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07.28.11

Rebekah Brooks’ New Nightmare

Revelations that News of the World may have hacked another grieving family—possibly with a phone Brooks gave the mother—put the paper’s former editor under fire again. By William Underhill.

For Rebekah Brooks, it gets worse. Much worse. When the former boss of News International appeared earlier this month before a committee of MPs looking into the phone-hacking scandal, she was keen to highlight one particular achievement of her time as editor of News of the World. Under her leadership, the paper had led a controversial campaign to allow parents more information on the whereabouts of sex offenders.

But any pride in her campaigning role now looks wildly misplaced. A report by the The Guardian today claims that a private investigator acting on behalf of Rupert Murdoch’s bestselling British tabloid may have targeted the phone of the mother of an 8-year-old girl whose murder by a convicted pedophile in 2000 gave the proposed legislation its name–Sarah’s Law.

Worse still, it appears that the phone itself was given by News of the World to the child’s mother, Sara Payne, so she could keep in touch with staff.  Its number apparently features on a list kept by the investigator, which is now under study by police. To compound the embarrassment for Brooks,  Mrs. Payne had written a farewell tribute to News of the World in the paper’s final edition before it was shut down by News International earlier this month amid a welter of accusations.

In her column Mrs. Payne expressed her gratitude to the paper for its support in pushing for Sarah’s Law. She described some staff at News of The World as “good and trusted friends,” and a headline described the tabloid as “a force for good.” Mrs. Payne, who had written often for the paper in the past, worked closely with Brooks, and the two women are said to have become friends.

The paper’s petition in support of Sarah’s Law–similar to America’s Megan’s Law–proved hugely popular, attracting more than a million signatures. But Brooks, who was strongly associated with the campaign’s launch as a young editor, attracted criticism for encouraging vigilantism when the paper “named and shamed” sex offenders after the government refused to act.

Payne described some staff at News of The World as “good and trusted friends,” and a headline described the tabloid as “a force for good.”

The latest disclosures brought another round of fierce condemnation for News International. It was the revelation last month that the paper had hacked into the phone of murdered British teenager Milly Dowler that set off the last and most damaging round in the hacking scandal leading to Brooks’ resignation as News International’s CEO.

Among the earliest critics was Labour MP Tom Watson, a leading scourge of the Murdoch press, who said the latest revelations marked “a new low.” The reporter from The Guardian who broke the news, Amelia Hill, told the BBC that it took the story “from the gutter to the sewer.”

For her part,  Brooks has claimed she knew nothing of the hacking. Sara Payne was “a dear friend” and the allegations are “abhorrent.” The idea that she had been targeted was “beyond my comprehension.” If the British public shares her incomprehension, she can’t expect their sympathy.