6 Jul 2011

Rebekah Brooks – Murdoch’s friend in need

The position of Rebekah Brooks, News International chief executive and favourite of Rupert Murdoch, has come under increasing scrutiny after the latest phone hacking revelations.

Rebekah Brooks, News International's chief executive (Getty)

Conspicuous for her shock of curly red hair, it has never been easy for Rebekah Brooks to elude the limelight.

The 43-year-old became the youngest person to edit a national newspaper when she took over in 2000 at the helm of the News of the World – the newspaper where she had begun her journalistic career 11 years earlier.

In 2002 she married Ross Kemp, at the time one of the UK’s best-known actors, courtesy of his starring role in the BBC soap EastEnders. Three years later, in November 2005, the couple hit the headlines when it emerged Brooks (or Wade as she then still was, having refused to take Kemp’s surname) had been arrested after an alleged assault on her husband.

In the meantime she had been promoted by News Corporation boss Rupert Murdoch, who owns the News International stable, to editorship of The Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper.

She hit the headlines when it emerged she had been arrested after an alleged assault on husband Ross Kemp.

In 2009 Murdoch promoted her again, to become News International’s chief executive. As such, she took operational control over the Australian-born media magnate’s UK stable of newspapers, which also includes The Times and Sunday Times.

But for all the high profile that Ms Brooks has enjoyed, she appears never to have courted publicity in the manner of a Kelvin Mackenzie, one of her predecessors at The Sun, or former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan.

Morgan’s tenure at the Mirror became the springboard for an international career as TV interviewer. Mackenzie is now an established pundit on media matters, regularly beating the drum for Rupert Murdoch (of whom he told Channel 4 News earlier this year: “We should salute him. The man is literally a genius at what he does.”)

Read more Channel 4 News reports on News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks

Paying for police information

In fact, the best known among Brooks’s rare public pronouncements is one that continues to haunt her. Called in March 2003 to give evidence to a Commons committee investigating covert investigative methods, she told MPs that journalists were entitled to use bugging if there was a strong public interest in the story.

At one point Brooks, who was present alongside Andy Coulson, then her deputy at The Sun, admitted that: “We have paid the police for information in the past” – whereupon a mortified Coulson interjected: “We have always operated within the code of the law.”

We have paid for information in the past. Rebekah Brooks to a select committee, 2003

Fast forward eight years. This week’s unravelling crisis at News International, when it emerged the News of the World had hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, has thrown up the revelation that NOTW made payments to senior police officers between 2003 and 2007, while Andy Coulson was the paper’s editor.

Until now, Andy Coulson has taken more flak for whatever happened at News International than his erstwhile colleague. He stood down from editorship of News of the World in January 2007 after the imprisonment of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire for phone hacking. Then in January 2011 he resigned as Prime Minister David Cameron’s head of communications.

Life after Murdoch?

But since the start of this year the spotlight has turned towards Rebekah Brooks. On 24 January the Independent newspaper published an article alleging that David Cameron and James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s son and the chairman of News Corporation in Europe and Asia, had attended a dinner in Oxfordshire given by Ms Brooks.

The dinner is reported to have taken place days after Business Secretary Vince Cable was stripped of his responsibility for media policy – which had included ruling on News Corporation’s proposed bid for control of BSkyB. Pronouncements by Jeremy Hunt, Mr Cable’s successor, have suggested the deal will be approved.

James Murdoch is heir apparent to the business empire of his father, Rupert Murdoch. And Murdoch Senior is unarguably the most important business connection in Rebekah Brooks’s life. She owes her pre-eminence in the world of British journalism to him.

On Tuesday, as News International teetered under the weight of yet more developments in the phone hacking scandal, Rebekah Brooks emailed NI employees to say she was “sickened” by the Milly Dowler claims, asserting it was “inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations”.

Then, on Wednesday, a statement by Rupert Murdoch appeared to restate his support for his protegee: “I have made clear that our company must fully and proactively cooperate with the police in all investigations.”

The statement continues: “That is exactly what News International has been doing and will continue to do under Rebekah Brooks’ leadership.”

So Rebekah Brooks is safe for now. But she has spent most of her working life as a Murdoch employee, and any future outside the Murdoch embrace might present a chilling prospect. As one profile put it recently: “For Brooks, there is no visible life after Murdoch.”