Murdoch confidante lays bare ties to UK elite
LONDON, May 11 — Prime Minister David Cameron was among top politicians who sent sympathetic messages to Rebekah Brooks when she was forced to resign as chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper group over phone-hacking, she told an inquiry today.
Brooks is a former editor of the News of the World, which Murdoch shut last July when it emerged its journalists had hacked into the voicemail of public figures and a murdered schoolgirl.
Brooks was appearing at a judicial inquiry into press ethics to answer questions about her friendships with British politicians.
The Leveson Inquiry’s lead lawyer, Robert Jay, cut straight to the chase as Brooks began her day-long testimony, pressing her for names of politicians who had expressed their sympathy when she was caught up in the hacking storm in July 2011. At first Brooks sought to evade the question, but eventually said:
“I received some indirect messages from Number 10, Number 11, the Home Office, the Foreign Office.” Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street are the offices of the prime minister and finance minister respectively.
Asked if she had indirectly received a message from Cameron to “keep her head up” in the week she stood down, as reported by the Times, she said: “Along those lines. I don’t think they were the exact words.”
Cameron also sent a message to Brooks via an intermediary explaining that he could not remain loyal to her publicly because opposition leader Ed Miliband “had him on the run” over his cosy relationship with top people in the Murdoch empire.
Blair and Brown
Brooks said former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, with whom Murdoch had a friendly relationship, had also got in touch at that time, but his successor Gordon Brown had not. Brown had once courted Brooks and Murdoch, but had fallen out with them over coverage that he viewed as hostile and intrusive.
“He was probably getting the bunting out,” Brooks said with a smile.
The 43-year-old, a celebrity in her own right with her instantly recognisable bright-red curls, was part of a small group of friends that included Cameron, Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and others known as the “Chipping Norton set” for their weekend gatherings in the picturesque Oxfordshire town.
Cameron, who has said politicians’ ties with Murdoch were far too cosy, is grappling with a series of disclosures from the Leveson Inquiry that have shown the close social ties between government and Murdoch’s most powerful executives.
“It’s a worry because you just don’t know what’s there,” one member of parliament from Cameron’s Conservative party said ahead of the appearance, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity.
“I think it could be very difficult. I don’t know any more than the next person but I do have a sense that it is going to be difficult.”
The impression that the prime minister and finance minister George Osborne surrounded themselves with a coterie of privileged individuals for cosy dinners and horse riding in the English countryside has been pounced on by critics.
The Telegraph newspaper has reported that Cameron texted Brooks up to 12 times a day, while the Times, quoting from a new biography of Cameron, reported how the two also exchanged messages ahead of social events held in Chipping Norton, which is close to their respective country manors, arranging to meet but without being seen together in public.
Brooks, dubbed by some the “fifth daughter” of Rupert Murdoch, edited the News of the World from 2000 to 2003 and went on to become the first female editor of the Sun daily tabloid, Britain’s most widely read newspaper, for six years.
She confirmed her position as one of the most important executives in Murdoch’s global empire with promotion to run the British newspaper arm, News International, from 2009 to 2011.
A former secretary who rose to the top of Murdoch’s empire, Brooks could strike fear into politicians. While editor of the Sun, she was considered one of the most powerful people in Britain.
John Prescott, deputy Prime Minister under Blair, has told how Brooks played on the rivalry between Blair and Brown, widening a rift at the top of the then ruling Labour Party that marred much of their time in government.
Despite a tough demeanour that could intimidate hardened “hacks”, she is described by current and former colleagues as a phenomenal networker who could charm and beguile senior politicians and police.
As the phone hacking scandal spiralled out of control last July, Rupert Murdoch flew into London to take charge of the crisis, putting his arm around Brooks in the street outside his house and telling reporters that she was his top priority.
But her fall has been as dramatic as her rise: she has been arrested on suspicion of phone hacking, bribing a public official and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Her second husband, race horse owner and columnist Charlie Brooks, went to Eton, one of Britain’s most prestigious schools, with Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson. Charlie Brooks has also been arrested for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. — Reuters