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Rebekah Brooks: A life in news

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Rebekah Brooks has gone from controlling the headlines to hitting them. Stylist examines the career of the former News International chief executive.

Addressing staff after being appointed editor of The Sun in January 2003, Rebekah Brooks spoke of having watched the film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory over the Christmas break. “When they go up in the glass elevator, Charlie asks his grandpa what happened to the little boy who got everything he ever wanted, and the grandpa says he was a very happy boy,” she said, then admitted that was how she felt right now.

Aged 34, the daughter of a tug-boat crewman had smashed through the last remnants of the media glass ceiling to become the first woman ever to run the biggest English language daily newspaper in the Western world, selling over 3.5m copies each day. Brooks was no stranger to success; she’d already broken records three years earlier when she became the youngest ever editor on Fleet Street, at the News Of The World.

Now 43, Brooks then became chief executive of the paper’s UK publisher News International in September 2009, controlling not only her old titles – The Sun and News Of The World – but also The Times and The Sunday Times. She oversaw thousands of employees and a budget of hundreds of millions – The Sun and NOTW had a turnover of £654m and made £86m profit each year. It was a role that saw her determine the future strategy of the company as a whole.

That year, Brooks ranked number eight in The Guardian’s Media 100, which names the most influential media figures. She could do no wrong. Until a few weeks ago. This July marked a spectacular fall from grace. On 15 July 2011, 22 years since her meteoric rise from the position of a researcher at the NOTW, Rebekah Brooks resigned from her position. She’s currently on bail after being arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications relating to the phone-hacking scandal which is currently sending shockwaves across Britain’s political and media landscape.

A Growing Scandal

The roots of the current scandal lie in 2006, when the News Of The World’s royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were jailed (for four and six months respectively) for hacking into the voicemail account of some of the royal family’s mobile phones. Although then-editor Andy Coulson resigned, the NOTW claimed this practice began and ended with Goodman, dismissing the case as just one ‘rogue’ reporter. However, a growing number of celebrities – including Sienna Miller and Steve Coogan – then announced that their phones had been hacked. By March last year, the paper had spent over £2m settling out-of-court claims. The scandal was damaging, but considered containable; not a significant threat to the publishing behemoth that is News International.

Then, on 4 July, news broke that 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone messages had been hacked by News Of The World in 2002. The public was disgusted, and a police investigation launched. Brooks, who was editor at the time of the alleged hacking, was placed under scrutiny. Previously she’d only graced the social pages of newspapers and magazines, but now her face was on every front page, underneath increasingly derogatory headlines. In a move which took everyone – not least NOTW journalists – by surprise, Murdoch announced the closure of the NOTW on 7 July ending the title which had been running since 1843.

If Rebekah Brooks knew about the hacking she’s culpable. If she didn’t, she’s negligent

The backlash was swift. “Newspaper ‘sacrificed to save one woman’,” cried The Independent. “News Of The World goes, jobs go but ‘Ethics Girl’ stays”, stormed The Metro. The clamouring for her resignation increased daily. “She should examine her conscience,” said Labour leader Ed Miliband, “as this happened on her watch”. The Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington said, “If she knew about the hacking, she’s culpable. If she didn’t, she’s negligent.” Brooks finally bowed to public pressure and tendered her resignation on 15 July and on 17 July she was arrested.

The woman who once ran the British media has now become – alongside her superior Rupert Murdoch – the number one story. So is she a tabloid hack who was prepared to do anything to land a story or is that too easy? Are we placing more heat on Brooks because she’s an incredibly powerful woman and a misogynistic media feels compelled to put her in her place?

A Life in News

Rebekah Mary Wade was born on 27 May 1968 and grew up in the small village of Daresbury in Cheshire. Despite studying at the prestigious Appleton Hall County Grammar School, those who knew her say that she was emotionally intelligent rather than academic. Childhood friend Louise Weir says, “She’s very charming and she’s always been able to get what she wants out of people, even if they don’t really like her.” At 14, she decided she wanted to be a journalist, and within five years, she’d secured her first job in the media at Architecture Aujourd’hui in Paris, taking time out to do a short course at the Sorbonne.

