She didn’t know her newspaper had hired a private detective to hack the phone of a teenage murder victim. She entered into an affair with her deputy mostly because her other relationships were going through a “car crash.” She tried to implicate senior company executives in the scandal to protect herself. Her mistakes were due to her youth.
And only once during two weeks of trial testimony did Rebekah Brooks make a slip of the tongue, when she said the News of the World acted “above the law,” swiftly correcting herself to say “within the law.”
A London jury today accepted her statements, finding the 46-year-old former head of News Corp.’s U.K. unit not guilty of intercepting voice mails, conspiring to pay bribes to public officials and perverting the course of justice in a trial that delved into the defendants’ private lives just as the News of the World engaged in its famous celebrity stings.
Brooks was one of seven people standing trial on charges related to wrongdoing at News Corp.’s U.K. newspapers. Company Chairman Rupert Murdoch closed the weekly News of the World tabloid in July 2011 to defuse a scandal over revelations that journalists intercepted voicemail messages on the phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old who was kidnapped and later found murdered.
Brooks’s husband, Charlie, and her former personal assistant, Cheryl Carter, were cleared of charges they destroyed evidence at the height of the phone-hacking scandal in 2011. Andy Coulson, a former editor of News Corp.’s News of the World and an ex-lover of Brooks, was found guilty on one count of phone hacking.
The decision leaves Brooks free to resume her career, including a job at her former employer, said Alex DeGroote, a media analyst at Peel Hunt in London.
“She should go back to being treated as a highly experienced media executive with lots of valuable experience on her CV,” DeGroote said. “Murdoch talent-spotted her from an early age so why not go back to a senior role there? I expect she’ll be a hot property now, and this will end up making a good movie.”
While seven people were on trial, the flame-haired Brooks was very much the focal point. For two weeks earlier this year, she led the jury through her mistakes, missteps and triumphs as an editor and executive while repeatedly hammering home her innocence. Unflappable in the witness box, her demeanor almost never changed, except at one point when she became emotional over her inability to have a child.
Tried alongside her husband, former lover, colleagues and employees, throughout the trial Brooks was the leader, comforting, encouraging and supporting as the evidence unfolded. The youngest defendant, she would shake her head at testimony she disagreed with and hug her fellow accused after they spoke on the stand.
Brooks, in fact, had been the youngest editor of a British national newspaper, named to the helm of News of the World in 2000 before becoming the first female editor of the Sun in 2003. She was appointed CEO of the then-News International in 2009. She was at the center of phone-hacking and bribery practices that were commonplace at the company’s newspapers for a decade, prosecutors said during the trial.
Throughout Brooks denied she ever knew of, or met, Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator hired by News of the World to hack phones, including Dowler’s. She denied she “cooked the books” to conceal his 92,000-pound ($156,000) yearly contract.
“You have to decide whether these senior figures knew of the rotten state of affairs that permeated that organization,” Andrew Edis, the lead prosecutor, told the 11-person jury, summing up the prosecution case on May 7.
Brooks was born in 1968 in Warrington, northwest England, a manufacturing town known for its steel, textiles and leather industries. She grew up with her gardener father and a personal-assistant mother and cared for her grandparents at the family home.
She got her first taste of journalism at age 14 at the Warrington Guardian, where she swept the floors and made tea.
Life at the News of the World began in 1989 as a features researcher known as the “pink parlor” because of the number of women in the department, she said during her testimony.
She often pointed to her enthusiasm and inexperience and the fact she was “unusually young,” as she rose through the echelons. Following a number of promotions, she was made features editor at the age of 27.
“I was quite young at the time,” she said again Feb. 20. She was explaining how she got involved in signing off on a kiss-and-tell payment of $100,000 to prostitute Divine Brown, who was caught with British actor Hugh Grant in 1995. She also approved allowing a News of the World reporter to get close to the royal family by posing as an Arab sheikh.
“All our entrapment and subterfuge must be justified 110 percent,” Brooks said in a 2001 e-mail introduced as evidence. “We have to be so careful and make sure everything we do is inside the law.”
During the trial, prosecutors said that a longstanding secret relationship between Brooks and Coulson was crucial to prove that a conspiracy took place at the tabloids. Police found a 2004 letter on a computer at Brooks’s house that uncovered the affair for the first time.
“The fact is you are my very best friend, I tell you everything, I love you, care about you, worry about you, we laugh and cry together,” prosecutors said, reading the letter - - which was never sent -- to the jury.
Brooks said she wrote it at a time of “emotional anguish,” and that it was symptomatic of her “car crash” approach to personal relationships before she met her current husband.
At the time she was married to British actor Ross Kemp and said that their work schedules had a lot to do with the breakdown of their relationship.
“In a time of hurt, after a few glasses of wine, you shouldn’t get on a computer,” she said.
In a rare glimpse of emotion during her time in the witness box, Brooks came to tears describing how her attempts to have children had failed when married to Kemp. She lowered her voice and asked for a break to compose herself as she picked up a tissue. Outside the court her husband, Charlie, embraced her.
Rebekah and Charlie Brooks had a child through surrogacy on Jan. 25, 2012.
In addition to firmly holding to her defense, Brooks portrayed herself as an editor who campaigned for political and social issues, running a campaign against domestic violence and pedophilia. She described “Sarah’s Law, ” which imposed new sanctions on convicted pedophiles, as the defining campaign of her editorship.
Other witnesses agreed.
“It’s easy to forget in these dark times the News of the World has often been a force for good and it has something to do with the people who worked on it,” Sara Payne, the mother of an eight-year-old child who was killed by a pedophile in 2000, testified. She was there as a character witness.
Payne’s own mobile phone, which had been supplied by the News of the World, was hacked by Mulcaire, police said in 2011. Brooks said at the time that the allegations were “abhorrent and particularly upsetting.”
Evidence showed Brooks sought to change public perception of the scandal. Prosecutors gave an e-mail to the jury sent to James Murdoch, then chairman of News International, on July 8 2011, one week before Brooks resigned from News International. The e-mail outlined plans to lay the blame for not managing the hacking scandal properly at the feet of company executives including Les Hinton, then the CEO for News Corp.’s Dow Jones unit, via a report from an internal investigation.
The “result of a report when published would slam Les, Colin, etc. and vindicate my position (or not),” she said in the e-mail. She suggested an internal announcement be leaked to the media.
“Our internal investigations were woeful and limited and we failed to hold the right people accountable,” Brooks said in an e-mail about the report she proposed. “I am ring fenced clearly and properly.” The report was never written.
Brooks said during her testimony that the letter was written in a “climate of paranoia.”
“She is a very clever woman, she is an arch manipulator,” said Brian Cathcart, director of Hacked Off, a group that campaigns for heavier press regulation.
Prosecutors repeatedly reminded jurors at the trial how charming and talented Brooks was, pointing out her “meteoric rise” as evidence of this, while simultaneously discrediting her. Jurors were asked to look “behind the mask” and see that her entire testimony was a “carefully choreographed and scripted performance” that she was “capable of doing” if she put her mind to it.
“You were running your world and not much happened in it that you did not want to happen, when you were at the top of the tree,” Edis said March 12. “You were the boss.”
Brooks, in the witness stand, said nothing.