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Queen of the empire

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The woman at the centre of Britain’s phone-hacking scandal has become as famous as her victims, but in many ways Rebekah Brooks remains an enigma. Paul Barry reports on her fall from grace.

Centre of attention … a young Rebekah Brooks (middle of the front row) as captain of her school netball team.

Centre of attention … a young Rebekah Brooks (middle of the front row) as captain of her school netball team.

Six days after the lid blew off the News of the World phone-hacking scandal last July, Rupert Murdoch flew into London in his private Gulfstream jet to sort out the mess. He and his son James had already closed down their sleazy Sunday tabloid with the loss of 280 jobs, a public inquiry had been announced, and Britain's politicians were on the attack.

Clutching the last edition of the paper, Rupert was driven to his offices at Fortress Wapping before heading back to his Mayfair apartment, where his young chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, soon joined him. Shortly afterwards, he stepped out into the media throng to walk to a nearby restaurant, with Brooks by his side.

As he struggled to make progress through the crowd, he was asked, "What is your first priority, Mr Murdoch?"

Rebekah Brooks  and Rupert Murdoch   leave from his London residence shortly after his arrival in  Britain on  July 10, 2011, to take personal charge of the phone-hacking scandal.

Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch leave from his London residence shortly after his arrival in Britain on July 10, 2011, to take personal charge of the phone-hacking scandal. Photo: AFP

There were so many things he could have said: "To regain the trust of the British people", "To apologise to Sally and Bob Dowler" (whose murdered teenage daughter Milly's phone had been hacked by the News of the World), or even "To support my son and ensure our papers are not further damaged by what has happened". But he chose none of these. Instead, Rupert Murdoch looked tenderly at the striking redheaded woman by his side and said simply, "This one."

Most likely, Murdoch had already been told by his daughter Elisabeth to sack her, and he would surely have read in the UK's Daily Telegraph that Elisabeth had declared to friends that Brooks had "f...ed the company".

Five days later, he would be forced to accept her resignation; two days after that, Brooks would be arrested by the Metropolitan Police on suspicion of phone hacking and corruption; eight months later, she would be arrested again - with her husband, Charlie; and two months after that, on May 15 this year, she would be charged with three counts of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Fox on the run ... Brooks leaves her lawyer's office in London on May 15 after she and her husband Charlie (in blue jumper) were charged by police in relation to the phone-hacking affair.

Fox on the run ... Brooks leaves her lawyer's office in London on May 15 after she and her husband Charlie (in blue jumper) were charged by police in relation to the phone-hacking affair. Photo: Getty Images

Yet it was only under duress that Murdoch had agreed to get rid of her, and then with regret, letting her keep her Mercedes and her London office, giving her a $2.7 million golden handshake and telling her to "travel round the world".

So how did this woman have such a hold over him and so many other powerful people in the UK?

"It was obvious she was going to get places in life," her best friend at primary school, Louise Weir, told the BBC. "There'd be fall-outs with friends ... but if she needed something from that person she'd be able to sweet-talk them round. She has always been very charming, she has always been able to get what she wants out of people, even if they don't really like her."

It took only 11 years for Brooks - known as Rebekah Wade until she married old-Etonian racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks in 2009 - to be crowned queen of Britain's red-tops. In 2000, she became the then youngest editor on Fleet Street at the age of 31; the first female editor of Murdoch's The Sun at 34; and boss of his British newspaper empire, News International, at 41.

More significantly, she was in charge of Murdoch's News of the World at the crucial moment, 10 years ago, when the tabloid hacked into Milly Dowler's voicemail. It was the revelation of this act last July that finally caused the phone-hacking story to explode, not least because the newspaper had apparently deleted phone messages and given Milly's mother false hope her daughter was still alive. (It now seems those messages were deleted by the phone company.)

Rebekah Brooks may or may not have ordered the Dowler hacking. But the practice of illegally hacking into private voicemails was rife during her time as editor of the News of the World from 2000 to 2003, and there can be no doubt she was a major player in the subsequent cover-up.

