Perhaps the most damaging revelations so far have concerned not David Cameron but his chancellor, George Osborne, and his already beleaguered culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Brooks admitted that she had talked to the chancellor about details of News Corp.’s controversial bid for a majority stake in the British broadcaster BSkyB at a private dinner. Opponents have already seized on this as further evidence of an improper relationship between Cameron’s government and News Corp. in the lead-up to the deal, which had been subject to antimonopoly regulations.
The inquiry was also given an email dated June 27, 2011, which News Corp. lobbyist Frédéric Michel sent to Rebekah Brooks. It suggests that Hunt was directly seeking guidance about how to handle mounting phone-hacking allegations against the company in his consideration of the BSkyB bid, for which he had quasi-judicial authority. Previous emails from Michel to Hunt’s adviser, Adam Smith, caused the latter’s resignation for inappropriate contact with News Corp. Conservatives have insisted that Michel’s contacts with Hunt were exaggerated. But Brooks confirmed that she thought the email was a direct request from Hunt via Michel, making it harder for Hunt to isolate the problem to his adviser.
“[Hunt] is now starting to look into phone-hacking/practices more thoroughly and has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No.10’s positioning,” the email reads. In another potentially damaging passage, Michel writes that “Hunt will be making references to phone-hacking in his statement on [the bid] this week. He will be repeating the same narrative as the one he gave in Parliament few weeks ago. This is based on his belief that the police [are] pursing things thoroughly and phone hacking has nothing to do with the media plurality issues. It’s extremely helpful.”
Hunt will appear before the inquiry early next month.
In her testimony, Brooks said that as chief executive of News International, she had played an informal role in promoting the BSkyB bid to politicians, adding that she pressed her case in conversations with both Cameron and Osborne—though she denied any improprieties. She said this was an appropriate attempt to counter the influence of what she repeatedly referred to as an “anti–Sky bid alliance” made up of rival news organizations.
“For one three-minute conversation at the beginning of dinner I got the opportunity to give our view. I don’t think that is inappropriate,” Brooks said, referring to Osborne. She insisted that Cameron, for his part, had been “even-handed” in his consideration of the bid.
Brooks denied a press report that she had to act as a “go-between” for James and Rupert Murdoch as their relationship allegedly deteriorated over the hacking scandal. She did say, however, that she believed the elder Murdoch trusted her “implicitly.”
After the hacking scandal reached a head with the Milly Dowler story in July, Gordon Brown—the former prime minister who had a falling out with Murdoch after his newspapers switched their support to Cameron—famously leveled one of the most cutting allegations against News International. In an interview with the BBC, he claimed that a 2006 Sun story that revealed that Brown’s young son had cystic fibrosis had been obtained via illegal means.
Pressed repeatedly on this allegation on the stand this afternoon, Brooks said The Sun got its story from the father of another child suffering from the disease, though she refused to go into detail for fear of identifying the source. She also suggested that Brown may have had an ulterior motive for his recent allegations, saying the 2006 story had been published with Brown’s permission.
“It is only five years later that Mr. Brown was in any way concerned about my behavior, how [The Sun] handled it,” she said. After the story was published, she added, she had been in regular contact with Brown and his wife, Sarah, without the issue being raised. “They held a 40th-birthday party for me,” she said. “They attended my wedding. Sarah and I were good friends.”
As the inquiry wrapped up, Brooks pointed out that chief counsel Robert Jay had put a number of what she called “gossipy” questions to her over the course of the day. She suggested that these questions were based, in part at least, on her gender. She said:
“You have put to me quite a few gossipy items, for want of a better word: my personal alchemy; did Rupert Murdoch and I swim; where did I get the horse from; did Mr. Murdoch buy me a suit. The list is endless. I do feel that is merely a systematic issue, and I think a lot of it is gender-based. If I was a grumpy old man of Fleet Street, no one would write a word about it.”
When Jay remarked that the newspapers Brooks edited had long traded in stories based on so-called gossipy items, she was quick to reply. “We’re not in a tabloid newsroom, are we? We’re at an inquiry,” she said.
Rebekah Brooks, the former queen of Fleet Street, is on the stand in London this morning at the high-profile public inquiry into the British press.
Appearing before the inquiry in an understated black dress, she smiled awkwardly after swearing in and answered questions in a manner that was amiable and reserved.
Brooks was the editor of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid when its journalists allegedly hacked the voice mail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, and Brooks went on to become the chief executive of News International, the mogul’s British media arm. While questions over hacking and alleged payments by journalists to public officials are expected to be muffled due to ongoing investigations, it is Brooks’s relationships with British prime ministers that promises to be the story of the day—as evidenced by the pantomime horse that greeted Brooks this morning outside the royal courts.
This was a reference to the retired police horse that was lent to her by the Metropolitan Police, and later ridden by the current prime minister, David Cameron. Since the story was revealed, to the delight of British reporters and satirists, earlier this year, the horse has come to symbolize the questionably close relationship between Brooks and the occupants of 10 Downing Street over the years. She was famously close to Cameron’s two immediate predecessors, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. As Sky News reported this morning, Blair even sent Brooks a text before her grilling in front of Parliament after the hacking scandal came to a head in July.
It was her correspondence with Cameron—reportedly to the tune of as many as 12 text messages a day—that had the British media scene most abuzz. But Brooks opened her testimony by revealing that News International, not her, controls the access to the bulk of her communications from the years with the company. It had blocked her access to her BlackBerry and email, she said, when she resigned this summer.
Even so, Robert Jay, chief counsel to the inquiry, got Brooks to confirm to widely reported messages she apparently received from the prime minister after the hacking scandal broke—along the lines of “keep your head up” and “sorry I couldn't have been as loyal to you as you have been to me, but [Labour leader] Ed Miliband had me on the run.” Brooks said both were on the mark. She added that Chancellor George Osborne, Home Secretary Theresa May, and Foreign Secretary William Hague had also sent her private messages as hacking was dominating the news.
Brooks denied reports of the 12 daily messages from Cameron—“It’s preposterous,” she said. “One would hope that the leader of the opposition or prime minister would have better things to do. I would text Mr. Cameron, or vice-versa, on occasion.” She did reveal, after some embarrassed pressing from Jay, that Cameron sometimes signed his messages with “LOL,” which she said he took to mean “lots of love.”
“I told him it meant ‘laugh out loud,’ and he didn’t sign them like that anymore,” Brooks said. “In the main, [it was] ‘DC.'"
In her witness statement, Brooks adds that she met Cameron with “increased frequency” after he became the Conservative Party leader in 2005, with the pair meeting at “numerous political and social occasions”.
Among them were claims of regular contact with Blair that “increased in frequency throughout his decade as prime minister” and included meetings both formal and informal and talking often on the telephone. “Tony Blair, his senior cabinet, advisers and press secretaries,” the statement adds, “were a constant presence in my life for many years.”
The contact intensified, Brooks states, in the run-up to the Iraq war, which was supported by the whole of Murdoch’s global newspaper empire. Brooks also describes a “close friendship” with Sarah Brown, the wife of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, saying that Brooks advised Sarah on media strategy in the run-up to Sarah’s wedding.
On the stand and in her statement, Brooks worked to paint these close relationships as the mark of a good journalist. “I don’t know any journalist that doesn’t want to meet a senior politician, or those that advise them, in the simple pursuit of what we do—the gathering, analysis and distribution of information,” her statement reads. “Equally, I don’t know any politician who doesn’t want to meet a journalist or senior newspaper executive in pursuit of what they do—the gathering of support for themselves and/or their policies.”
—with Peter Jukes in London.