24 Jun 2014

Rebekah Brooks: social butterfly with an iron will

News of the World editor, lover of Andy Coulson, protegee of Rupert Murdoch – the extent of Rebekah Brooks’s connections with the rich and powerful became clear during the phone-hacking trial.

At the height of the public scandal over phone hacking at the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch, the most astute media operator of the last century, was asked what his priority was.

His response was jaw dropping. “She is,” he said, motioning towards the flame-haired woman beside him. If anyone doubted the power and influence Rebekah Mary Brooks held over the British establishment at that moment in time, Mr Murdoch’s answer was enough to make any doubts disappear.

In response, Ms Brooks gave a cryptic smile. A “Mona Lisa smile”, as one onlooker described it.

That smile has been seen time and time again over the last nine months, as twice a day, Ms Brooks – usually accompanied by her husband Charlie – has run the gauntlet of the cameras she once helped control.

So what have we learned about the woman behind the smile?

Trial of the century

In a front page so outrageous that she could have written it, Rebekah Brooks’s trial began against the background of a Private Eye cover that depicted the former editor as a witch.

It was a daily drama that should have been a tabloid editor’s dream – office sex, angry celebs, lesbian porn and some of Britain’s most powerful politicians implicated. But for once the tabloids seemed to lack the stomach to give the case Private Eye dubbed the “trial of the century” the column inches it deserved.

Perhaps it was sympathy for the woman at the centre of the case. Or perhaps the fear of where the Met would look next. But the phone-hacking trial never quite took off in print in the way its principals – and certainly Hacked Off – would have liked.

The phone-hacking trial never quite took off in print in the way its principals would have liked.

Few newspaper reporters reach an editorship without putting in their time on the crown court press bench, and Brooks was probably no exception. Journalists and barristers are often easy bedfellows – long hours, job insecurity and a drinking culture in common.

But if Ms Brooks was at home in court 12 among the bewigged counsel of the Old Bailey, at times she showed little sign of it.

Sharing the dock with her husband, her former lover Andy Coulson, and four other former News International staff, Ms Brooks has been on trial since October. Both the prosecution and her own defence team have probed the most intimate parts of her personal life.

Extraordinary influence

No detail was too private. We heard in detail about her struggle to conceive and the daughter she had through a surrogate.

And then there was the love letter she composed but never sent to her deputy, Andy Coulson. It revealed a passionate love affair between the two that had occurred, prosecutor Andrew Edis QC said, for at least six years, while both were married to other people. It was a relationship so significant that, when Mr Coulson sought to end it, Ms Brooks wrote: “Without our relationship in my life, I am really not sure how I will cope.”

The rationale behind exposing this affair to public scrutiny? To allow the jury to assess whether or not these two alleged conspirators could have trusted each other with a criminal secret. It was an affair both were questioned about at length.

Throughout, she has been watched closely by journalists, onlookers and campaigners – all eager to learn the how a woman who so seldom spoke in public exerted such extraordinary influence over the political and cultural life of the country.

Meteoric rise

In an industry full of graduates, Rebekah Brooks’s career had distinctly old school beginnings. She graduated from a secretary’s desk on a paper in her home town of Warrington. She quickly moved to London and the News of the World. It was the school of hard knocks, a world where you were only as good as your last scoop and where bruising editors would pour scorn – and worse – on hacks who couldn’t hack it.

It was a place where the catering manager’s daughter from Cheshire quickly built a reputation. Her common touch with the punters who were the source of the Screws’ scoops was gentle, persuasive and highly effective. Decades later Brooks retains the ability to charm – Sara Payne, whose phone was a target of News International’s snoopers, still gave evidence on her behalf.

Rebekah Brooks retains the ability to charm – Sara Payne, whose phone was a target of News International snoopers, still gave evidence on her behalf.

She thrived in features, rising to become features editor. She specialised in interviews and what she told the jury were the “kind of stories you’d find in Take a Break… really unusual human interest stories.”

“Fluffy” some of her journalism might have been, but she was not beyond the subversive methods the News of the World often employed. Her editor Piers Morganclaimed wrote approvingly in his 2005 memoir of how she kitted out a hotel room with secret listening devices before an interview with James Hewitt and alleged how she’d stolen a Sunday Times scoop by disguising her distinctive hair beneath a borrowed News International cleaner’s uniform and lifting a copy of the paper from the printing presses.

Andy Coulson, former 10 Downing Street communications chief (Reuters)

Skill and talent

At features, she landed an exclusive interview with footballer Paul Gascoigne about how he’d assaulted his wife. It was a testament to Brooks’s skills and talent as a journalist that not only did she get the scoop, but that Gascoigne’s wife Cheryl remained a firm friend for years to come. Her boss Piers Morgan noted that the interview marked her out as a “rising star”.

At vast expense, Ms Brooks bought up the story of Divine Brown, the prostitute with whom actor – and now Hacked Off campaigner – Hugh Grant was caught in a car in 1995.

Then, as features editor, she exposed Tory MP Alan Clark for having an affair with a judge’s wife and her two daughters. These were all classic News of the Screws tales.

