In the end it was the dog that didn’t bite—or, perhaps, the horse that didn’t neigh.
Rebekah Brooks’s heavily-hyped testimony before the Leveson Inquiry in London yesterday proved to be fascinating but hardly the incendiary display that many observers had anticipated.
After waiting all week in hopes that the former CEO of News International—often described as Rupert Murdoch’s proxy in London—would spill enough dirt on senior politicians to threaten Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, the people outside the Royal Courts of Justice were in a festive mood. The woman who wined and dined senior members of Scotland Yard while police were investigating phone hacking at her newspapers was met outside the Royal Courts by a pantomime horse in a police helmet—a reference to the retired police horse infamously lent to Brooks, then ridden by Cameron.
Decked in a $850 black dress with a white ruff and cuffs, however, Brooks dictated a more modest tone. The former tabloid editor played the part brilliantly on the stand with a mixture of the combative and the coy. During six hours of intensive cross-examination over her intimate friendships with former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, along with Cameron, Brooks gave some ground to rumors and allegations but dismissed the most serious ones and largely refused to be cornered. She also had some impromptu zingers, even accusing the counsel for the inquiry, Robert Jay, of being as obsessed with gossip as any of her tabloids.
Brooks also showed a natural instinct for the next day’s headlines. Though she denied reports that David Cameron once sent her texts to the tune of as many as a dozen a day, she did reveal that he signed off his messages with “LOL,” mistakenly believing the acronym to mean “lots of love.” (Brooks added that she eventually corrected the prime minister.) The revelation created loud merriment online, with #LOLgate quickly becoming a trending hashtag on Twitter. But while the ridicule may be uncomfortable, considering all the speculation, Cameron may have considered it a relatively fortunate outcome. Betting odds on his government’s collapsing quickly fell.
There could be problems with Brooks’s testimony in the weeks to come, though. Many of her assertions may well be contested under oath by others, such as Labour M.P.s Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, and Brown, the former prime minister. The various fuzzy details in her testimony—such as the number of private holiday meetings she had with Cameron, or quite how Brown and his wife consented to the outing of their 4-year-old son’s cystic fibrosis on the front page of one of Brooks’s tabloids—may one day come into sharper focus. And the most sensitive questions surrounding Brooks—over phone hacking and payments to police and public officials by her journalists and over her alleged attempt to pervert the course of justice—could not be broached due to ongoing police investigations. Brooks has been arrested on each of those allegations but not charged.
Cameron’s government, meanwhile, is by no means in the clear. In the short term, Brooks’s most dangerous evidence to the government concerns the handling of the so-called Project Rubicon, News Corp.’s controversial $16 billion bid for the British broadcaster BSkyB, which has become more important for the moment than phone hacking or police payments. Ever since Rupert Murdoch’s email dump to the inquiry two weeks ago, which revealed what the British press has termed a “back channel” between a senior News Corp. lobbyist and the culture minister who had quasi-official authority over the bid, questions of impropriety in the BSkyB maneuverings have superseded phone hacking and illegal payments as the issue of the day. In the month’s worth of evidence still contained on Brooks’s phone when she resigned from News International was an email to her from the lobbyist Fred Michel. In it Michel said that the culture minister, Jeremy Hunt, wanted her guidance about phone hacking as he considered the BSkyB bid.
Hunt was supposed to be an impartial judge of this bid, and has only just survived the explosive back-channel revelations by sacking his special advisor and claiming Michel was exaggerating their contact. On the stand, however, Brooks said she believed that the lobbyist was talking to Hunt directly, or even the prime minister’s office, giving Hunt even tougher questions to answer when he faces the inquiry in the coming weeks. Odds on him making it to the summer are shortening.
All this will suit the lawyers at the Royal Courts of Justice, whose remit is not to bring down governments or indict newspaper proprietors, but to paint a picture of the relationship between the media, police, politicians, and the public. As the Lord Justice presiding over the inquiry has said, “Those seeking forensic fireworks should look to fiction.” Of the 50 people arrested over phone hacking and police bribes (which includes Rebekah Brooks), none have been charged yet, and any subsequent criminal trials will take place toward the end of next year. Today it was revealed that Scotland Yard is budgeting for its investigations to continue until 2015. The portrait the inquiry is painting may just be a backdrop for the bigger drama to come.