Friday 8 July 2011

Rebekah Brooks: ‘Many people were quite scared of her.’

In 1997, when she was a 29-year-old feature writer on the News of the World, Rebekah Wade made a trip to Westminster to intercept the Conservative MP Jerry Hayes. The paper was planning to run an exposé of the married MP's affair with his 18-year-old lover, she told him – or as the headline would put it that Sunday: "TORY MP 2-TIMED WIFE WITH UNDER-AGE GAY LOVER".

Hayes was devastated, but found himself so charmed by the young redhead and the sympathetic manner in which she had delivered the news that he later phoned the News of the World to thank them for the way they had handled the story.

Three years later, Wade was the paper's editor. Less than a decade after that she was chief executive of Britain's most powerful newspaper group – a meteoric ascent attributed by close observers to this exceptional, potent cocktail of clear-eyed ruthlessness and dazzling charm.

It is a talent that even those who know or have worked for Rebekah Brooks – as she now is – describe in awed tones. "Andy Coulson often joked that the essence of tabloid journalism is turning someone over one day, and them ringing to thank you the next," recalls one ex-Sun staffer, who worked under both editors. "Rebekah Brooks is the ultimate exponent of that art."

On the evening of November 2, 2005, the day that David Blunkett had been forced to resign from government for the second time in a year, the former minister travelled to the Sun's offices in Wapping to share a drink with the paper's editor. The Sun, the previous year, had been the paper that named Kimberley Quinn, the Spectator's publisher, as Blunkett's lover.

But if such a talent can explain Brooks's meteoric rise, it does not explain the extraordinary tenacity with which she has clung to her job as News International chief – even while James Murdoch was forced to acknowledge "repeated wrongdoing" at the News of the World, admitted NI executives had misled parliament and abolished the biggest selling newspaper in the country. Can it really be the case, as Friday's Independent put it, that the News of the World has been "sacrificed to save one woman"? And if so, why?

The key to understanding Brooks, say those who know or have worked with her, is her breathtaking networking abilities. She is, says one, a "galaxy-class schmoozer. World-class doesn't quite do it justice." Certainly the briefest glance at her social circle reveals a network of establishment connections that few, if any, could match.

To describe her as a friend of David Cameron would be to underestimate their intimacy, say friends. Brooks and her second husband Charlie, a racehorse trainer and old Etonian, live very close to the Camerons in Oxfordshire. They met for dinner at least once over Christmas, and frequently see each other at weekends with what has been termed the "Chipping Norton set" – among them the PR man Matthew Freud and his partner, Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth, and Jeremy Clarkson. Brooks has even commented that unlike Murdoch senior she has no need to go to Downing Street for audiences with Cameron, since she sees him so frequently socially.

It is easy to forget that she was just as intimate with Cameron's predecessor, and the man at No 10 before that. Brooks, then Wade, was seen by many as half of a Labour power-couple, thanks to her then husband Ross Kemp's vocal support of the party and their close relationship with the Blairs. So intimate a friend did Cherie Blair consider her, in fact, that she reproached the then editor for attending a party at 11 Downing St, seat of the hated Browns. That cooled as her friendship with the Browns grew closer – Brooks attended a "sleepover" of female friends of Sarah Brown's at Chequers in 2008. Guy (now Lord) Black, ex-director of the Press Complaints Commission, and his partner, Mark Bolland, once Prince Charles's aide, were once holiday companions.

But Brooks's friendships are not only strategic, say intimates, who speak of her tremendously warm, conspiratorial, almost flirtatious manner. A number of former Labour ministers are still good friends, while she has maintained close relationships with, among others, Sarah Payne's family and Sheryl Gascoigne. Max Clifford, one of few willing to speak openly about her, said she was loyal, generous and "very genuine". "I have always found her to be a straight-up person. That is very, very rare in journalism."

Rebekah Wade was born in Daresbury, Cheshire in 1968 and attended Appleton Hall County Grammar school in Warrington. By 14, she had decided she wanted to be a journalist. She worked briefly for an architecture magazine in Paris, and her Who's Who entry states that she studied at the Sorbonne; in fact she took only a short course.

While still a teenager she joined Eddie Shah's short-lived tabloid daily the Post as features secretary. The Private Eye journalist Tim Minogue was one of her editors, and recalls a likeable, "skinny, hollow-eyed" girl who was "very, very, very ambitious".

On one occasion, Minogue recalls, the paper had run a promotion offering bottles of supposedly aphrodisiac lager from a brewery in Strasbourg, which for some reason had been held up.

"So Rebekah volunteered to drive to Strasbourg, a 20-year-old in a clapped out Renault 5 or something, load up her car and drive back. At the time we thought that was quite a funny story, but in retrospect it's quite telling about what she was prepared to do to get on."

After the Post closed Brooks joined the News of the World's magazine, where she caught the eye of the then editor, Piers Morgan, who promoted her so rapidly that very little of her career, according to those who worked with her, was spent in on-the-ground journalism. At just 29 she was made deputy editor of the Sun, and it is a mark of her tremendous confidence, some would say overweening chutzpah, that she was disappointed to be passed over the following year for the editor's job in favour of David Yelland. In 2000 Murdoch gave her the consolation prize of editing the News of the World.

Her stint there saw the paper expose Angus Deayton and Prince Harry's drugtaking, and Sophie Rhys-Jones for trading on her royal connections. But she will chiefly be remembered for the "Sarah's law" campaign, in which the paper began naming and shaming sex offenders until forced to stop after it provoked attacks on innocent people.

In 2003 she finally got the job she had coveted as editor of the Sun. Her first act, frustrating the hopes of her Labour friends, marked clearly that her loyalty was first to the Sun's legacy and her employers: Page 3 ran as usual was to run Page 3, featuring a model called "Rebekah, 22, from Wapping".

She had some notable successes, earning praise for reinjecting wit after Yelland's drier tenure, and scored a sensational scoop securing an advance copy of the Hutton report into David Kelly's death. But some of the attempts at populist humour were tone deaf. A splash about the boxer Frank Bruno being sectioned ("Bonkers Bruno Locked Up") provoked outrage, as did "Ship Ship Hooray!" after Harold Shipman's suicide.

A bizarre episode in which she spent a night in the cells after being arrested for attacking Kemp was treated with good humour, however. The editor came straight to the office from the cells, said: "Much happening today?", and promptly splashed on the story.

Her employees recall a woman who was respected and feared more than she was liked. "There was a lot of shouting, a lot more stress, when Rebekah was editor," comments one Sun staffer. "I think many people were quite scared of her." Some News of the World staff have tartly denied reports that Brooks was in tears as she delivered the news of their sacking on Thursday.

In September 2009 Brooks was elevated to chief executive by Rupert Murdoch. And it is this relationship, however powerful and intimate her other friends, that is the key to her story.

Murdoch has four daughters but regards Brooks as another, say observers, and perhaps the closest of the lot. The pair had a habit of going for swims together, and he has hosted birthday parties for her. For her 40th it is said he bought her a Lowry. When she was arrested for attacking Kemp, he sent a designer suit to the police station so she would look her best when she left. One story has Murdoch, told that the Sun had been scooped by an impressive Mirror story, phoning the former NI chairman Les Hinton to ask: "Is she all right?"

That concern has certainly been evident this week. News International staff may increasingly want her to stand down, parliament, the leader of the opposition and even her friend the PM may consider her position untenable. But Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch believe Brooks's standard of ethics is "very good". And so, for the time being at least, she's going nowhere.