From Lady Macbeth to Bridget and back
Rebekah Brooks has always seemed tough, but discussion of her personal life has revealed her vulnerability
It was Rebekah Brooks's Bridget Jones moment. Last week, as she answered criminal charges in court, Fleet Street's toughest hack revealed a previously unseen side to herself: the bruised, hapless romantic.
Brooks was called to answer questions about her affair with her News International colleague Andrew Coulson, with whom she is accused of conspiring in a sustained campaign of phone hacking. The prosecution, no doubt, would cast them as a Bonnie and Clyde of print media, whose pillow-talking and scheming led to illegal activities designed to further their mutual galloping ambition.
But Brooks's look in court that day was more damsel-in-distress. As she discussed her failed fertility treatment during her marriage to Ross Kemp, her voice choked and she left the room. She denied a six-year relationship with Coulson, described a love letter she had written to him, in which she said, "I love you, care about you, worry about you. . . without our relationship in my life, I am really not sure how I will cope," as part of her "car-crash personal life".
And then she turned directly to the jury and, in words that could have been lifted out of the writing of Helen Fielding, endeavoured to explain: "I do not know if anyone has been in this situation but, at a time of hurt at night after a few glasses of wine, you probably shouldn't get on your computer."
Brooks has always denied that she knew anything about phone hacking. She has recently been cleared of one of the charges against her (misconduct in public office).
But Rebekah Brooks is a veteran media operator. And she understands better than anyone that she's been cast here as Lady Macbeth – less a person than a pure embodiment of white-hot ambition. She knows too that the role itself has its own power. Lady Macbeth is best remembered for saying she would have dashed out her own infant's brains to fulfil her desire for power.
So it's a neat reversal when Brooks is in court weeping over failed fertility treatment – which finally culminated in the surrogate birth of her daughter, Scarlett – and the career that long obstructed her tender hopes to become a mother.
But playing against the role is an uphill struggle. Her sharp-edged, weathered beauty and that iconic hair all work against her – seen as another tool at her disposal to forward Machiavellian aims.
When Vanity Fair profiled her recently, they called her "pasty"-faced but missed the point. She's not a California blonde, but Brooks has formidable sexual power. Why else do prime ministers seem to dance around her like besotted schoolboys, offering counsel and comfort in her hour of reckoning, even though doing so puts their own reputations in danger?
Last week the court heard that Tony Blair spoke to her in 2011 as the phone hacking scandal was exposed. He was warm and solicitous, offering his services as an adviser, telling her to "keep strong" and maintain a "clear head".
A picture of Blair and Brooks together in 2004 widely published with the story was more damning than the evidence in court. In it Brooks looks ravishing, pictured mid-sentence, part Roman senator, part pre-Raphaelite painting. Tony Blair looks on, his expression obsequious, transfixed.
There aren't many people who could maintain friendships with Tony Blair and David Cameron simultaneously, but Brooks managed it. She, her husband Charlie Brooks and Samantha and David Cameron shared a social scene as part of the 'Chipping Norton' set. They went to the same dinner parties and exchanged fond text messages.
The legendary charisma behind all of this became obvious to those outside the inner circles of power during the Leveson inquiry. There she was, demurely dressed in a Peter Pan collar (the only item of clothing near which butter wouldn't melt); she answered questions coolly under pressure and even managed to joke that Gordon Brown, when hearing about her troubles was "probably getting the bunting out".
Even her accent and delivery (a defining thing in British public life), heard by many for the first time, seemed perfectly pitched for social mobility; clipped rather than posh, it was the kind of accent that could comfortably blend at David Cameron's dinner table and with readers of The Sun.
As an editor, her style was described as "iron fist, velvet glove". As a defendant, she's on the back foot and must change tack. Sometimes vulnerability is more powerful and eloquent than force.