Rebekah Brooks finally had the chance to respond to her accusers today as she took the stand after four months on trial for conspiracy to hack into the phones of politicians, celebrities and victims of crime during her time as one of Rupert Murdoch’s most senior newspaper executives.
Murdoch’s protégé, the former CEO of News Corp’s British subsidiary, described the viciously competitive, male-dominated culture of the now shuttered News of the World, where she rose to become editor. On one occasion, she said she had spent more than $400,000 paying off Divine Brown, the prostitute caught with British actor Hugh Grant.
Brooks, who also began to describe her relationship with Murdoch, is expected to spend the next two weeks addressing the allegations against her, which she has denied. She was formally acquitted of one of the five charges this morning—conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office by making corrupt payments to public officials—because the police have uncovered fresh evidence about the acquisition of a picture of Prince William wearing a bikini at a fancy dress party.
Brooks, who sat in the dock wearing a white cardigan and royal blue dress, still faces another count of paying officials for stories (a charge which could also make News Corp liable in the U.S. under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) when she was the first ever woman editor of Murdoch’s best-selling daily tabloid, The Sun.
She faces three other charges: that during her editorship of the News of the World, she conspired to hack the phones of a murdered missing teenager, Milly Dowler, and two charges of ‘perverting the course of justice’. These cover the summer of 2011 when the scandal broke, and Brooks is accused of hiding evidence from the police.
Her lawyer, Jonathan Laidlaw QC, began the case for the defense by reminding the jury that she was on trial for these offences only. Not for her close relationship to Murdoch, nor for her years spent on a tabloid newspaper whatever anyone thought of their legal but distasteful practices.
“Although these allegations arose in the course of Mrs. Brooks’s employment, she is not being tried, is she, because she was the editor of a tabloid newspaper,” he said. “Neither is she on trial for having worked for Rupert Murdoch’s company or for having worked her way up, literally from the bottom, through that organization. She is not being tried for News International’s strategy, for its policies, its influences, or its corporate views.”
Rarely has such a high profile figure in British public life had to face criminal allegations which cover most of their career. Brooks described how she had risen through the ranks of Fleet Street to become one of the most powerful players in British media.
On the way she became personal friends of the last three prime ministers. Tony Blair would party with her in Notting Hill, and as an email entered in evidence yesterday alleged, offered to become a secret “unofficial advisor” to Brooks and the Murdoch family during the height of the phone hacking scandal in 2011. She attended sleepovers with Gordon Brown’s wife, Sarah, Elizabeth Murdoch and Wendi Deng at the prime minister’s country retreat at Chequers. And she was a regular visitor and supporter of her neighbour in the Oxfordshire countryside, David Cameron.
She told the court that her progress through the ranks had been difficult because the tabloids were still dominated by men. There “was probably a bit of old-school misogyny,” she said. “It was a difficult world.”
Brooks said she had suffered personal attacks and once found a file about her “perceived mistakes or stupid stories,” called “Twat 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6”.
Despite the old fashioned attitude towards women, Brooks said there was an intensely competitive environment between staff in the office regardless of gender, and that in particular the news and features desks were in a state of perpetual war. “If I’d been a bloke or a woman, the competition between the two desks was ingrained into the News of the World’s history. They really didn’t like each other.”
One occasion when they clashed was over the Hugh Grant story—he was caught by the police in Los Angeles and accused of consorting with a hooker. Inevitably, the newspaper was desperate to be the first to hear Divine Brown’s side of the story. “There was a huge interest, and once we had found Divine Brown there was an expectation that the Mail and The Sun would not be far behind and so we asked Divine Brown if she would move from her home where she had gone back to, to a different location.
“From memory, she wanted to take quite a number of her family with her. It was quite a lot of people.”
That meant money, and a lot of it. Brooks said the newspaper hired a plane to fly Brown and members of her family “to the desert”—she thought Nevada—to stay in a resort to prevent other newspapers finding them. “It all seems so silly now but actually it was really important,” she said. “It was probably one of the biggest expenses that I had ever dealt with. It was a lot of money,” she said.
At the time her weekly spending limit was supposed to be £50,000 to £60,000, she said, and she was making decisions “on the hoof” in the middle of the night because of the time difference between the UK and the US.
“At the time, obviously, if I had done the wrong thing, in the morning, particularly my decision to fly the entire family to the desert was something I had to explain to the editor and managing editor.”
“It was almost like the News of the World news desk would rather… the Mirror had the story than the features desk or The Sun. There was quite lot of competition”, Brooks said.
She recounted one moment when her phone line was cut through by journalists from the news desk after the features department ran a story that the newspaper bosses were excited about.
Once she had been promoted from the features desk to deputy editor of the News of the World, she would sometimes be responsible for editing the paper on a Saturday, press day. That meant a call from Murdoch. “He would ask ‘What’s going on?’ that was always his opening gambit, and it was up to you to tell him what was going on," Brooks said.
She recalled the first time he had walked into her office in person.: “I remember him coming into my office for the first time when I was deputy editor and he sat down and said ‘It’s a big challenge at a young age,’ kind advice. ‘You've got a long career ahead, take your time, learn on the job.”
The prosecution alleges that what she learnt on the job in the coming years was a serious breach of British law.
The trial continues.