Brooks’s Leveson inquiry appearance was a display of the empathetic arts she used to win round politicians and celebrities
Anyone who ever fantasised about being famous got a salutary look at what for the last 20 years has been the quid pro quo of British public life: what it’s like to be turned over by a tabloid.
Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the Sun and the News of the World, then chief executive of News International before resigning over phone hacking last year, spoke for several hours at the Leveson inquiry.
Alternately empathetic and steely, she revealed the qualities – described by those who knew and worked for her as charm and warmth – that made her the darling of the political and showbiz worlds.
At one point, describing Gerry and Kate McCann, parents of the missing child Madeleine, she seemed so moved when articulating their terrible ordeal, she had to look away. More cynical observers, dazzled by her demure Peter Pan collar and modest expression, might have assumed this was for effect. But remember Sara Payne and Sarah’s Law, the campaign for a paedophile register Brooks ran when she edited the News of the World and publicly “named and shamed” convicted offenders? That campaign was dismissed, derided and condemned as a dangerous witch-hunt, particularly when the residents of an estate went on the rampage, and a paediatrician had her job title misunderstood and graffiti painted on her front door. Brooks could never understand the reception. It was always obvious that she felt passionately about Payne’s plight. Her empathy led. The later revelation that the mobile phone Payne was given by News International was one of those hacked, was one of the most extraordinary of this entire shebang.
Watching her describe the circumstances of the Sun’s story revealing Fraser Brown’s cystic fibrosis and furiously denying Gordon Brown’s allegation that the paper hacked into his child’s medical records, was a similar story. “If the Browns had asked me not to run it, I wouldn’t have done,” declared a wide-eyed Rebekah, who had earlier described Sarah Brown as “my friend”. You sensed she absolutely believes that, even as she fails to understand how terrified the Browns were of her power; even as she denies having any such influence; even as she denies the Sun ran a revenge attack on Brown for suggesting that the Sun might have acted without proper morals. Throughout this complex dance, the Sun reader – earlier described by Brooks as being the only real source of authority at News International, is cast aside.
Countless celebrities and politicians experienced the Brooks velvet glove; the holding of your hand as the bad news is delivered. We have the tape, the ex-lover, the drugs, the cash. We know you’re gay, having an affair, an addict or being blackmailed. It’s going to come out and it’ll be so much better for you if we’re on your side.
Then comes the tell-all interview. My shame, my hell, my secret life. And the redemption. Recovery. All documented of course. We’re on your side, you’re on our team. Until you’re not.
Many of them ended up thanking her. Being grateful. Sending warm text messages, perhaps. Piers Morgan would josh, dare and goad you into it, but Rebekah Wade, as she was, was the Princess Diana of tabloid take-downs, who understood you all the way to the front page.
She was not the only editor who practised this art. But she was hats off the best at it and today we got to see how.
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