When the newspaper's pet private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, was arrested in August 2006 with royal correspondent Clive Goodman, Brooks was tipped off by detectives that Mulcaire had hacked into the voicemails of more than 100 celebrities, sports stars and politicians. She may, of course, have already known.

As the paper's lawyer, Tom Crone, warned in an email to her successor, Andy Coulson - later to join British PM David Cameron's staff as communications director - Brooks was told the News of the World had paid Mulcaire £1 million, and that police could see a "pattern of victims", with each "replaced by the next one, who becomes flavour of the week/month". Yet for the next 4 1/2 years, Brooks and her bosses at News International swore repeatedly that phone hacking was the work of one rogue reporter.

This was not the only secret she guarded. In her six years as editor of The Sun, her paper paid hundreds of thousands of pounds in illegal bribes to police and public officials to obtain confidential, private information. Moreover, after she took charge of News International in September 2009, one of the company's first acts was to order the mass deletion of emails that would have helped phone-hacking victims sue the company.

So did she really not tell the Murdochs what she knew? Rebekah Brooks's office in Wapping was next door to James's and she talked to Rupert every day. He trusted her implicitly ... but to tell him everything or to keep her mouth shut?

For young Rebekah, it must have seemed a long way to the top. Her father was a tugboat deckhand on the Manchester Ship Canal, her mother a secretary in a local accounting firm. But dig out a copy of the Warrington Guardian from April 15, 1965, which covered their wedding, and you can see what a handsome couple they were. John, at 19, was a dead ringer for James Dean; Deborah, at 22, was the spitting image of her daughter - tall and thin, with the same mass of curly red hair.

Rebekah was born in May 1968 in the village of Hatton, near Warrington, about 30 kilometres south-west of Manchester, and the family lived in a tiny worker's cottage with her grandfather, a labourer on nearby New House Farm. Luckily, she was an only child, because the four of them squeezed in together for the first 15 years of her life.

By the early 1980s, her father had started a gardening business called The Maple Leaves, which, according to Louise Weir, did well enough for the family to take foreign holidays. But by the end of the decade her parents had split up. It may have been John's drinking that ended the marriage - he died in 1996, aged 50, of cirrhosis of the liver - or there may have been other things in play. But by the end, Rebekah rarely visited him: when the Warrington Guardian ran a front-page story of her engagement to her first husband, the soapie star Ross Kemp, he confessed he had never met her beau and never even heard of him.

Rebekah went to school near her home in the village of Daresbury, where she was clearly the centre of attention. Aged 11, she is in the middle of the front row in most of the photos, and captain of the netball team. Her mother must have had high standards, because she's always dressed in uniform and tie, while most are not. One classmate, Christian Matheson, remembers her as "a lovely girl". Joanne Burrows, a friend, agrees.

By the age of 14 she had set her heart on being a journalist and was hanging around the Warrington Guardian at weekends, "helping out and making tea". But her ascent to the peak of British society began six years later in 1988, when she breezed into the Warrington office of a tinpot tabloid called The Post and announced she was coming to work there.

"It was late on a Friday, and I was just packing up," The Post's features editor Graham Ball recalls, "and she walked up to say, 'I'm going to be your assistant.' I was nonplussed, and I told her that wouldn't be possible because I was moving down to London that weekend to open a new office. Well, I got to [London] on Monday morning and she was waiting for me. It was a fait accompli."

No one knew how she'd landed the job or where she'd come from. And the 20-year-old was in no hurry to enlighten them. "She was very deceptive, very hard to pin down," says Ball. "We couldn't quite work her out."

"She told me she'd studied a lot, and been to the Sorbonne in Paris," says The Post's chief reporter Charles Rae. "But I'm not sure it meant as much as it implied. It may only have been a 1 1/2-week course; I haven't a clue." What was certain was that Brooks intended to succeed. "I've never met anyone so burningly ambitious," says another ex-Post reporter, Tim Minogue.

"She told me she wanted to be the best journalist on Fleet Street," Ball recalls. "She would go and sit next to people and ask, 'What are you doing? Who are you ringing? What are you going to ask? Why are you doing that?' It was a bit exhausting, really."

