In the Cotswolds village of Churchill where Charlie and Rebekah Brooks have a home in a converted barn, local people tended to give them the benefit of the doubt, like the jury in the News Corp. phone-hacking trial.
At Churchill’s annual vintage and classic car show on June 8, three days before the jury began deliberations, neighbors weren’t convinced the couple broke any laws. Local people in the Oxfordshire village of about 600 people, about 75 miles northwest of London, were largely sympathetic to the Brookses.
“They haven’t been proved guilty, have they?” Roland Cherry, one of the organizers of the car show, who has known Charlie Brooks since he was a boy, said as he directed traffic at the show.
Charlie Brooks, 51, who was acquitted of obstructing justice, was born in the area and grew up in Sarsden, a hamlet of Churchill where homes cost an average $1 million. His wife Rebekah, the former chief executive officer of News Corp.’s U.K. unit, was acquitted of phone-hacking, bribery and obstruction of justice charges.
“Most people here are supportive of the family because they’re local,” said Keith Gowing, a warden at All Saints Church in Churchill.
The village is set in a rural idyll marked by rolling hills and honey-colored stone houses with names like “Wisteria Cottage” and “Home Farm.” Horseback riders are a common sight along country lanes and some customers at the local pub, the Chequers Inn, bound through the door in jodhpurs and riding boots.
Now that the trial of the couple has concluded, the Brookses and their two-year-old daughter will have more time to spend in Churchill.
Though she’s a relative newcomer to the village since marrying her racehorse trainer and socialite husband five years ago, Rebekah, 46, has embraced the country lifestyle with the same enthusiasm as Madonna did, riding horses and even attending events with the local Heythrop Hunt.
“They’re just like any other family,” says garden designer Jonathan Uglow, who moved to the area from London three years ago. “People allow them to get on with it.”
The north Cotswolds are full of celebrities and full-time residents take little notice of them, Uglow said. Most Sunday mornings, after the service ends at the Gothic revival village church and parishioners empty out its front door, Uglow says that Prime Minister David Cameron can be seen cycling up the hill from his constituency home in the nearby village of Dean for lunch at the Chequers Inn, also a favorite of the Brookses.
Cameron and his brother, Alexander Cameron, a lawyer, were schoolmates of Charlie Brooks at Eton College. Waitresses at the Chequers Inn recalled Cameron and his wife, Samantha, dining at the pub in early June and said they frequently stop in with their children and security personnel for drinks or a meal.
Amanda Holden, an actress who is a judge on the television show “Britain’s Got Talent” also has a house in Sarsden and is a regular at the Chequers, according to pub staff. British Broadcasting Corp. “Top Gear” co-host Jeremy Clarkson, a friend of the Brookses and supporter of Cameron, has a house three miles away in “Chippy,” as locals call Chipping Norton.
The proximity of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch’s television executive daughter Elisabeth, who also has a home 10 miles away in Burford, to each other gave rise to the term “Chipping Norton Set” to describe the network of politicians and media members in the area who dined and partied together as New Yorkers do in the Hamptons on summer weekends.
After Cameron complained to Rebekah Brooks about a story in the News Corp.-owned Times newspaper in 2009, Brooks sent him a text message that said, “Let’s discuss over country supper soon.” The message was made public when Cameron testified at the press ethics inquiry overseen by U.K. Court of Appeal Judge Brian Leveson in 2012.
Cameron sent another text message to Rebekah Brooks in 2009 that said the ex-police horse that her husband had given him to ride was “fast unpredictable and hard to control but fun.” The loan of the police horse, named Raisa, to Brooks caused a political stir.
At the Wednesday morning market, three miles away in Chipping Norton’s main square, townspeople were less sympathetic to the Brookses, who sometimes shop there.
The town’s association with the clique of politicians and media members rankles some who live or work there. Market stall holder Martin Eldridge, who sells candy and wine at the weekly market, said the moniker “Chipping Norton Set” hasn’t helped the town’s image.
“It’s not a good thing,” says Eldridge, who reads three daily newspapers and followed the phone-hacking case.