When Elisabeth Murdoch celebrated her 40th birthday, in the summer of 2008, Rebekah Brooks produced a 32-page souvenir edition of the Sun for the guests at her party with joke stories, a spoof agony aunt column and a composite Page Three girl with Elisabeth’s head grafted on to the body of a naked woman (Headline: “Lizzie’s the breast”).
In amongst the parody, Brooks had also procured authentic messages from the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown; his predecessor, Tony Blair; and his eventual successor, David Cameron; as well as two serving Cabinet Ministers, John Reid and Tessa Jowell. All were effusive, if not sycophantic. “Liz is fabulous, fantastic and funny” was Blair’s opening line.
The paper carried the draft of the speech made by Elisabeth’s husband, Matthew Freud, as the great and the good and the remarkably rich gathered in their 22-bedroomed old priory near Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire. “This house,” he said, “has played host to seven monarchs over the years but perhaps it has not seen quite such an illustrious gathering as tonight.”
And there, in a single evening, you have Rebekah’s world: the wealth, the power, and – with the souvenir Sun – her own high-impact way of registering herself as an ally to the elite. You also have some of the dark side of her newspapers: every single one of those effusive politicians had been targeted directly (or in Cameron’s case indirectly, via George Osborne) by private investigators who used illegal methods while working for the News of the World.
Rebekah Brooks is almost indefinable – a contemporary shapeshifter, light and dark, adored and loathed. One moment, she is charming her way through life, the perfect party girl with her cheek and her charm, taking Sun reporters to the annual love-in with their readers at an old Butlins’ camp, chatting up the lady who serves the coffee in the Old Bailey canteen. Feminist journalists from the Guardian forgave her Page Three and took her in as a friend when she joined the leadership of of the Women In Journalism group.
The next moment, she is Lady Macbeth with a BlackBerry, a model of cold ambition, a hate figure with her face portrayed as a witch in the window of a supermarket near the News International building in east London. At a pre-trial hearing, her lawyer compared her to the martyr Saint Sebastian “with arrows coming in from every possible angle.” And this started years before the hacking scandal engulfed her in July 2011. The author Peter Jukes recalls how, at the Hay literary festival back in the spring of 2006, when she was editor of the Sun, she introduced herself with the opening line: “Everyone hates me.”
Brooks is, as one old friend puts it, “the prime schmoozer”. She is brilliant with men, charming, tactile, very nearly seductive. One man who dealt with her often – a man who is happily married and 20 years her senior – recalls with some embarrassment that “whenever we spoke, she left me thinking that, well, if things had been a little bit different (a sigh) perhaps we would have been together.” She is also brilliant with women – intimate, comic, always an ally, complementing them on their clothes, researching their families so that she can ask just the right question. A female politician says: “She confides, she asks for advice, she will encourage you to feel she is on your team.”
She will love-bomb her targets with offers of assistance – “I’ll make a call” – and, famously, with gifts. A made-to-measure suit of armour for her then partner, Ross Kemp, permanently displayed near the front door of the home they shared in south London. A portrait titled ‘Amazing Grace’ for Rupert Murdoch’s then wife, Wendi, when she gave birth to a daughter called Grace. A hamper full of organic food for a rival editor who was in hospital. Former colleagues say the area around her office was littered with presents, infuriating her managers who watched her regularly busting her £5,000 budget for gifts and entertainment. “She was out of control,” according to one executive.
Some of those closest to her suggest that all of this is artificial, the work of a great manipulator. According to one of them: “She has no friends, only contacts. She doesn’t have conversations. She has transactions. She always has an agenda.” And, in so far as this is counterfeit, she has been willing to dump those who disappoint her. She befriended Gordon and Sarah Brown, but, as Brown’s career dipped, she caused them misery by exposing the cystic fibrosis of their new-born son, Fraser; and then led a campaign of journalistic harassment to ensure Brown was ousted from Downing Street.
Friends say she would blow up in a storm of fury at those who crossed her, firing off aggressive emails, threatening to sack all of them if they failed her again. As the hacking scandal was unfolding in the autumn of 2010, Tessa Jowell spoke to the veteran political editor of the Independent, Andy McSmith, about the interception of her own voicemail. Jowell had been a close friend of Brooks’ for years but when they next met, at a News International dinner at the Labour party conference, Brooks tore into her in front of the other guests. According to one of them, she accused Jowell of “talking to the Indy and giving the fucking Guardian a story they can run for two days.” Jowell is said to have replied that she had to understand that the hacking story was getting traction in Parliament and needed to be dealt with. “Rebekah said: ‘But don’t you see what you’re doing? We thought your were savvy. All you’ve done is to give fucking Rusbridger a two-day hit. I hate Rusbridger.'”
Many of those who have dealt with her speak of the sense of threat behind her smile. Several quote her making taunting references to ‘files full of secrets’ in her office. Politicians, in particular, were anxiously aware of colleagues who had been destroyed when her reporters ripped open their sex lives. The Labour MP Clive Soley told the House of Commons in July 2011 how he had written to her about allegations of sexual harassment by the former editor of the Sun, Stuart Higgins. She had written back: “Tell me, Mr Soley, how many cases of sexual harassment did you deal with when you were chairman of the parliamentary Labour party?” Soley added: “This is how intimidation can work… It was immediately to try an attack on me without answering the question.”
