LONDON, July 17 (Reuters) - Rebekah Brooks, arrested on Sunday as part of an investigation into allegations of phone hacking and bribing police, rose to the top of British tabloid journalism armed with charm and networking skills.
After becoming editor of the News of the World in 2000 and the Sun’s first female editor in 2003, the flame-haired 43-year-old was promoted in 2009 to become chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper business, reporting to his son James.
She became a favourite of Rupert, who put his arm around her and told reporters she was his top priority when he flew into London a week ago to take charge of the crisis shaking his global media empire News Corp
She counts Prime Minister David Cameron as a friend — a fact that has added to his discomfort since the hacking scandal erupted and provided ammunition to the opposition Labour party.
“She’s sinuous and clever and probably the most brilliant networker I’ve ever met,” said veteran media commentator Roy Greenslade, a former News International journalist who has known Brooks for many years.
Former employees describe her as “one of the lads” who fitted into the macho culture of the tabloids by swearing in the newsroom and drinking in the pub with colleagues — while making it very clear who was boss.
“At first, I wondered who this person flouncing around the office with big red hair like she owned the place was. I soon found out,” said one ex-Sun reporter.
Brooks, known as Rebekah Wade until her second marriage to ex-racehorse trainer and author Charlie Brooks two years ago, spent almost her entire career at News International.
After a grammar-school education in the northwestern English county of Cheshire and a short spell in Paris, she joined the News of the World at the age of 20 as a feature writer and rose to become deputy editor.
In 1998 she transferred to sister tabloid The Sun, a daily, spending two years as deputy editor there before returning as editor to the News of the World, where she ran a controversial campaign to name and shame child sex offenders.
It was under her editorship that an investigator working for the News of the World hacked into the voicemail of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, later found murdered. Brooks says she did not know about the hacking. Rupert Murdoch has personally apologised to the girls’ parents.
One ex-employee from that time describes her as a hands-on editor who led from the front and mucked in with news editors as the weekly publication deadline approached.
Despite a sometimes tough demeanour that could intimidate hardened ‘hacks’, she was generally charming and wrapped the paper’s male editors around her little finger, current and former colleagues say.
“She buttered up a lot of middle-aged men, and she’s good at that. They probably each thought they were a special adviser and confidant. She was very good at keeping those old warhorses well and truly on her side,” said one ex-employee.
In 2003, Brooks returned to the Sun, succeeding her former boss David Yelland as editor of Britain’s best-selling newspaper, which currently has almost 3 million daily readers and at the time had many more.
During her tenure, the newspaper’s former hard news focus shifted towards more celebrity stories. The topless girls who appear daily on page 3 of the tabloid remained, despite reports that she had earlier campaigned against them as deputy editor.
It was during this period that Brooks separated from her first husband Ross Kemp, best known for his role as hard man Grant Mitchell in the popular BBC soap opera EastEnders.
It was gleefully reported by rival newspapers that she had been arrested following an alleged assault on her husband — while the Sun was running a campaign against domestic violence. She was later released and no further action was taken.
“She wouldn’t bring her personal life into the office,” says a former News of the World reporter.
“She wouldn’t come in and say: ‘Ross and I have had a terrible row,’ like some women might. She was more likely to come in and say: ‘Where the hell is that page you promised me?’”
As the crisis intensified in recent weeks, Brooks became a lightning rod for public anger by initially holding on to her job while 200 staff at the News of the World lost theirs as the scandal forced the Murdochs to shut the paper.
Despite finally resigning on Friday, she remains a central figure in the drama and, with Rupert and James Murdoch, is due to appear on Tuesday for a grilling by a parliamentary committee. (Additional reporting by Olesya Dmitracova; editing by Sara Ledwith, Simon Robinson and Elizabeth Piper)