Friday 8 July 2011

Throwing Brooks to the wolves would leave media chief's son exposed to criticism for his role in the hacking affair

Following this week's dramatic decision by Rupert Murdoch to shut the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks is clinging to her job as chief executive of News International by her fingernails.

As the constant drip of revelations about the phone hacking scandal at the 'News of the World' turned into a torrent, the pressure on Rupert Murdoch to respond intensified. With the hacking affair threatening the future of his entire media empire, the previous policy of benign neglect was no longer an option.

Even so, when it came, Murdoch's response shocked even hardened media-watchers. While no one doubts the "Dirty Digger's" ruthlessness, closing the 'News of the World', the first UK newspaper he bought after moving from Australia to Britain in 1969, still took everyone, including the newspaper's unfortunate staff, totally by surprise.

The phone-hacking scandal has been a ticking time-bomb under the Murdoch empire ever since the 'News of the World's royal correspondent Clive Goodman and private detective Glen Mulcaire were charged with illegally intercepting -- or hacking, to use techie jargon -- mobile phone voice messages in January 2007.

That time-bomb finally detonated this week. When the allegations of hacking were first confined to the mobile phones of celebrities, the British public and their politicians refused to get exercised by the affair. The British public had always been partial to the 'News of the World's mixture of scandal and celebrity tittle-tattle, while politicians, mindful of the Mur doch press' capacity for retribution, also steered clear of criticising the 'News of the World'.

Everything changed when it emerged that the 'News of the World' had hacked the mobile phone of 13-year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler after she was abducted in 2002. Even worse, messages had been deleted from her voicemail, raising the hopes of Milly's parents that their daughter, who was later found to have been murdered, might still be alive.

The wave of revulsion generated by the Dowler revelations turned into a tsunami when it became known that the 'News of the World' had also hacked into the voicemails of relations of those who had died in the July 2005 London bombings, family members of British soldiers who been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly some of those associated with disappeared toddler Madeleine McCann.

While the number of phones hacked by the 'News of the World' has still not yet been definitively established, it certainly runs in to the thousands. This was hacking on an industrial scale.

Just when it seemed as if things couldn't get any worse for the 'News of the World', evidence emerged of massive payments by the newspaper to corrupt police officers in return for confidential information. Faced with such a barrage of evidence of systematic wrong-doing, even the Murdoch empire's traditional friends in the Conservative Party began to back away from the paper.

With Rupert Murdoch desperate to secure approval for his £7.8bn (€8.76bn) bid for the 61pc of satellite broadcaster BSkyB his News Corp doesn't already own, the decision was taken to close the 'News of the World' in an effort to save the bid.

In most normal companies, evidence of wrongdoing on the scale unearthed at the 'News of the World' would have long since have led to a complete clearout of the executives who presided over such a massive breakdown in ethical standards.

But of course, News Corp and its UK subsidiary News International are not normal companies.

Far from it. Ever since he inherited a handful of newspapers in the Australian city of Adelaide from his father Keith Murdoch in 1952, News Corp has been synonymous with one man: Rupert Murdoch. A steady stream of executives and family retainers have come and gone over the past six decades but only Murdoch has remained.

The total domination of News Corp and News International by Murdoch has dictated its response to the rapidly worsening phone hacking scandal. While Andy Coulson, who was editor of the 'News of the World' from 2003 to 2007 and deputy editor for three years before that, quit following the conviction and jailing of Goodman and Mulcaire, his predecessor Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade) has kept her job.

Not alone has she kept her job, she has been steadily promoted since the hacking of Milly Dowler's mobile phone.

In 2003, she switched from the 'News of the World' to become editor of its daily stablemate 'The Sun', the UK's best-selling newspaper. Then, in 2009, she was appointed chief executive of News International, a job that effectively made her the day-to-day boss of Murdoch's UK newspapers which, apart from the 'News of the World', also included 'The Sun', 'The Times' and 'The Sunday Times'.

Despite being the single most powerful person in the UK print media, Brooks is an intensely private person who has never given media interviews. Before this week's firestorm, her only significant media outing was in November 2005 when long-standing rumours of her explosive temper were spectacularly confirmed.

Following a hard day and night's partying with her then husband, TV actor Ross Kemp, the police were called to their London home after a full and frank exchange of opinions between the pair. Somewhat unusually for these situations it was Wade, as she was then known, rather than Kemp who was arrested and spent the night in police cells.

The couple separated shortly afterwards before divorcing in 2009. Later that year, Brooks married former jockey Charlie Brooks, with whom she now lives in considerable style in rural Oxfordshire.

Murdoch stood by Brooks following her 2005 arrest. However, no one expected him to spare her following this week's revelations.

Until the closure of the 'News of the World' was announced on Thursday afternoon, the general expectation was that it would be Brooks rather the 'News of the World' who would be thrown to the wolves. After all, she was editor of the paper when Milly Dowler's phone was hacked. Her claim that she was on holiday at the time, ie that it was all Coulson's fault, must rank up there with 'the dog ate my homework' as an excuse.

So why is Rupert Murdoch apparently so keen to protect Brooks? After all, he has never been shy of dispensing with underlings who have outlasted their usefulness in the past.

After decades of apparently defying time, Rupert Murdoch has recently aged rapidly, and now looks every one of his 80 years. His last great challenge at News Corp is to engineer the succession of his son James, the chairman of News International and Brooks's nominal boss.

The key to ensuring James Murdoch's succession was to have been the BSkyB takeover, with the thinking in News Corp apparently being that throwing Brooks overboard would leave James Murdoch exposed to criticism for his role in the affair. Far better to leave Brooks in place as a sort of human shield.

If that was in fact the case, then Rupert Murdoch miscalculated. With British Prime Minister David Cameron making it explicitly clear yesterday that he wanted Brooks gone, it is difficult to see how any British government can wave through the BSkyB takeover while she keeps her job.

The 'News of the World' may have been the first red-top that Rupert Murdoch has sacrificed. If this week's sensational events are any guide, it won't be the last.