The rise and fall of Rebekah Brooks
Published 06/07/2011 | 09:07
The hacking scandal engulfing News International has finally claimed its biggest scalp – that of Rebekah Brooks, who was for years Rupert Murdoch’s favoured lieutenant. Andy McSmith charts her career
Rupert Murdoch has four daughters, but sometimes it has seemed like there are five. The one who has loomed largest in his life for some years is not a Murdoch by birth, but a tough social climber from Cheshire who is easily recognisable by her long flame-red hair, and who has now fallen victim to one of the biggest media scandals inhistory.
Rebekah Brooks managed to stay close to the media mogul, once described as the Sun King by the journalist Andrew Neil, for a very long time without getting burned. Other products of the Murdoch stable have their day and are then discarded. But until last night, not even the shocking revelations sending tremors through News International had been able to drive a wedge between the proprietor and his favourite executive.
Given the closeness of their working relationship, it was taken for granted that Murdoch approved the message Brooks sent to News International staff yesterday morning, pleading: "I hope that you all realise it is inconceivable that I knew or, worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations."
Its emotive tone, with its seasoning of words like "appalling" and "sickened", looked grim indeed for any News International employee whose fingerprints were found at the scene of that phone-hacking episode when Milly Dowler went missing eight years ago.
But the email also had another clear message. Other people might pay with their jobs when something like this happens – but not Rebekah Brooks, despite the fact that the perpetrators of this "sickening" act were working for her, albeit indirectly. Until the torrent of scandal overwhelmed News International's east London headquarters last night, she was thought to be safe, simply because it would hurt Rupert Murdoch too badly to lose her.
But not as badly as it will have hurt Rebekah Brooks to lose her job. Others, like the journalists Andrew Neil or Piers Morgan, can fall out with Murdoch and bounce back somewhere else. But for Mrs Brooks, there is no visible life after Murdoch. She might it very hard indeed to readjust now she has been torn away from the organisation which has nurtured her through much of her adult life. She and Murdoch talked every day. She was not required to answer to anybody whose name was not Murdoch. When the old man entered a crowded room, Brooks would be immediately at his side as his introducer and protector.
She was on a par with Matthew Freud, the PR kingpin married to Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth, and one of the greatest networkers alive. Her façade may have been steely, but she was also known to make small acts of genuine kindness for which those on the receiving end would remain grateful.
She became accustomed to the high life from being in Murdoch's orbit. Last Friday, she was in the royal box at Wimbledon, watching the semi-final between Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. During this year's Glastonbury Festival, she descended, like the footballer Wayne Rooney and his wife, Coleen, in her personal helicopter, and was seen drinking champagne from a glass while those around her had to make do with plastic cups.
Other women have thoughtful employers and indulgent fathers, but who else but Murdoch would give his favourite daughter manquée a painting by LS Lowry for a 40th-birthday present? The actor Hugh Grant's secretly recorded conversation with a former News of the World reporter elicited another titbit about her whirlwind life: She goes horseback riding with David Cameron.
Though she lives in material opulence, Brooks was not born into a life of entitlement. After a state-school education, she studied at the Sorbonne, in Paris, then, at the age of 20, she turned up at the Warrington offices of a newly launched newspaper called The Post, to work as a newsdesk secretary. The paper folded in a matter of weeks, after which she talked her way into a similar job at News International in Wapping.
More than 10 years later, at the age of 32 in 2000, she emerged into the public eye as Britain's youngest national newspaper editor and the scourge of paedophiles. In the wake of the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne, she threw the resources of the News of the World behind a campaign for "Sarah's Law", which would give people to right to know if a paedophile is living in their vicinity.
The paper "named and shamed" several paedophiles, despite warnings that this could incite vigilante action. "I want to encourage the public to be vigilant, not vigilante," she said in defence of the campaign.
Obviously, she wished people to believe that she and her newspaper were motivated by a wish to allay parents' anxieties about their children's safety rather than to create a sensation that would drive up sales, an idea that seems absurd now that it has been revealed how little the News of the World cared about the feelings of the Dowler family when 13-year-old Milly went missing. But at the time, the campaign was popular with the newspaper's readers and did her career no harm. In 2003, she moved up to become the first female editor of The Sun, to be succeeded in her old job by her loyal acolyte, Andy Coulson, who later became Cameron's chief spin doctor.
