Why Rupert Murdoch had to get rid of Rebekah Brooks
Published 16/07/2011 | 03:30
Why now? James Murdoch had promised she would stay to see this through. Rupert Murdoch had placed his hand on her back in a public show of support and said she was his top priority. And then, all of a sudden, she was gone.
Rebekah Brooks was announced as the first female chief executive of News International in June 2009. It was surely the proudest moment of her career. Yet a month later – still several weeks before she had taken up the role – revelations emerged on the phone-hacking scandal that had infected her former newspaper, the News of the World. Then for almost the entire 22 months that she spent in her dream job, the problem glowed in her in-tray like a lump of radioactive material.
Deaf to the countless calls to step down, she clung brazenly to her post, safe in the knowledge that she had largely acted in partnership with the scion to the Murdoch empire, and that its founder regarded her like a daughter. They had discussed her resignation before but firmly rejected the idea. Until yesterday morning when – finally but unexpectedly – Rebekah quit.
Fleet Street's fiery Queen Bess was undone by an alignment of damaging developments that together represent a significant shift in the strategy designed to protect News Corp's long-term reputation. The company this week hired the global public relations business Edelman to help tackle the crisis, and it appears to have demanded radical action.
The fatal blow appears to have been delivered by the Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, News Corp's second biggest shareholder, who summoned the BBC on to his boat to tell them: "For sure she has to go, you bet she has to go." Sources said it was inconceivable that Alwaleed would have made such a statement without having first conferred with the News Corp chairman.
Almost simultaneously, details leaked of discontent within the family. Elisabeth Murdoch, who recently returned to the News Corp fold when it bought her independent television production company Shine, had reportedly told "friends" that Ms Brooks – almost her sister in the eyes of her father – had "f**ked the company".
Ms Murdoch is understood to be "deeply unhappy" at the way the crisis has been handled both by Ms Brooks and by her brother James. She has told friends she believes that not enough was done early enough to establish the scale of the problem at the NOTW and is incredulous at the flat-footed way News International has dealt with the phone-hacking scandal since fresh revelations were revealed last week.
It is thought that she was one of the main voices calling on her father to accept Ms Brooks' resignation when he arrived in Britain last Sunday. He was at first reluctant to see Ms Brooks exit but is said to have agreed following a family meeting at the start of the week. The delay in announcing her departure arose from the need to be able to immediately announce a successor.
As the knives went in, Rupert himself had an alibi. He rang his paper, the Wall Street Journal, to tell them that the whole hacking business was not radioactive at all. The matter had been handled "extremely well in every way possible" by London bosses and where errors were made they were only "minor mistakes". There was nothing too much there for the 43-year-old Ms Brooks to worry about.
Yet by yesterday morning, as the words of Prince Alwaleed and Lis Murdoch began to circulate, she found herself delivering her parting message and walking out of a company she joined at the age of 21 as a girl down from Warrington who had previously made the tea for the publisher Eddie Shah. "My desire to remain on the bridge has made me a focal point of the debate," she claimed in her statement. "This is now detracting attention from all our honest endeavours to fix the problems of the past. Therefore I have given Rupert and James Murdoch my resignation."
Having accepted Ms Brooks' offer, the 80-year-old News Corp chairman leapt into action, authoring a humbling apology to be published in rival Fleet Street titles. Under the headline "We're Sorry" it begged forgiveness for "serious wrongdoing" and promised "concrete steps" to "make amends for the damage". Written in the first person, it carried the old man's signature.
Before the apology had reached the presses, Rupert Murdoch was on the move in London, heading off to meet the parents of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl whose mobile phone was hacked by his News of the World staff, when Ms Brooks was editing the paper. The media mogul made further apologies for a sordid intrusion which, he will be aware, was pivotal in raising public anger to a point where the crisis threatened News Corp's global status.
Michael Wolff, contributing editor to Vanity Fair and Mr Murdoch's biographer, was in no doubt that News Corp had switched tack in its strategic approach. "This has obviously been the next stage of them dealing with this in a more concerted manner," he said. "Alwaleed doesn't give interviews, he doesn't talk to anybody. And they have hired Edelman who probably said 'We are not doing this if you don't fire Rebekah.'"
He speculated that Murdoch Snr – who apparently spoke to the WSJ to offer support for his son James – had probably been advised that he needed to speak out about the matter, after years of refusing to discuss the issue.
Mark Borkowski, a prominent London PR man, said News Corp was trying to seize back control of a story that was out of control. "Rupert is in town and Edelman are being aggressive. They are taking a firm tone and not allowing the vacuum to be filled," he said.
Rebekah Brooks was a loyalist to the last. News Corp, she said, was "the finest news company in the world". After 22 years, she was leaving with "the happiest of memories and an abundance of friends". Those former colleagues who disagreed with her arguments for folding the NOTW ahead of resigning herself, and who estimated her leaving package at £3.5m, might not share those sentiments.
Rupert Murdoch has extinguished the career of his devoted disciple. The shock of flaming hair is gone, but the fires continue to burn in Wapping.
The Saudi Prince
"A little and a little, collected together, becomes a great deal; the heap in the barn consists of single grains, and drop and drop makes an inundation," goes the Saudi proverb. The line was proven prophetic by Alwaleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family and the second biggest shareholder in News Corp, as he poured the last drops into the deluge which swept away Rebekah Brooks.
"For sure she has to go," he told Newsnight on Thursday. Yesterday she was gone. Ms Brooks is said to have had Rupert Murdoch's ear for years. But the nephew of the Saudi King's investment in News Corp gives him 7 per cent of the votes. Put simply, the only man the Prince answers to at News Corp is Murdoch.
He insisted ethics were paramount and prides himself on being, at least in relative terms, a self-made man, having earned his wealth through the shrewd investment of a modest gift from his father.
The New Zealander who's replacing her
*The corporate disaster that Tom Mockridge has been called in to deal with at News International is something that this Murdoch loyalist can never have imagined. As the company's new CEO, the New Zealander – described as "a tough manager" and "a real grafter" – must bring some stability to the news organisation.
Mr Mockridge, 56, is known primarily as a television executive, having built up News Corp's Sky Italia into a business that returned a profit of $230m last year. Married to an Italian, he has lived in Milan since 2002. Observers say he was handpicked by Mr Murdoch to pick a fight with Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. "If you were Rupert Murdoch and you wanted to put your best man opposite Berlusconi for a big fight, you might choose the exact opposite of the Italian PM. That probably describes Tom Mockridge," wrote the American business journalist Kate Bulkley.
Mr Mockridge is returning to a newspaper industry very different from the one he last worked in. He joined News Corp in 1991, working for Australian newspaper arm News Ltd, and then its pay TV business FoxTel.