Just when it looked like the hot seat couldn’t get any hotter for flame-haired Rebekah Brooks, the former News of the World editor and top Rupert Murdoch executive at the center of Britain’s phone-hacking scandal, the temperature has just been set on broil.
The 43-year-old Brooks—who was briefly arrested and interrogated by Scotland Yard July 16 after being forced out as CEO of News International, Murdoch’s U.K. newspaper division—is suddenly facing new and more damaging questions. They concern her role 11 years ago, when she was editor of the now-defunct Sunday tabloid, in giving a possibly hacked cellphone to Sara Payne, the mother of little Sarah, whose kidnapping and murder in 2000 inspired a famous News of the World campaign and the enactment of “Sarah’s Law,” which allows families access to information about registered sex offenders living in their neighborhoods.
“Rebekah made such a big thing of this that if it is proved that News of the World betrayed the trust of that family, it will play very badly with the public,” her former colleague Tim Minogue emailed The Daily Beast on Thursday, after The Guardian reported on its website that police had discovered the donated cellphone’s number, along with other details, in the voluminous notes of Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who did jail time for illegally hacking phones on behalf of Brooks’ newspaper.
Journalism professor and former Fleet Street editor Roy Greenslade, who knew and liked Brooks when he was a consultant for News International and she was editor of Murdoch’s The Sun, said he is shocked at the allegations.
“I’m completely astonished. I can’t believe this one, in all honesty,” said Greenslade, who has been an outspoken critic of News of the World and Murdoch’s management of his British papers. “This would be the worst case of shooting yourself in the foot. I really can’t conceive of Rebekah Brooks having done this.”
On the other hand, Greenslade conceded, Brooks presided over a newsroom in which “people were just routinely hacking even each other. They didn’t see it as being a big crime. It was part prank and part the way they just went about life.”
Former News of the World political editor Ian Kirby also expressed doubt that his former boss would knowingly participate in such a senseless act.
“My immediate reaction is there would be absolutely nothing to be gained from hacking Sara Payne’s phone,” Kirby said. “She had such a close relationship with News of the World. She came to us. She was always available. We could call her up any time we wanted, and when we asked her a question, she answered it.”
Brooks—who befriended the murdered Sarah’s mother during the anti-pedophile campaign and still refers to her as a “dear friend”—has denied any knowledge of phone hacking and called the latest report “abhorrent” and “particularly upsetting.”
Martin Moore, founder of the “Hacked Off” campaign that successfully pressed for official investigations of Fleet Street’s misconduct, predicted that if Brooks is ultimately implicated, the consequences will be disastrous.
“From a personal perspective, I think this really would be it for her,” Moore told The Daily Beast. “It indicates either that there was a complete moral vacuum, or that there was such a routine culture of hacking, almost as though it wasn’t considered that there was any immorality to it. It just happened. It just was one of those things they did without applying any legal criteria—the things you did to back up a story.”
Moore, however, is keeping an open mind regarding Brooks. “It would be astonishingly horrendous if she personally did that,” he said. “There’s a very good chance that it could have happened and that she wasn’t involved in suggesting it.”
But if the cellphone given to Payne was indeed hacked, it’s likely that many people were victimized, Moore said. “As I understand it, part of the point of having a phone was so supporters could contact her,” he said. “Many of those supporters were people who themselves were in very distressed situations … It’s not just about Sara Payne and her [Sarah’s Law] charity. It’s about the people who were contacting her with very intimate details about themselves and their children.”
Brooks, for her part, said in a statement: “The idea that anyone on the newspaper knew that Sara or the campaign team were targeted by Mr. Mulcaire is unthinkable. The idea of her being targeted is beyond my comprehension. It is imperative for Sara and the other victims of crime that these allegations are investigated and those culpable brought to justice.”
British lawyer Mark Lewis—who represents the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose News of the World phone hacking, revealed by The Guardian in early July, outraged the public, rocked the political establishment and resulted in the 168-year-old tabloid’s shutdown—said Brooks might be off the hook in this case, even though the newspaper she ran would not be.
“Rebekah Brooks might well have been an unwitting donor of the phone that was then hacked on her newspaper’s behalf,” Lewis told The Daily Beast. “It is no surprise that more and more incidents such as these are coming out. The News of the World seems to have no standard of common decency when it came to getting stories.”
He added, “The sad fact is that Sara Payne gave a glowing tribute praising the paper in its final edition for the good work that it had done, without realizing that she is likely to have been one of its victims.”
Tim Minogue, who toiled alongside a 20-year-old Rebekah Wade, as she was then, at The Post, a short-lived London tabloid, said the latest bad news taints her brilliant career, in which she rose from lowly secretary to powerful editor who socialized with royals and prime ministers.
“It resonates with the public because this child abduction and killing was a very big story at the time and was central to Rebekah’s editorship at News of the World, espousing the cause of the bereaved family, campaigning for ‘Sarah’s Law’—named after ‘Megan’s Law’ in U.S.—to enable parents to discover if convicted pedophiles lived in their neighborhood,” Minogue emailed. “It caused great controversy at the time because it inspired mobs to attack homes of suspected pedophiles—most shamefully (and absurdly) when the home of a pediatrician was attacked because Rebekah’s readers’ knowledge of Greek wasn’t very good.”
Mike Giglio contributed reporting.