It was this potent mixture of charm and aggression which fueled her brilliant career, rising from an inauspicious beginning in a semi-detached cottage in the charming village of Hatton, near Warrington in Cheshire. After making tea at the local newspaper during her school holidays, she worked as a secretary at Eddie Shah’s short-lived tabloid, The Post, before climbing on to the bottom rung of Rupert Murdoch’s ladder, as a researcher on the News of the World’s magazine in 1989. Just 20 years later, she was the chief executive of his UK company, running all four of his UK titles, aged only 41.
Perhaps the two sides of her character were always there in her parents: her mother, Deborah, a secretary during her childhood, for whom she was an only child and with whom evidently she has a particularly close and loving relationship (and who came to the Old Bailey as a witness in her defence); and her father, John, known as ‘Bob’, a gardener and tree-surgeon, who appears to have been less reliable. He left the family home when Brooks was a teenager, remarried and died aged only 50. His death certificate records that the cause of his death was cirrhosis of the liver. One of his old neighbours in Hatton, Wilson Lamb, describes him as “a loveable rogue”. A friend of Brooks’ less kindly says he was “a drunk with a trust fund” and that years after her childhood, Brooks still recalled how, once when he was drunk, he broke her toy merry-go-round.
Her best friend from primary school, Louise Weir, says she could see the pattern. “It was obvious she was going to get places in life,” she told BBC radio. “There’d be fall-outs with friends, but if she needed something from that person, she’d be able to sweet-talk them around. She has always been very charming. She has always been able to get what she wants out of people, even if they don’t really like her.”
Former colleagues say she groomed those she needed for success. As a humble feature writer at the News of the World in 1994, she made a close ally of her editor, Piers Morgan – and fell in love with him, according to one friend. He promoted her to be features editor and then senior associate editor. By the time he left in 1995, she was wooing the senior management of News International, taking up golf, according to one source, so that she could socialise with them. The chief executive, Les Hinton, became part of her network and is credited with teaching her how to play politics in the corridors of power. By 1996, she had Tony Blair on speed dial and his media adviser, Alastair Campbell, as a friend.
Her ambition was obvious, blatant even. In 1996, Hinton made her deputy editor of the News of the World under Piers Morgan’s successor, Phil Hall, and, according to one senior source, she did her best to usurp him: “She would be whispering in Lis Murdoch’s ear or Les Hinton’s ear ‘That’s my job’.” In the event, in 1998, Hinton switched her to the Sun, making her deputy to the new editor, David Yelland. “It was the same with Yelland when he was made editor of the Sun,” according to the same senior source. “She was furious. Publicly she was loyal but behind the scenes, she was telling everyone how crap he was. It was a pure demolition job.” Yelland has told friends that he realised that Brooks and his assistant editor, Andy Coulson, were trying to unseat him, later suspecting (wrongly) that his own phone and emails might have been hacked.
In May 2000, she finally got Phil Hall’s job at the News of the World and immediately brought in Andy Coulson as her deputy. Three years later, in January 2003, she took Yelland’s job at the Sun, leaving Coulson to run the Sunday title. By that time, she had made her most important ally – Rupert Murdoch.
Almost alone among her contacts, Brooks appears to have formed a genuine bond with Murdoch – not only a gatekeeper to power but also a father figure who openly adored her larrikin cheek and daring. From her earliest years at the Sun, colleagues say, she went far beyond any other journalist in his organisation in appealing to his affections, organising birthday cards for him, writing his speeches for family events, taking up sailing with him, recruiting Elisabeth to her network. Those who saw them together when she was more senior, report an ease between them: she would sit beside him at management meetings or dinners, they say, sometimes putting her hand on his and asking if he needed anything.
Her relationship with James Murdoch seems to have been far less easy. One senior colleague says that when she became chief executive, she insisted that she should not be described as Number Two to James, who was chairman of the company. “I have personally been promoted by Rupert,” she would say. In business meetings, according to this source: “She would come out with non-sequiturs, and James would rip her apart, demolish her. When something was going wrong, she would just go ‘Let me ring my friend, George Osborne.’ It was all about who you knew.”
Another senior source says that Brooks seemed out of her depth as chief executive, still working on the 24-hour cycle of a Sun editor instead of thinking strategically, missing meetings, attending meetings and then making late-night phone calls to catch up on what had happened. But Rupert Murdoch clearly thought she was good enough to hold the job, and so she was untouchable. “She got away with murder because of her ‘in’ with Rupert, and nobody was brave enough to stop it.”
Along the way, she began to enjoy a life of wealthy self-indulgence. Friends speak of her sending her chauffeur to Harrods to buy a pate she had liked in a restaurant the previous night; ordering secretaries to get her frocks; insisting on the best tickets at the theatre, the best rooms in hotels.
As long as she had the weight of Rupert Murdoch’s power behind her, she was not simply influential but effectively irresistible. The hacking crisis blew a hole in her world. But Murdoch is still with her. She still has the wealth, renting a flat around the corner from the Old Bailey to make it easier to get to the trial. And she still exudes the confidence of the powerful: one of the trial lawyers was in the habit of making notes in which she was referred to as HM – for Her Majesty.
She has told friends that she intends to make a come-back. She has also said she will never write her memoirs, because she will not betray Rupert Murdoch’s secrets. There is no sign that he is about to betray her either. When she resigned, he gave her a pay-off of £10.8 million. Since then, she has been spotted holidaying on a Murdoch yacht, and he has been telling anybody who will listen that she is innocent. Now, the jury has acquitted her on all charges. The Rebekah Brooks story continues.