LONDON (Reuters) - Rebekah Brooks has reduced a prime minister to tears, threatened a member of parliament who inquired about bullying at her newspaper and told another troublesome politician she was surprised he wasn’t out cruising for gay sex.
Brooks resigned on Friday as the head of News International, Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper arm. Together with Murdoch and his son James, who leads the international operations of Murdoch’s media empire, the former editor will still face politicians probing News Corp’s hacking scandal next week.
On the few occasions she has accepted requests to testify to parliament she has charmed her audience into submission. Things are likely to be less friendly next Tuesday.
Brooks will not only have to deal with a panel of angry inquisitors but will do so with her past testimony, and that of colleagues, hanging over her.
She is one of at least eight News International executives and senior journalists to have testified to parliament in the past decade. Their words are sure to be combed over before next week’s hearing, as Britain heads toward a judicial inquiry into phone hacking, police bribery and press regulation.
“The whole committee feels quite betrayed by the evidence that has been given to them by News International executives in two or three inquiries. They will be expecting apologies,” said Steven Barnett, Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster.
They may be disappointed. Brooks told committee chairman John Whittingdale in a letter on Thursday that a police investigation “may prevent me from discussing these matters in detail.” She said on Friday her resignation would make it possible to cooperate fully with the committee and other inquiries.
Here, however, is what Brooks, then editor of Murdoch’s bestselling Sun newspaper, told parliament in written evidence to its committee on Culture, Media & Sport in 2003:
“The days of foot-in-the-door harassment and snatched photos are gone. The pictures of journalists mobbing ordinary people as portrayed by television are a travesty of the truth.”
Her comments came as journalists from her own company were allegedly already hacking into phones, but long before this month’s revelations that their targets may have gone beyond royalty and celebrities to include thousands of ordinary people, including murder victim Milly Dowler.
That same year, Les Hinton, who was head of News International until 2007 when he moved to New York to run Dow Jones & Co, defended press self-regulation and media treatment of ordinary people.
“There is probably no part of the code (of practice) that is paid greater attention than the issue of intrusion into grief,” he said in response to questions from the same committee.
“Editors at all levels, on a daily basis, and journalists as well ... are not unfamiliar with the need to behave according to the strictures of the code in taking care not to intrude into the grief of bereaved members of the public.”
It was Hinton, too, who in 2007 testified that a full and rigorous internal inquiry had been conducted into a case of phone hacking and that he believed it was limited to one rogue reporter. For her part, Brooks has always said she was unaware of what was going on.
Brooks’ last appearance before the committee in 2003 did produce one revelation that has already come back to haunt her.
“It appears clear that, when they feel it is demanded by the ‘public interest’, the editors of The Sun and The News of the World remain ready to make payments to the police in exchange for information,” the committee concluded at the time.
“As far as we are aware this practice is illegal for both parties and there is no public interest defense that a jury could legitimately take into account.”
The committee’s report came after Brooks testified that police had been paid for information in the past. Asked if she would make such payments in the future, she replied “it depends.” Then-News of the World editor Andy Coulson told members of parliament “if there is a clear public interest then we will.”
Asked this week if there were circumstances in which it was acceptable to break the law in pursuit of a story, News International said in a statement emailed to Reuters that all its journalists had to abide by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) code which is written into their contracts.
The PCC code is subject to independent scrutiny, but is drafted by members of the newspaper industry itself — something critics say needs to change in the wake of the hacking scandal.
Reuters is a competitor of Dow Jones Newswires, the financial news agency that News Corp acquired along with the Wall Street Journal in 2007.
A few politicians have pursued the issue since the 2003 inquiry. But overall, records of parliamentary proceedings and declarations by politicians support the argument that their fear of upsetting a powerful media mogul resulted in a conspiracy of silence.
While still in opposition, Prime Minister David Cameron declared receiving a gift from Brooks, and just a few months ago
entertained Murdoch’s son James at his official country residence even as a probe was under way into whether News Corp should be allowed to take full control of broadcaster BSkyB.
“James Murdoch and his wife received official hospitality at Chequers on 7 November 2010,” Cameron said on February 3 in a written answer that went largely unreported at the time.
