Rebekah Brooks: From media queen to mummy
Rebekah Brooks’ ascent from dogsbody to running Rupert Murdoch’s entire British newspaper empire seemed unstoppable until the phone-hacking scandal took her down. Donal Lynch unravels the enigma that is the former Queen of Fleet Street.
When Rebekah Brooks released a picture of herself and her longed-for first child last week it was remarked by some observers that ethics in British journalism — the issue with which the flame-haired former head of News International is inextricably linked — had apparently already changed. The expected frenzy of interest in the child's provenance — she was born via an anonymous surrogate, who had actually been expecting twins before one of the babies tragically died — was notably muted, especially given Brooks' notoriety and her role at the centre of Britain's hacking inquiry.
The family's privacy was completely respected. Nobody dared ask David Cameron or Rupert Murdoch if they were in competition to be godfather. Even the father, racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks, wasn't doorstepped or otherwise harassed. What, the hacks covering the Leveson inquiry collectively wondered, was the world coming to?
Had Brooks herself still been an editor at News International and in charge of her own story, it might not have been so tenderly reported. Certainly there would be no hope that the only photo of baby Scarlett Anne Mary Brooks (6lbs 1oz) would be the one released by her overjoyed parents.
Still, Brooks must be grateful for small mercies. It has been a torrid few weeks for the ‘Witch of Wapping’. On January 6 last, Cheryl Carter, her assistant of 19 years, was arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. On the Saturday of last weekend, four senior journalists at The Sun were questioned by police in relation to phone hacking and suspected payments to police. Some of the material in question is understood to relate to Brooks' period as editor of that paper, a post she held from 2003 to 2009.
After weeks of denials and finger pointing she was arrested last July and questioned for nine hours before being released. At the time of writing, no charges have been filed against her but her status as public enemy number one seems to solidify with each new revelation on the hacking of the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, and she is awaiting the results of an investigation.
When Brooks announced her surrogate's pregnancy in November, some thought she was merely making the wisest use of the ‘down time’ before re-emerging in another role in Murdoch's empire. The latest arrests bring the scandal once again to her front door.
But then Brooks has always been something of an enigma — an intensely private individual who hobnobbed with royalty at Ascot and married a soap star; a journalistic prodigy whom colleagues described as “out of her depth”; a ruthless charmer who, even some of her victims agreed, was warm-hearted and generous; a feminist and founder of the Women in Journalism organisation yet a vociferous (vicious even) defender of the Page Three topless shots.
As the hacking inquiry exploded last summer, the baffling contradictions of her professional and personal ties were also laid bare: she left Gordon Brown and his wife in tears after splashing on their infant son's illness, yet they socialised with her, and Sarah Brown subsequently thanked Brooks in her autobiography.
She was loathed, according to reports, by Murdoch's wife, Wendi, and his daughter Elisabeth, yet she regularly dined with the family, and even attended Elisabeth's hen night.
Some families may be better than others at compartmentalising business but even Sara Payne, whose eight-year-old daughter Sarah was abducted and murdered in 2000, stood by Brooks when it was revealed that the News of the World may have hacked the phone she was given by the News International maven herself. In what kind of a woman, we wondered, could so many people see so many different reflections?
Perhaps a clue to the answer lies in her background. She was born in 1968 in Warrington, between Liverpool and Manchester, and grew up in the Cheshire village of Daresbury, most notable for the fact that it was there that Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland.
Her name back then was Wade and her tugboat operator father could have had little idea of the fantastic and dangerous worlds that Rebekah, like Alice, would step into.
She yearned to be a tabloid hack. By the time she was 14 she was making the tea at her local paper and after a brief stint in Paris (where, depending on who you listen to, she studied at the Sorbonne or just took a class there) she was back in Blighty, sleeves rolled up, ready to get ink on her hands.
She was just 20 when she showed up at the office of Graham Bell, then regional features editor of the Post, a now-defunct tabloid. She demanded work as a secretary but Bell told her that he could not offer it because he was moving the following week to the paper's London office.
The very next Monday, on his first day in the new post, he was met with the sight of the skinny “hollow-eyed” young woman, who seemed prepared to do anything to succeed.
In 1989, after the Post went to the wall, Wade found a job as a secretary at the News of the World's magazine where she caught the eye of Piers Morgan, who wrote admiringly of her guile and determination in his rollicking memoir, The Insider.
Morgan, himself barely in his thirties, promoted her so quickly that she spent little time in on-the-ground reporting. By the age of 29 she was deputy editor of The Sun and it's a measure of her burgeoning ambition that she was peeved to be passed over the following year for the editorship.
Murdoch made it up to his ‘daughter’ by appointing her editor of the News of the World. She was by now Britain's youngest newspaper editor. Her period at the helm of NOTW was marked by the revelations about Prince Harry's drug-taking and the scoop of catching Sophie Rhys-Jones trying to leverage her royal connections.
According to Brooks, however, some still struggled with the concept of a young, female editor. At a talk she gave in 2009 she recounted a senior male executive addressing her as “darlin'.” and asking her to sew a button back on a shirt “when you have a minute”.
Not that she let sexism bother her. Rebekah's tactic was not to rail against the old boys' club but to join it. She took up sailing because she knew that it was a passion of Murdoch's and golf because she thought that it would open up a world of backslapping and clandestine deals.
In the end it gave her a husband too; she met future beau Ross Kemp, at that time one of the biggest soap stars in England, on a golf course. He wooed her with an art deco ring reportedly costing £20,000. They were married in Las Vegas within the year. His connections within the Labour Party opened up that world to her.
The marriage did not last. The couple fought bitterly — at one stage he reportedly called her “a homophobic cow” — and in 2005 she was arrested after apparently giving the TV hard man a fat lip. She was released without charge.