Rebekah Brooks appears to have done little to stop the cut-throat rivalry in the newsroom under her editorship.

If she was unpopular with some colleagues – one rival section editor used to compile her “mistakes” into folders entitled Twat 1, Twat 2 and so forth, and she even suspected the newsdesk of cutting her phone lines – it didn’t do her any harm. Ms Brooks told the jury of eight women and three men that this behaviour was “old-school misogyny” prompted by the fact she “was unusually young and a woman”.

In spite of this bullying, Ms Brooks appears to have done little to stop the cut-throat rivalry in the newsroom under her editorship, with the jury repeatedly told that news and features were still at war long after Ms Brooks ceased to be the paper’s editor. Indeed, perhaps perplexingly, many of the newsdesk journalists at the time of the phone line cutting thrived under her editorship.

Advice from ‘the boss’

She made it to the position of deputy editor of the News of the World at the age of just 27. Along with Piers Morgan – who’d previously been made editor of the News of the World in 1994 at the age of 28 – and Andy Coulson, she was part of a generation of rising young Murdoch stars clearly marked for greatness.

It was at this point she gained valuable insight from the boss, Rupert Murdoch. Summoned to his office, she told the jury, she was told: “Keep your head down… don’t court publicity… It’s a big challenge at a young age.” Then, he allegedly added: “You’ve got a long career. Take your time, learn on the job.”

Summoned to Rupert Murdoch’s office, she was told: ‘Keep your head down. Don’t court publicity. It’s a big challenge at a young age.’

It was here that Rebekah Brooks’s career, under the watch of Mr Murdoch and his trusted lieutenants, really began to take off. And she would pay him back by largely adhering to his advice as she rose through the News International empire. But there were mistakes.

After a spell as deputy editor of the Sun, she was appointed as editor of the News of the World. Here she gave her first and only TV interview, to promote her campaign to name and shame paedophiles, “Sarah’s Law”. After some criticism, and allegations she was fuelling vigilantism, she remembered Mr Murdoch’s advice and kept a lower profile. In 2003, she was made editor of the Sun.

Ms Brooks continued to edit the Sun, before seamlessly moving from the world of newspapers into the corporate world of the CEO, becoming head of Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper empire.

Becoming the story

With her arrest nearly three years ago, all that changed. Ms Brooks became the story. And there was only so far that the Murdochs would support her. James Murdoch, the court was told, telephoned Ms Brooks’s husband Charlie (pictured below, left), to request that he persuade his wife to resign.

In a trial which has revealed previously untold stories about the peccadillos of A-list celebrities and raked over the intimate details of life in the royal household, it says much of Ms Brooks’s position in British public life that her emails and details of her social connections yielded some of the trial’s most lurid headlines.

One email read to the jury showed how she had been given support by former prime minister Tony Blair, who had offered to act as an unofficial adviser after the hacking scandal broke. He suggested she use sleeping pills and suggested a media strategy in which she investigated herself.

It laid bare the closeness of the relationship between Blair and the Murdoch empire – a relationship viewed by many with intense suspicion during the former’s time in office. That email was written in spite of a warning from James Murdoch sent to her just minutes before: “Not on email.”

Charlie and Rebekah Brooks (Reuters)

Indiscreet conversations?

Time and again, the prosecution sought to portray Rebekah Brooks as someone prone to indiscreet conversations over dinner.

One of David Cameron’s best friends, Dominic Loehnis – a headhunter whose previous claim to fame was hiring George Entwistle to be the BBC’s director-general – claimed that Ms Brooks had discussed phone hacking at the prime minister’s private birthday party at Chequers.

A former lawyer and now a life coach, Ambi Sitham, claimed Ms Brooks and her friend Piers Morgan had exchanged “hacking banter” at a London steak restaurant, years before the scandal broke. Rebekah Brooks and Piers Morgan have both denied the allegation.

And then there was Eimear Cook, ex-wife of golfer Colin Montgomerie, who claimed to have had a “gossipy” lunch with Ms Brooks during her editorship of the Sun. Ms Cook said that among the topics discussed, “I remember the topic of how easy it was to listen to (celebrities’) voicemails, as long as they hadn’t changed their factory settings.

“She (Rebekah) said that it was so easy to do and she couldn’t believe that famous people… that they would have all these advisers and all you needed to do was change the pin code to make the voicemail secure.” Ms Brooks’s counsel, Jonathan Laidlaw QC, said that Ms Cook had “lied” to the jury.

Personal charm

Whether or not Ms Brooks was, or is, a convivial dining companion prone to indiscretion, the jury was left in no doubt that she was a woman with an active social life capable of conversing with and charming people in many different circles.

Indeed, it seems her personal charm is such that even those her papers exposed, humiliated, or just plain vilified, still feel some residual loyalty towards her. When I recently asked a man who had been viciously turned over by the Sun during Brooks’s editorship and allegedly hacked by News of the World journalists at the same time, he declined, stating that he still counted Ms Brooks as a friend.

A social butterfly with iron will and a talent for schmoozing the powerful, Rebekah Brooks has built a career out of making friends easily. She will now be hoping that some of those friends now stick by her, as she enters a new and difficult chapter of her life.