“I have met Rebekah Wade and James Murdoch at social occasions,” he added in response to a question by Labour member of parliament (MP) Paul Farrelly, one of the members of the committee that will quiz Brooks next week. Her maiden name is Wade.
A search of parliament’s register of members’ interests also shows that in 2006, while a frontbench spokesman for the opposition, Cameron listed Brooks as one of only a few people to make declarable gifts to him that year.
“My wife and I attended a World Cup party given by Victoria and David Beckham for charity,” Cameron said. “We were the guests of Rebekah Wade, the Editor of the ‘Sun’.”
Hospitality aside, Cameron is of course far from the only one to have courted Murdoch and the editors of his papers.
Written answers to parliamentary questions show that business minister Vince Cable, a senior member of Cameron’s Liberal Democrat junior coalition partners, spoke with James Murdoch little more than a month after coming to power.
“The Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had a short introductory phone call with James Murdoch of News Corporation on 15 June 2010,” the records show. “The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries (Ed Vaizey) met with Rebekah Brooks of News International on 12 July 2010.”
James Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport met James Murdoch on June 28, 2010, according to other written answers to questions from backbench MPs.
Less than two years before his 1997 election victory, Tony Blair flew to Australia to attend a News Corp conference while his successor Gordon Brown attended Brooks’ wedding, as did Cameron.
Until two weeks ago, though, it sometimes seemed hard to question Murdoch and the practices of his journalists at all. Politicians who expressed doubts about reporting standards at Murdoch papers even faced pushback from their own kind.
“Making allegations ... under cover of parliamentary privilege, should be done with great caution,” Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke warned Labour MP Chris Bryant in June 2010 after he exercised legal immunity enjoyed by members of parliament to air allegations against Brooks over payments to police officers.
“He should not accuse people of corruption in the course of putting a question to me on this subject,” Clarke told Bryant, who has long been a thorn in the side of News International.
In April, House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said that while it was an issue that should be aired, Bryant “should pursue these matters with me in writing in the first instance.”
Liberal Democrat politician Simon Hughes has spoken of the fear felt by some members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords in speaking out.
“I have absolutely no doubt that some people were not willing to give evidence because they were afraid,” Hughes told parliament in September last year.
“They were afraid of going into the public domain to take on people working either directly or indirectly for one of our land’s major newspapers. I have been in this place and in public life long enough not to be afraid any more.”
Cameron himself has said as much: “Your bins are gone through by some media organization, but you hold back from dealing with it because you want good relations with the media.”
News International declined comment on allegations its actions had created a climate of fear, and would not say whether Brooks believed her comments to various politicians constituted threats or whether she regretted her choice of words.
One politician who did speak out was Clive Soley, a former chair of the parliamentary Labour Party and now a member of the House of Lords, who in 2003 accused Brooks of making threats and “a thinly disguised attempt” to warn him off digging into allegations of bullying and sexual harassment at the Sun itself.
“My partner said at the time ‘I’m more worried about you doing this than I was worried about you doing Northern Ireland’ so yes, people were scared,” Soley, opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland at the time of the 1984 Brighton bombing, told Reuters.
“But when politicians say they’ve been bullied by News International I have to say that as an MP they should bee able to stand up and deal with it. They should hit back.”
In January 2008 — a year after News of the World royal affairs editor Clive Goodman had been jailed for conspiring to intercept communications — Brooks testified before the House of Lords communications committee.
The topics ranged from the future of newspapers to teasing the Bishop of Manchester over the Sun’s practice of publishing pictures of topless women on page 3 of the newspaper.
Lord King, a former defense minister, subsequently described for his fellow peers “the extremely engaging and sparky evidence of Rebekah Wade.”
But Tom Watson, another Labour Party member of the committee that will grill News Corp executives next week, has described the failure to tackle alleged press abuses as parliament’s “tawdry secret that dare not speak its name.”
“In this House we are all, in our own way, scared of the Rebekah Brookses of this world, “ he told parliament in September 2010.
“The barons of the media, with their red-topped assassins, are the biggest beasts in the modern jungle. They have no predators; they are untouchable. They laugh at the law; they sneer at parliament. They have the power to hurt us, and they do, with gusto and precision, with joy and criminality. Prime Ministers quail before them, and that is how they like it. That, indeed, has become how they insist upon it.”
That may now have changed.
Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan, editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith