Rebekah Brooks: The rise and fall of the red-top queen
Once the most powerful woman in the UK's media, Rebekah Brooks' fall from grace was spectacular. Donal Lynch looks at her career ... and the possibility of her making a comeback.
Throughout the months leading up to her arrest, Rebekah Brooks dreaded "that photograph" - the snap of her being led away in shackles that would doubtless have been used against her for the rest of her life. Photographers had followed her everywhere in the hopes of capturing the shot. Comebacks don't sell quite like downfalls, though, and there was not a single papparazzo in attendance when the flame-haired doyenne of the British media returned to News Corp's Manhattan headquarters last month. She slipped in and out of New York inconspicuously, and was there partly for a holiday, she later said, something nobody would begrudge her after the ordeal of 2014. But once word of her arrival in Manhattan got out it was the potential next step in her storied career that really set tongues wagging.
News Corp may have put out a statement last week saying that they are looking for ways to help Brooks explore her "business interests" but things have changed a lot since she was last in New York and knowing where exactly to put her might be a tricky proposition. Thanks to an eight-month-long court case that was part show trial, part soap opera she is now at least as famous as Manhattan's other British media maven: Anna Wintour. All summer, detailed think pieces on her next move have cropped up in British and American media.
The closing scene of Richard Bean's new play, Great Britain, shows its protagonist - widely thought to be based on Brooks - take up a position as an Oprah Winfrey-style chat show host. There has been talk of a movie. But perhaps the ultimate evidence that she's penetrated the popular consciousness: On Fire Island - the so-called "gay Hampton" - drag queens now "do" Brooks. You might not have the ear of the sitting Prime Minister on speed dial any more, but when a dude in a wig is making a living impersonating you, getting promoted to some higher echelon of executive-dom must seem especially pointless.
And for the rest of us the prospect of Brooks going back to making the story rather than being the story is something of a let-down. For while she may, in her time as a journalist, have been behind some quite sizzling copy, little of it compared, in terms of pure human drama, to the story she herself eventually became: A woman with her finger on the pulse of power, grappling a "car crash" of a love life and an apparently porn-fixated husband, trying, against all odds, to have a baby by means of a surrogate, and all the while being covered by her former enemies in the press something in the manner of Goebbels at the Nuremburg trials.
But Rebekah didn't just provide the drama; she allowed for its guilt-free enjoyment: Because you knew that she, as a fearless circulation wars veteran, would have splashed herself in lurid detail all over the front page. The invasion of her privacy that the trial necessarily entailed seemed like a particularly literal form of poetic justice. Here was a hated hack - she once called herself "public enemy number one" - brought deliciously low. The Press portrayed her as a scheming temptress who had powerful men wrapped around her finger. It was an easy yarn to buy into because she looked so good: her expensive mane of red curls made every paparazzi court shot look like a Pre-Raphaelite painting.
The trial itself, however, unfolded more like mid-morning television than high art. Tears flowed down Brooks' cheeks as she described the conception of her daughter, Scarlett, in April 2011 - when she was under threat of imminent arrest - through the surrogacy of her cousin. She cried again when she described how she and her former lover Andy Coulson discussed the possibility of making a go of it; getting married and having children. When the details of Charlie Brooks' defence that he had been trying to hide porn, rather than important evidence, from police came out in court, Brooks looked stone-faced.
She never outwardly showed signs of anger, however. When she was unanimously acquitted on all charges related to hacking phones and authorising payments to public officials there was a widespread sense that this enormous trial had been prosecutorial overkill right from the start. A total of £100m and enough police manpower to run 10 murder investigations had been expended in wringing out this acquittal. When Brooks tremulously delivered her statement and request for privacy on the steps of the courtroom, she did so in the tones of a victim who had finally received some vindication. But the final redemption of the media star - the interview confessional - would remain closed off for the time being: other journalists were still being tried on similar charges and Rebekah giving us the inside scoop wouldn't do.
You can bet many have tried. Brooks herself was a master of the "grooming" letter, setting out the reasons why this or that public figure should trust her publication to tell their story. How many hacks have tried to woo her in the last months? And where would she begin to tell her story?
She might have started with the swiftly changing media landscape that she encountered as she began her oft-described ascent from the lowly station of the News Corp typing pool. By the late 1990s in the UK advertising revenue and sales figures were already slowly falling as free papers and online content grew exponentially. The old order was under threat. The long-form slog of investigative journalism was being replaced by fast celebrity gossip and the Sun's show business column, Bizarre, was becoming the most read in the newspaper. On top of this politics under New Labour was entering an unprecedented period of spin and personality-driven PR. This rising tide of so-called "churnalism" provided the perfect moment for someone like Brooks - charming, wilful, untrained - to make her mark.
Brooks had been only 14 when she told her father - variously described as a deckhand and a gardener - that she wanted to become a journalist but she was 20 and just back from a stint in Paris (where she studied briefly at the Sorbonne) before she started work with the News Of The World. She quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming deputy editor, then the youngest ever editor of a national Sunday newspaper. From the beginning she understood better than most the power of connections: she carefully nurtured rising stars in the PR world, wooed the coming men of politics - including Tony Blair - and boldly ingratiated herself with her bosses - she was a special guest at Elisabeth Murdoch's bridal shower. It was fitting, perhaps, that one of her biggest stories from this period, was an interview with James Hewitt, Princess Diana's lover, during which she famously had the room bugged (Piers Morgan wrote in his book, The Insider, of his admiration for Brooks' thoroughness). Diana was the ultimate celebrity victim but Brooks, at the News Of The World, would cleverly re-imagine the next incarnation of the tabloid media star: the ordinary person victim as celebrity. Even before the Madeleine McCann story broke, families whose children had been abducted or murdered became sources of intense media fascination and Brooks fought her circulation wars on this front. Whether it was the campaign for Sarah's Law - a controversial child sex offender disclosure scheme - or the pruriently relentless coverage of the missing schoolgirls in Soham, the NOTW under Brooks seemed almost obsessive in its pursuit of stories that related to crimes against children. Brooks played her part in making stars of the grieving parents. She befriended Sarah Payne's mother and lobbied the political establishment aggressively on the part of Madeleine McCann's parents. She also became close to the parents of Milly Dowler - an English schoolgirl who was abducted and murdered. It would be the Dowler story that would come back to haunt Brooks, providing as it did the most unjustifiable example of phone hacking.