Rae was struck by her "great, wide green eyes" and "that incredible hair". Minogue also remembers the "Titian hair", while Ball recalls her being "tall, studious, painfully thin, almost anorexic".

"I don't think she slept her way to the top," says Ball, "but she would lean in close to you, play naive, flatter you and ask for help." Says Rae, "She could charm the legs off a donkey." Even at this stage she was a champion networker. "Any name that came in, she'd note it down," says Ball. "She was really good at befriending people."

The Post closed after a few weeks, but this didn't slow Brooks's rise. With Rae's help, she landed a job as a personal assistant at the News of the World's magazine, and was soon writing stories. Five years later, she had risen to be features editor of the paper, and within another six she was the youngest editor in London.

Her first boss at the News of the World, Piers Morgan, thought her wonderful, and it's clear from his book The Insider that she was prepared to do almost anything to get ahead. On one occasion, she bugged a hotel room for reporters who were about to offer Princess Di's lover, James Hewitt, £500,000 to spill the beans.

She was also adept at attaching herself to people who mattered, like Les Hinton, who ran Murdoch's British papers for many years. Hinton picked her to be deputy editor of The Sun in 1998 and wanted to make her editor five months later, but was overruled by Murdoch. Hinton also threw a 30th birthday party for her at the swanky Belvedere Restaurant in Holland Park.

Rae says he has no idea how she got so far, so fast: "If I knew, I'd bottle it and use it myself."

She was good at winning women to her side, too. "She's so charismatic that if she decides she wants to be friends with you, it's almost impossible to resist," a female colleague once confessed to the UK magazine Stylist. "She's fun with a mischievous sense of humour and is genuinely interested in other people, and that's very flattering."

Or as another former colleague quipped, "She's a galaxy-class schmoozer. World class doesn't quite do her justice."

Sarsden house in Oxfordshire is not among the finest houses in rural England. But the 200 guests who gathered around the lake to drink champagne and celebrate Rebekah's wedding to Charlie Brooks in June 2009 were certainly from the top drawer of British society. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was there with his wife, Sarah; so too was prime minister-to-be David Cameron, with his wife, Samantha. Rupert Murdoch had flown in to join the party, and his daughter Elisabeth had motored over from her 22-bedroom Elizabethan priory in Burford with her husband, Matthew Freud, the famous PR guru and great-grandson of Sigmund.

A few weeks earlier, as a taster to the feast, Tatler magazine had penned a breathless profile of Rebekah and Charlie. Titled "What a Pair", it contained the fabulous news that her new hubby's idea of a perfect day was to "fly to Venice ... have lunch in Harry's Bar ... [and] after a spot of shopping and sightseeing ... fly back to London for dinner at Wiltons in Jermyn Street", to down "nine native oysters" and a "glass of Mersault".

"When not in Venice," Tatler gushed, "Charlie and Rebekah go on holiday with the Freuds on their boat ... the Oppenheimer Turners at their house in St Tropez ... and with the Daventrys in the country." That's Viscount Daventry, of course, James Edward FitzRoy Newdegate.

Charlie is a colourful rogue who could match Rebekah for charm and nerve. In 1999 he was arrested for race fixing - but never charged - after the hot favourite in a two-horse race was pulled up at Warwick. Soon afterwards, he was in strife for sending his new sex-toy catalogue to parents at his (and Prince Charles's) old prep school. And not long after that he was punting his reputation on "kriotherapy" (or muscle freezing) treatment for athletes, and losing his shirt in the process (or at least a few buttons).

The Brookses met at the home of Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson, just down the road from their converted barn and, according to Tatler, galvanised the local scene by rounding up other rich and powerful people who liked to pop over to each other's weekenders in the picturesque Cotswolds, 100 kilometres north-west of London. There were the Brookses and Clarksons in the hamlet of Churchill, the Freuds in Burford, Blur bassist Alex James in Kingham and, last but not least, Prime Minister David Cameron in Dean, all within a 10-kilometre radius of each other. Thus the "Chipping Norton set" was born.