Though Brooks excelled in personal relations on a one-to-on level, she learned early on that making public appearances, which required her to think quickly on her feet, was not her strong suit. Giving evidence to the Commons Culture Select Committee in March 2003, she casually admitted: "We have paid the police for information in the past."
Those words returned to haunt her years later, as the suspicion spread that Scotland Yard had shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm for investigating the phone-hacking scandal because too many of its officers had taken the News International shilling.
She weathered one notable embarrassment during her time at The Sun, when she was arrested in November 2005 for apparently assaulting her then husband, the on-screen tough guy Ross Kemp, whom she had married in 2002.
She had been out the night before having dinner with the Labour politician David Blunkett, commiserating with him over a story in The Independent on Sunday which had forced him to resign from the Cabinet for the second and final time. When she returned home, to Battersea, something went seriously wrong – but we have only unreliable rumours about what exactly it was. Police arrived around 4am, after two 999 calls, to find a sorry-looking Kemp. They arrested Brooks and held her for eight hours. No charges resulted.
The fracas coincided with one of Murdoch's visits to London. He was to be seen in Wapping that morning, demanding to know why his favourite editor was not at her desk. Coulson went to her rescue and when she finally arrived in Wapping, Murdoch treated the whole incident as a joke. The following day's edition of The Sun ran a headline saying "EastEnders hardman beaten by lover" – but that referred to the actor who played the brother of Kemp's on-screen character, who had come off worse in an argument with his ex-girlfriend. Though Kemp was sporting a thick lip, his wife denied inflicting it.
Still, it came as no great surprise when they obtained a "quickie" divorce in 2009. By then, she had been introduced to Charlie Brooks, an old Etonian former amateur jockey and trainer and former proprietor of a sex-toy mail-order company. It has been said that they complemented each other perfectly because he has the confidence to make gentle fun of her, saving her from the corporate disease of taking herself too seriously, and because each knows half of the people in the world that anyone ambitious needs to know – so between them they cover the field. Cameron, Gordon Brown, and most of the Murdoch clan were among the rich and famous guests at the couple's wedding two years ago.
They were written up in a memorable article in Vanity Fair shortly before the marriage, which is such a classic of the genre that it is hard to avoid a suspicion that it is a parody. It opened with the words: "When Charlie Brooks wakes up in the mornings in his barn in Oxfordshire, he likes nothing better than to fly to Venice from Oxford airport with his soon-to-be wife Rebekah Wade, the dazzling redhead editor of The Sun, for lunch at Harry's Bar. Later in the day, after shopping and sightseeing, the couple fly back to London for dinner at Wiltons in Jermyn Street."
The article went on to name other members of the "Oxfordshire set" who pop in and out of the Brooks' home in Chipping Norton, including Jeremy Clarkson, in whose house the couple first met, Emily Oppenheimer Turner, who sometimes lends them the family home in St Tropez, the Carphone Warehouse boss Charles Dunstone, the Blur bassist Alex James and many more.
In September 2009, after six years of editing The Sun, Brooks stepped up to the post of Chief Executive of News International, at the same time that James Murdoch took over as chairman. This put her on par with Sly Bailey, of Trinity Mirror, as the most powerful woman in the British media.
Yet as she settled into her new job, the phone-hacking scandal started to rumble. News International had thought it was over in 2007, when the News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman and the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire went to jail, Coulson resigned his editorship and the company convinced the Press Complaints Commission that it had all been an aberration involving one rogue reporter. As that story started to look threadbare, Coulson was compelled to fall on his sword for a second time, leaving Downing St in January this year.
In March, James Murdoch was called to New York to work alongside his father, in what looked like a News International equivalent of taking the last helicopter out of Saigon. Brooks was left behind in the besieged Wapping Fortress to deal with the scandal.
Yesterday, in the face of calls for her to consider her position – from the Dowlers' lawyer, the Labour leader Ed Miliband, politicians and the public – Murdoch's "fifth daughter" seemed determined to cling on. But even the Sun King couldn't save her.
Independent News Service