Undoubtedly, dead and missing children made great box office - readership at the NOTW rose steadily again under Brooks' watch - but it was also impossible to escape the impression that this obsession also had a personal angle for her. In the witness box last summer, she spoke movingly of her own long-held desire for children and broke down when describing the series of fertility tests she underwent during her marriage to former EastEnders star, Ross Kemp. After two years, with work pressures mounting, she stopped the tests, she said. It was during this period that she rekindled her affair with her deputy, Andy Coulson. "Andy and I were incredibly close during that time. He was my best friend … It certainly complicated the friendship", she told the court after excerpts of a letter which she had written to him "late at night … possibly after a few glasses of wine" were shown to the jury. The point of showing them the letter was not to embarrass Brooks, the jury was told, but to establish whether she and Coulson were close enough that they might have shared closely-guarded work secrets with each other. The rules of parliamentary privilege would have prevented the jury from casting their minds back to 2003 when she told a Commons Select Committee that she had indeed paid police for information before Coulson hurriedly cut across her to state that everything they had done in their dealings with police had been within the law (the damning clip remains on YouTube).
The Labour MP who had put the question about police payments to Brooks, Chris Bryant, was subsequently "monstered" (in his phrase) by News International newspapers. His phone was hacked and they ran stories which related to his sexuality.
But if some politicians lived in fear of Brooks, others allowed themselves to be courted by her. Around the time her relationship with Kemp began cooling, her political allegiances were also shifting. In her love life the Labour-voting working-class-boy-made-good (Kemp) would be replaced by a true blue Old Etonian - racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks - and Rebekah's loyalties to New Labour began a slow shift toward the coming man of British politics: David Cameron. She had been grooming him as far as back as 2005 when she met him through Matthew Freud, and by 2008 Cameron was being flown in for a private meeting with Rupert Murdoch on the tycoon's yacht. The Tory leader had already by that point appointed Coulson as his spin doctor and in June 2009 he was a guest at Brooks' wedding to Charlie Brooks. In the same month as the wedding, Rupert Murdoch appointed her as Chief Executive Officer of News International.
The following September, the Sun gleefully ruined Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour Party conference by greeting it with the following morning's front page headline: "Labour's lost it." By the time the 2010 election rolled around all of the Murdoch's British titles had swung their might behind the Tory party and their influence on voters was incalculable.
When David Cameron became PM he brought Andy Coulson into number 10 with him and the links between the News International machine and the government grew ever tighter. Murdoch and Brooks had the wind at their backs and, in the face of huge concerns about media plurality, MPs seemed poised to give the go-ahead to News Corp taking over broadcasting giant BSkyB. Everything was coming together nicely.
But the shafting of New Labour under Brown would come back to haunt her. On July 4, 2011, the Guardian reported the hacking of Millie Dowler's phone and the new Labour leader, Ed Miliband, served the party's revenge on Brooks, loudly calling for her immediate resignation from the floor of the House Of Commons. The following day, advertisers began withdrawing in droves from the News Of The World - the same day that the Telegraph revealed that the paper hacked the phones of the families of soldiers who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brooks released a statement saying that she was "appalled and shocked" at the revelations but was persuaded, against her own judgment, to stay on for the time being as CEO.
The jury at the Old Bailey decided that she did not know that victims' phones were being hacked. They were not convinced that her husband or assistant did anything wrong at her behest. They were not convinced that "she must have known" about the hefty payouts to Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who did a lot of the corporation's dirty work. They were not persuaded that she had any hand in the payments made to public servants during her time at the Sun or the removal of boxes of notebooks marked "Rebekah Brooks, nee Wade, 2002-2007" from the News International archive, the contents of which have never been recovered. But should she have known about these issues? This will be the question that dogs her even as she attempts to resuscitate her career.
She will find a media landscape that has been changed utterly in the wake of the hacking trials and the Leveson Inquiry. The conviction of Max Clifford, with whom Brooks had a close professional relationship, must signal to her the end of an era. Clifford, more than anyone, profited from the illicit trade in celebrity gossip that characterised Brooks' reign as an editor. When the hacking revelations came to light, she offered him a £1m deal to stop him pursuing phone hacking civil cases. Now, like Coulson before him, Clifford remains locked up at Her Majesty's pleasure. Brooks, meanwhile, is free to author a new chapter in her career.
But does she want to? Fabulously wealthy thanks to the payoff she received after the hacking scandal broke, and now the mother of a young girl, Brooks might be torn by other priorities. But she is used to being in the thick of the action - she described during her trial the tremendous "buzz" she got from work.
She also still has her enviable connections - during the trial she quipped that she has Tony Blair's number in her phone - and she will have the might of Murdoch behind her. Her alma mater in Wapping might be licking its wounds, but if the buzz in New York last month was anything to go by we may yet see the re-circulation of the industry's most enduring Red Top.