The union with Kemp may not have lasted but the political contacts he helped her forge were ample alimony. She became especially close to Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary and a former tabloid hack himself. When Blair became prime minister, Brooks cultivated a close relationship, not only with the Labour leader but also his wife Cherie.
Her strategy was the same with women or men — she was tactile, conspiratorial and flirtatious — as long as the target of her charms remained useful. She became so close to Cherie that when the centre of power began to shift in the Labour Party and Brooks attended a party at Number 11, home of the hated Browns, Cherie reproached her.
For Brooks, it was onwards and upwards. Brown was the coming man and John Prescott, for one, saw her play the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and the former Prime Minister off against each other.
The journalist Roy Greenslade said of her practice of befriending wives and children: “That's simply how she operates, she gets that close to people. It's not simply a business thing, it's domestic.” Within a few years, the sleepovers with Cherie were no more — she was derided in the paper as “foolish” and “greedy” — and Brooks was spending weekends with Sarah Brown and her friends.
By then the media maven had been made editor of The Sun, a job she said she had dreamed of since childhood. Revealing her sense of humour, she showed how gladly she put aside personal conviction — a dislike of Page Three shots — in the service of her master and surrogate father Murdoch. On her first day on the job, the busty lovely was “Rebekah, 22, from Wapping”.
It was The Sun's story on Gordon Brown's baby's cystic fibrosis that provoked the most shock and awe at Brooks' ruthlessness, however. The Browns had already lost a baby daughter and were only just coming to terms with the diagnosis.
Observers agreed the story marked a new low for Murdoch's flagship title, but this was tempered by the shrugging pragmatism of the Browns attending Brooks' wedding three years later. If they were trying to engender loyalty, it didn't work.
The following autumn, on the day Brown was due to give a landmark speech, The Sun roared with the headline: ‘Labour's lost it’. The paper's abrupt shift in allegiances rocked the political establishment and coincided with Brooks' movement closer to her NBFs — the Camerons. Her former deputy at the News of the World — Andy Coulson — had become David Cameron's media adviser but resigned after Clive Goodman, the paper's former royal correspondent, was convicted of phone hacking.
So close did she get to the Conservative Party leader that Cameron was said to sign off his notes to her, ‘Love, David’. Brooks smoothly brought her boss into the fold, too. Within a week of Cameron's ascent to Number 10, the antipodean billionaire paid him a visit to discuss the BSkyB takeover.
In early 2009 Brooks divorced Kemp and the following June married former racehorse trainer, ‘international playboy’ and author Charlie Brooks, whom she had met at the home of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson.
The Camerons attended the lavish ceremony in Oxfordshire, as did the Blairs, the Browns and the Murdochs. A media blackout orchestrated by PR guru Matthew Freud (who is married to Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth) ensured there were no paparazzi photos of the ceremony. In an apt portent of what was to come the couple would live in a home near Hacker's Lane in the Cotswolds. Brooks had been promoted to CEO of News International. Her days of doing anything as grubby as editing a paper seemed to be behind her.
Then came the apocalypse: two years to the day after taking the job, Brooks suddenly found herself at the centre of a scandal that would derail her career and tear apart the power structure of the UK’s media and political elite.
For years phone hacking had been written about — Morgan described the practice in The Insider — but News International had always insisted that it was confined to a few “rogue reporters”. Then, in the spring of last year two senior News of the World journalists were arrested on suspicion of hacking and News International for the first time announced it would set up a compensation scheme for victims, the number of which continued to grow.
Sienna Miller and football pundit Andy Gray settled civil actions against News International in early summer, while Ryan Giggs and Lord Prescott launched theirs. Emails then emerged that suggested that the phones of the family of Madeleine McCann, the Soham murder victims and the 7/7 victims had been hacked.
While many of the allegations related to periods when Brooks was in charge of The Sun or News of the World, it seemed that Murdoch was determined that she would be protected. He swept into London and when asked by reporters what the top priority was, he gestured toward her and in fatherly tones said “this one”.
In an effort to quell public rage he closed the News of the World. She kept her job but Murdoch had badly misjudged the depth of public opprobrium: after 11 days of growing political and public pressure, Brooks resigned, saying that her “desire to remain on the bridge” had made her a “focal point”.
A day later she was arrested in connection with allegations of corruption and phone hacking and questioned for nine hours by detectives at Scotland Yard. For the celebrities, politicians and even fellow journalists she had trampled underfoot it was poetic justice.
“Ding dong the witch is dead,” screamed the tweets. For the public the simple fact that a murdered schoolgirl's phone had been hacked, giving her mother false hope that she was alive, was enough to make the Queen of Fleet Street a pariah.
And now even the timing of her arrest came under scrutiny; how convenient, some said, that she would be taken off the streets, just before being called to give evidence to a Commons Select Committee.
In the end she did appear, unsmiling, and looking tired (so entrenched is the public's view of her that it was speculated that she had employed a make-up artist to create this ‘harried’ effect). There was to be no repeat of the blunder of 2003, when she admitted that police were paid for information. For four hours she deftly answered questions, rarely making a misstep.
If the payoff she was rumoured to have received was as generous as reported (£1.7m, car, plus office), she should be comfortable for a few years yet.
She's not out of the woods yet, however. The Leveson inquiry drags on. A laptop, said to belong to her husband, was seized by police and never given back. Indeed, she's still awaiting the results of an official investigation, which may yet see her face further criminal or civil actions.
For a new mother, newly out of work, with a lot of enemies, it's a precarious position to be in. She may do well to hope that investigating authorities, unlike tabloid journalists, have a heart.