants rose and spoke only to identify themselves. In brief proceedings, the judge set various deadlines for legal documents and evidence to be submitted and scheduled the defendants to enter their pleas on Sept. 26.
The Brooks couple, who deny the charges against them, smiled at each other and shared a joke as the hearing ended. They walked out of the courthouse into a blaze of camera flashes and departed in a black car with tinted windows.
The phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World Sunday tabloid, which Murdoch abruptly shut down last July to try and limit the damage, set off a chain of events that have dominated the British news agenda for a year and are still playing out.
More than 50 journalists and public officials have been arrested on suspicion of hacking or corrupt relationships, and a public inquiry has exposed ties too close for comfort between Murdoch's inner circle and the men at the top of government.
As editor of the News of the World, where the trouble began, and later of the Sun, Britain's most read newspaper, Brooks once wielded enormous influence as she sent her reporters after the secrets of the rich and the powerful.
But since the phone-hacking scandal exploded in July 2011 she has turned from hunter to prey, her every appearance in public drawing crowds of paparazzi and her every word dissected by a gleeful press.
At the Leveson Inquiry, set up by Cameron in response to the hacking scandal to investigate the ethics of the press, she revealed that he used to sign his frequent text messages to her "LOL", which he took to mean "lots of love".
During Cameron's own testimony, it emerged she had once texted him that she was "so rooting for him" and that they were "professionally in this together".
Before the Conservative leader took office in 2010, Brooks had been equally friendly with his Labour predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. She enjoyed private dinners with Blair, while the Browns attended her wedding to Charlie Brooks in 2009.