On her return, she became a PA on businessman Eddy Shah’s ill-fated newspaper The Post in Warrington. It was former chief reporter Charlie Rae who gave Brooks her first writing break, sending her to Luxembourg to interview a man who brewed a new ‘aphrodisiac beer’. “She pleaded with me to do it and so I sent her,” says Rae. “She came back quite indignant – the man she’d interviewed had tried to pull her. She was ambitious, but not streetwise.”

Former colleague Tim Minogue, now at Private Eye, had also noticed her, “She was a skinny, hollow-eyed girl always bombarding the features desk with ideas for stories. I’ve never met anyone so burningly ambitious.” Just five weeks after The Post launched in November 1988, it folded. Within weeks Brooks had work as a secretary at the News Of The World’s Sunday magazine in London.

Brooks spent the next decade on the paper working her way up to features writer, then deputy editor and beyond. In his autobiography The Insider, Piers Morgan recalls how in 1994, to scupper the Sunday Times’ exclusive serialisation of a biography in which Prince Charles admitted to cheating on Princess Diana, Brooks dressed as a cleaner and hid in The Times’ toilets for two hours to get an early edition of the paper. It was the sort of audacity then-News Of The World editor Morgan appreciated and he promoted her from the features desk to deputy editor.

During this period she also began to cultivate the contacts and friendships – starting with footballer Paul Gascoigne’s wife, Sheryl, and ending with successive Prime Ministers and News International’s Chairman and CEO, Rupert Murdoch – that have helped drive her to the very top. “She encourages you to feel that you’re on her team, you’re on her side,” says media commentator and former Daily Mirror editor, Roy Greenslade. “She’d say ‘What should I do about this? How would I handle that?’ And of course once you’ve given that kind of advice, you are much less likely to be critical.” The married MP Jerry Hayes felt the full force of her charm when, in 1997, Brooks told him the paper was going to reveal his gay affair with an underage lover. Although it threatened to destroy his life, sources at the paper later claimed he was so taken with the gentle way she handled it, he phoned the paper to thank them.

In 1998 Brooks joined The Sun as deputy editor – the highest ever position reached by a woman at the paper – under editor Stuart Higgins. But at News International, only one person’s opinion mattered: Rupert Murdoch’s. And he liked her. In 2000, aged just 31, Brooks finally became an editor at the News Of The World.

She made her mark immediately, launching a controversial ‘name and shame’ campaign against paedophiles and calling for Sarah’s Law, named after murdered eight-year-old Sarah Payne, informing parents if paedophiles were living in their area. While condemned by critics – especially when a paediatrician’s house was vandalised by people who’d confused the term with paedophile – it struck a chord with the British public. Weekly sales soared by 95,000 to 4,108,174 copies.

But it wasn’t just about the stories. Being top dog at the biggest-selling Sunday paper in Britain gave her access to the most powerful people in the country. Unlike previous editors, she didn’t keep them at arm’s length in case she had to run a hatchet job on them one day. Instead, Brooks embraced the high and the mighty, befriending then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, his wife Cherie as well as Mark Bolland, the Prince of Wales’ PR, and his partner Guy Black, then head of the Press Complaints Commission.

Postion of Power

“She’s so charismatic that if she decides she wants to be friends with you, it’s almost impossible to resist,” says a former female colleague who worked with Brooks at The Sun. “She’s fun with a mischievous sense of humour and is genuinely interested in other people and that’s very flattering.”

Her success at the NOTW led to her being appointed editor of The Sun. Many of the gruff older men who filled the paper’s upper echelons – known as the ‘backbench’ – didn’t take kindly to a young woman telling them what to do. “It was a very male dominated, I would say quite sexist, backbench at the time and they called her Bob – bag of bones,” says one colleague from the time. “But she handled it brilliantly, letting them know from day one who was boss. Soon ‘Bob’ became ‘boss’.” But former Observer columnist Gaby Hinsliff believes her no-nonsense attitude was noticed simply because she was a woman. “She was very good at office politics,” she says, “unlike many women who just concentrate on being good at the job. Instead she concentrated on managing office politics and less so on journalism skills – and that’s how men do it.”