Charlie Brooks and Cameron were at Eton together (though Charlie was older and best friends with the PM's brother). They also rode and hunted, and it eventually emerged, after much stonewalling, that Cameron had ridden out with Brooks on a retired police horse, Raisa, loaned to Rebekah Brooks by London's Metropolitan Police.

Brooks was on first-name terms with the chaps at Scotland Yard, too. She arranged to take Raisa after lunching with the Met's then commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, in 2008, but she also had regular dinners and meetings with his successor, Sir Paul Stephenson, and assistant commissioner John Yates, who was in charge of the phone-hacking investigation. This was one reason, perhaps, why hacking was so poorly investigated. But there was another: a revolving door at News International, with senior journalists running police PR and senior cops writing highly paid columns.

Last month in London, at the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking, Brooks looked calm and confident despite all the pressures upon her. She smiled, she flirted, she joked, but she did not back down. There was much talk about her dress - Italian silk and wool, in black, with white collar and cuffs. Some called it "puritan garb"; others thought she was trying to look like a nun; Private Eye magazine was not alone in suggesting "Salem witch trial", with Brooks seduced by the Murdoch devil.

To me she seemed more like one of Salem's young accusers: prim, demure, virginal and righteous, playing the innocent victim. Certainly, she was not the Brooks that many remembered: who threw ashtrays when her team missed the story or sent emails suggesting they all resign. This wasn't the cruel tabloid editor who pushed a paedophile to suicide or threatened to destroy her enemies - like phone-hacking crusader Tom Watson, a Labour MP - or who made vicious homophobic jokes about another opponent, Labour MP Chris Bryant. This wasn't the Brooks who spent a night in the cells in 2005 after allegedly assaulting her first husband.

It helped, of course, that Leveson's counsel, Robert Jay QC, could not ask about her role in hacking or corruption, for fear of prejudicing any future trial. But there was still enough to unsettle most people, for Jay outlined a shocking portrait of the Murdochs' meddling in British politics, with Brooks at centre stage. There were intimate dinners à deux with Tony Blair, lunches at James Murdoch's house for Blair and Cameron, Christmas dinner with Cameron at the Brookses' barn, and text messages every week from the Tory PM, signed "LOL" (which he thought stood for "lots of love") and sealed with a kiss. The list of her meetings with PMs and party leaders ran for five pages, followed by six of cabinet ministers, for a grand total of 185 dinners, lunches, breakfasts, drinks and cosy chats. And she admitted there were certainly more.

The highlight was David Cameron's flight to the Greek island of Santorini in 2008 to meet Rupert Murdoch and Brooks on the media mogul's 56-metre yacht, Rosehearty, with transport provided on the Freuds' private jet. But Brooks charmed the wives as well. Sarah Brown invited her to pyjama parties at Chequers, the PM's country residence, where she stayed with Cherie Blair, who sent her birthday cards, asked for media advice and gave The Sun an "exclusive" on her pregnancy.

Brooks's predecessor as Sun editor, David Yelland, once said, "I had 320 people ... paid to agree with me. I had the prime minister on the phone agreeing with me ... I was untouchable ... an unelected member of a tiny elite that runs the country ... I had a BlackBerry with the mobile numbers of most of the Cabinet, the Murdoch family and a chunk of the British elite."

Brooks had all of this, too, but she added her own magic to the mix, and magnified this power like no one else could.

Watching Brooks's performance at the Leveson inquiry was one of her gun investigators at the News of the World, whom she hired in 1994, when she was features editor of the paper. Paul McMullan claims she got him to do "her dirty work", which explains his nickname, "Mucky".

We meet in a coffee bar in London after he has spent three hours with police from Operation Weeting investigating the phone-hacking affair; they have offered him immunity if he agrees to testify against her. He says he has evidence that could lock her up, but doesn't know whether to use it. "She was fully aware of the practice of phone hacking and all the things we got up to," he says. "It was impossible not to be.

"As an editor, the first bloody question you ask is, 'Where did you get the story from, how do you know it's true?' So then you play them the tape. She would listen to all the tapes before conference. I would play them down the phone to her. She knew exactly what we were doing. That's why I'm so angry. I spent seven years crapping in a bin bag, pissing in a bottle - which is what life's about when you're in a surveillance van - and then she says she didn't know anything about it."

