It’s the stuff of Hollywood romances. A man willing to sacrifice the UK's biggest newspaper and the jobs of 200 people to protect one woman. But not even Rupert Murdoch’s loyalty could save Rebekah Brooks in the end. By REBECCA DAVIS.
At 12:00 yesterday the news broke. “A 43-year-old woman was arrested by appointment at a London police station,” ran the statement. “She was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications, contrary to Section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 and on suspicion of corruption allegations contrary to Section 1 of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906.” The rest of us call “Conspiring to intercept communications” phone-hacking and the “corruption allegations” refer to alleged bribing of police officers. Finally, it appeared, “the fifth Murdoch” had been brought down.
Yet, as with all the details of the phone-hacking story, matters aren’t that straightforward. Rebekah Brooks was scheduled to address the parliamentary culture, media and sport committee on Tuesday. Whether she will still honour this obligation is unclear, despite the fact that she was released on bail on Sunday night. Labour and Lib Dem MPs were vocal in their expressions of scepticism about the timing of the arrest. “It is unusual to arrest by appointment on a Sunday and that just makes me wonder whether this is some ruse to avoid answering questions properly on Tuesday in the Commons committee,” The Guardian reported Labour MP Chris Bryant as saying.
The strength and depth of the links between the Metropolitan Police and Murdoch’s empire still remain to be seen, but all indications are they are damagingly close. Britain’s top police officer, Met chief Sir Paul Stephenson, fell on his sword on Sunday night following the revelation that he had appointed former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis as a strategic advisor.
Even if Brooks does address the parliamentary committee, she may not get the grilling people are hoping for. In particular, many would like to see her face the question of how, as editor of News of the World, she was able to publish a story about a message left on missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone without asking how the reporter had come to hear about the message. Suggestions are, however, that Brooks’s and Murdoch’s mafia-like tentacles may extend to the ability to influence the line of questioning from the panel. In a hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism, the Daily Mail reported yesterday that the chairman of the committee, Tory MP John Whittingdale, is Facebook friends with Rebekah Brooks. Whittingdale hit back with an answer to the age-old etiquette dilemma of when it’s appropriate to “defriend” somebody on the social networking site: “I have 570 friends on Facebook. Whether or not Rebekah Brooks is still one of them I rather doubt since I’ve summoned her to appear before me.”
Regardless of whether Whittingdale goes easy on Brooks, there is no doubting that the woman the tabloids cannot resist referring to as “flame-haired” has friends in high places. As has been widely reported, Brooks is a member of the “Chipping Norton set”, a term for the wealthy and powerful gentry of Oxfordshire. It’s a group of pals that includes David Cameron and his wife Samantha, and Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and her husband Matthew Freud (great-grandson of Sigmund, who must be spinning in his grave trying to figure out the precise nature of the relationship between Rupert Murdoch and Brooks). The clique also counts among its members Blur guitarist Alex James and “Top Gear” presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who introduced Brooks to her second husband, race-horse trainer and “international playboy” Charlie Brooks.
Clarkson used his column in the (Murdoch-owned) Sunday Times yesterday to scoff at suggestions that the gang gets together to plot global domination. (It’s unclear what Alex James might be able to bring to the cabal other than some catchy bass riffs.) At their last get-together just before Christmas, Clarkson claims, David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks spent their time discussing sausage rolls. Planning a picnic with their children, “Rebekah was worried about what we’d eat. Cameron thought sausage rolls would be nice. My wife said she’d get some.”
While nobody would want to accuse a man of Jeremy Clarkson’s gravitas of lying, all indications are that Brooks has been very, very good at networking with powerful people. Nobody gets to be editor of the Sun at the age of 32 without some very effective schmoozing, and without having a backbone of pure steel. After all, this isn’t Brooks’s first brush with the law. In 2005 she was taken into custody by the police for allegedly assaulting her first husband, Ross Kemp, a TV personality who has built his entire career around being what the Brits call a “hardman”. (He is best known for his award-winning Sky series ‘Ross Kemp on Gangs’, where he travelled the world immersing himself in the cultures of skinhead neo-Nazis and football hooligans.) Kemp’s experience with handling gangsters was no match for the fists of Brooks though, and he sustained a cut to the mouth. Their marriage broke up shortly afterwards.
Exactly why Murdoch was so bent on protecting Rebekah Brooks at the expense of his empire’s most profitable newspaper arm is a question to which we may never have a satisfactory answer. Last weekend Murdoch flew to London to take Brooks out to dinner, a clear statement of his support. Emerging from a Mayfair restaurant, he smilingly informed journalists that his top priority was “this one”, gesturing to Brooks. It was a statement that reportedly enraged the 200 News of the World staffers whose jobs had been binned to save Brooks’s, but it spoke volumes about Murdoch’s affection. There is no speculation that the relationship between the 80-year old and Brooks is anything but platonic.
There are only two plausible explanations. Either Murdoch sees in Brooks something of his own youthful ambition and ruthlessness – or she has some serious dirt on him. Murdoch will survive. What Rebekah Brooks’s future holds is less certain. But in the words of another ambitious woman, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth: “What’s done is done”. DM
Photo: Then-chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, arrives at Rupert Murdoch’s flat in central London in a July 10, 2011 file photo. Police have arrested Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News Corp’s British newspaper arm News International, Sky News reported on July 17, 2011. REUTERS/Olivia Harris