You don’t get to be the editor of '''The Sun''' because you look good… it might be because she was good at her job

There were some great successes during Brooks’ time at The Sun, such as publishing the findings of the 2004 Hutton Report into government advisor Dr David Kelly’s death. And unlike some successful women, Brooks was a keen champion of her own sex. Chris Horrie, author of Stick It Up Your Punter, an exposé of The Sun under previous editor Kelvin MacKenzie, says “Under MacKenzie, the paper was very sexist and skewed towards a male readership. Rebekah made it much more woman-friendly by focusing on things like soap operas and subjects such as family welfare and children.”

As chairwoman of Women In Journalism – an organisation which supports female writers – she last year established a global network for News Corporation’s women executives. “She fosters a real feeling of sisterhood,” one ex-colleague told us. “She’s always gone out of her way to help younger female journalists,” adds Hinsliff. Those who know her say she’s incredibly loyal to her true friends regularly taking her mother to glittering showbiz parties. However, despite Alistair Campbell praising Brooks in his published diaries for being one of the few people to send him a supportive message after Dr Kelly killed himself, the former spin doctor revealed a few weeks ago that he hadn’t seen her for a year, suggesting it was because Labour were no longer power.

Brooks’ first marriage has also seen her hit headlines. She married EastEnders actor Ross Kemp in Las Vegas seven years after meeting him at a golf tournament in 1995. It was a turbulent relationship – they’d once cancelled their wedding – and they finally divorced, with her citing his adultery in March 2009. Two months later, she married racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks, whom she’d met at a party thrown by Sun columnist Jeremy Clarkson. Between them, they formed the centrepiece of the ‘Chipping Norton set’ – named after the area where they live in the Cotswolds.

It combined his famous friends, such as Madonna’s ex Guy Ritchie and Blur’s Alex James, and hers, who included David and Samantha Cameron. The Prime Minister and his wife were guests at Brooks’ wedding reception (along with Gordon and Sarah Brown and the Murdochs), and they also had dinner at Christmas. It’s a relationship that’s been questioned as the PM fights to distance himself from the phone-hacking scandal. Despite her abundance of powerful friends, few people have been willing to publicly support Brooks.

The big question of the moment is whether Brooks has been fairly portrayed, or if there has been a whiff of sexism in the furore. “She’s always described differently from the men involved in the coverage,” says Hinsliff. “You never see any article without reference to her ‘flame red hair’. It’s always about what she looks like. No-one ever mentions James Murdoch’s hair.”

FAIR TRIAL?

Additionally, the media bias towards pictures of attractive women may have contributed to the exposure she received this past fortnight. “Covering the phone-hacking scandal, picture editors will gravitate towards a photo of Brooks because she’s a striking woman rather than an indistinguishable man in a suit,” says Hinsliff. “Therefore she’s become a much bigger public face than if she were a man.”

Her gender has also led to inferences and innuendo about her relationship with Rupert Murdoch. “They’ve suggested he sees her as a daughter or that he’s an 80-year-old man suckered by a 43-year-old woman,” says Hinsliff. “No-one says it might be because she was good at her job. You don’t get to be editor of The Sun because you look good.”

Just as bad as the phone-hacking revelations themselves is the growing sense that society still can’t witness a powerful woman falling from grace without sinking into cliche. The trouble with this case is that we can’t decide which one. Some headlines present Brooks as a cold-hearted ruthless iron lady in the mould of Margaret Thatcher – an image that conflicts with the woman many who’ve met her describe. “I think people forget that she’s actually a person, not some hard-nosed tabloid-bot born in Murdoch’s lab. It’s all very sad,” said one former colleague.

Rebekah Brooks might have challenged stereotypes in her career, but her current treatment is a fascinating demonstration of just how far we are from equality when it comes to women in the headlines. “Of course, none of this excuses anything Rebekah might have done or condoned,” says Hinsliff. “She deserves to be on the front pages.” Not least because of the distress that has led from events that she had the power to prevent. It’s not easy being Rebekah Brooks right now, but it shouldn’t be harder because she’s a woman.

Words: Lorraine Fisher

Picture credits: Rex Features

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