Scandal sheets like the News of the World need a constant supply of victims, and it was Mucky's job to find them, with help from a £3-million-a-year features budget. "We bought up Princess Di's security team. We paid thousands of pounds to one of her protection officers," he tells me.

Did Brooks sanction those payments?

"Yeah, for sure. I gave another guy connected with the Spice Girls £30,000 in cash in two carrier bags to tell us about the arguments they had in the back of the van," he says, adding that Brooks also authorised that.

McMullan was also behind the News of the World's 2000 campaign to "name and shame" Britain's paedophiles, which was prompted by the murder of an eight-year-old girl, Sarah Payne, by a registered sex offender; Brooks regards it as her greatest triumph as editor. "I went to the Boy Scouts and asked to see how they screened Boy Scout leaders," McMullan confesses. "They opened up their database for me and I pinched all the names and addresses."

In the uproar that followed - before they had to stop advertising the whereabouts of these "perverts" - a 29-year-old man was beaten in the street, the home of a paediatrician (yes, that's a doctor) was mistakenly sprayed with graffiti, and police were injured when a 150-strong mob attacked a paedophile's home and set a car on fire.

Yet, with rival papers labelling her "a crude newspaper thug" and "a nasty piece of work", Brooks remained unmoved. Only after a man named by the paper committed suicide did she put her head up to deride the "pathetic male" editors who had criticised her.

"She was a sweet young girl at the start," McMullan muses. "She was woefully out of her depth, but we wanted her to look good. She was the Queen Bee and we were the workers, all scrabbling around trying to impress her. I still feel like that even now. I've no idea why."

When Rebekah Brooks took over as editor of The Sun in 2003, she was already closer to Rupert Murdoch than any of his editors. She organised dinner parties for him when he came to London and ensured he remembered family birthdays. And as he got older, she became still more attentive. She was by his side when he arrived at business meetings or social functions. She made sure his glass was full at parties, and she even reminded him to take his pills. She learnt to sail, because he and his family all had yachts.

He was like a father to her, and she was the dutiful daughter who gave him much less grief than his own daughters, Prudence and Elisabeth.

But, typically, Brooks managed to get close to Elisabeth, too. She was invited to her wedding at Blenheim Palace in 2001, and they rode out in the Cotswolds together. She was also friends with Rupert Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng.

Last July, Brooks was at Elisabeth's summer party at Burford Priory, two days before the hacking storm erupted. She spent much of the evening deep in conversation with James Murdoch, who has also maintained implausibly that he had no idea hacking was so widespread.

Forty-eight hours later, the News International CEO was doing her best to stem the tide of public anger, issuing a statement saying, "It is almost too horrific to believe that a professional journalist or even a freelance inquiry agent working on behalf of a member of the News of the World staff could behave in this way ... I hope that you all realise it is inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations." She also pledged: "We will do our utmost to see that justice is done and those culpable will be punished."

As Brooks said this, police allege she and her PA were removing seven boxes of documents from News's archives to hide them from investigators. Two weeks later, after her arrest for phone hacking and corruption, she allegedly made further attempts at concealment. A bag belonging to Charlie, containing a laptop, phone and papers, was found in a rubbish bin in the underground car park next to the Brookses' Chelsea Harbour home. It was handed to security guards, who called the police. Detectives are believed to have CCTV footage showing how it got there.

On May 15th, four days after her Leveson appearance, Brooks was charged with three counts of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. Her husband, her chauffeur, her PA, her security guard and News International's security chief have been indicted with her.

Rebekah and Charlie pre-empted the Crown Prosecutor's announcement with a statement branding the action "weak", "unjust" and "a sideshow". That afternoon, she came back for another crack, questioning whether the decision to charge her was based "on the evidence". She looked drawn, blotchy and worn out.

She was unremorseful, complaining: "I cannot express my anger enough that those closest to me have been dragged into this unfairly." Yet it seemed to exemplify her story: she was always so good at getting others to do things for her.

This article first appeared in Good Weekend magazine, published with The Sydney Morning Herald.

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