REBEKAH Brooks was arrested in a dawn raid at her Oxfordshire home yesterday as Scotland Yard's inquiry into phone hacking moved into a dramatic new phase of investigating a possible cover up at the top of Rupert Murdoch's British newspapers.
The 43-year-old former editor of The Sun, who recently became a mother, was one of six people, including her husband, racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks, detained by detectives from the Yard's Operation Weeting on the serious charge of suspected conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
The arrests, which took place between 5am and 7am and followed consultations with the Crown Prosecution Service, are a significant escalation in the gravity of the offences being considered by police. Among those arrested were two current News International employees, including the head of security, Mark Hanna.
The Independent understands police now believe there may have been a plot to conceal the extent of voicemail interception at the NOTW after the launch of Weeting 14 months ago.
Detectives are believed to be investigating the handling within NI of sensitive data relating to phone hacking, including the activities of staff during an arrest last year.
David Cameron, a long-standing friend of Mr Brooks and part of the couple's social circle in the Cotswolds, distanced himself from the developments as he flew to America.
A spokesman said: "It is an operational matter for the police. You wouldn't expect him to comment ."
Downing Street was last week forced to admit after several days of dodging the issue that Mr Cameron had ridden Raisa, a horse loaned to Mrs Brooks by the Metropolitan Police.
Mrs Brooks, who is also a former editor of the NOTW, resigned as chief executive of NI last July shortly before she was arrested by Weeting officers on suspicion of conspiring to hack voicemails and making illegal payments to police.
On that occasion, she was held for nine hours after being asked to attend a central London police station with her lawyer by prior appointment.
Yesterday, no such courtesies were shown to the Yard's targets as they were roused from their beds and teams of officers began searches of their homes, before they were taken in for questioning.
Mrs Brooks and her husband were taken to separate police stations after being arrested at their farmhouse in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.
A spokesman for Mrs Brooks, who in less than a year has gone from being one of Britain's most powerful women to a suspect for three criminal offences, declined to comment on her arrest.
Scotland Yard declined to discuss the reason behind the arrest of Mr Brooks, who has no formal links to NI beyond his wife.
His arrest ruined plans to attend the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival yesterday, an engagement which he described in his Daily Telegraph column on Monday as being the "happiest moment of my year".
The Independent revealed last November that the Met was continuing to hold a laptop computer and an iPad found dumped in a bin near the Brooks' London home on 18 July last year - the day after Mrs Brooks was first arrested.
It is understood that CCTV footage covering the hours prior to their discovery has also been retained.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.