Sadly, the best dishes were off the menu when Rebekah Brooks was grilled at the Leveson inquiry in London’s High Court on Friday.
She wasn’t asked whether she authorised phone hacking at the News of the World between 2001 and 2003 when she was editor; she wasn’t asked whether she knew about illegal payments to police and public officials when she did the same job at The Sun until 2009; and she wasn’t asked about her role in covering up the phone hacking scandal when the NotW‘s royal correspondent was arrested in 2006.
But even though these spicy dishes were banned — so Brooks can get a fair trial if she is charged — there was plenty of tasty stuff on offer.
And for students of power it was a veritable feast, because the flame-haired temptress (as the NotW would surely have described her) had Britain’s power elite eating out of her hand, until she got the sack in July last year.
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Not only was the remarkable Brooks on intimate terms with at least two recent prime ministers — David Cameron and Tony Blair — she was also best mates with at least two of Britain’s first ladies, Cherie Blair and Sarah Brown (wife of PM Gordon Brown).
Consequently, she was forever popping over for lunch, drinks, and dinner, being invited to their birthday parties (or inviting them to hers), and firing off text messages, emails and phone calls to organise social occasions or (in David Cameron’s case) offer support.
An interesting question — which Lord Leveson’s counsel Robert Jay QC tried to get answered — was whether these powerful people wanted to get close to Brooks because she was editor of Britain’s biggest-selling (and most rabid) tabloid or because she was in thick with her even more powerful boss Rupert Murdoch.
The answer of course is both. But Rebekah refused to admit it.
Naturally, Rebekah was also intimate with Rupert and the Murdoch family. She was the 81-year-old’s favourite (surrogate) daughter, a close friend of his wife Wendi Deng, and an even closer friend of his daughter Elisabeth. She was also also pretty chummy with youngest son James, who was slated to inherit the empire until the phone hacking shit hit the fan.
In short, she is a remarkable woman.
Whether Brooks is still in thick with all these people is not yet clear, but when she was forced to resign last July, and then arrested, after the lid finally blew off the phone hacking scandal and the NotW had to be closed, the 43-year-old editor turned CEO of News International received heartfelt condolences from some or all of these people.
As she admitted to the Leveson inquiry on Friday she received a message from Cameron (via a third party) to “keep her head up”, apologising for not being able to help her.
She also received commiserations from Tony Blair; from “Number 11”, which one might assume to be Britain’s Treasurer George Osborne; from the “Foreign Office”, which is almost certainly the current Foreign Secretary and former Tory leader William Hague; and from the “Home Office”, which is almost certainly Home Secretary Theresa May.
From which one might conclude Brooks has been pretty close to the current Tory government.
So what have she and her boss got from these friendships? Well, had the phone hacking scandal not spoiled it all, the answer would be quite a lot. In particular, they would have got government approval for News’s $12 billion bid to take full control of BSkyB, in the face of concerted public opposition.
Brooks admitted on Friday she had discussed the BSkyB bid at a Christmas dinner with Cameron in 2010, and had also discussed it with Osborne, at a private lunch in a restaurant. It emerged on Sunday in London that she had also stayed the weekend at Osborne’s official residence while the bid was under way.
By June 2011, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was on the brink of approving the takeover.
According to an email sent to Brooks by News International’s top lobbyist, Frederic Michel, Hunt wanted to avoid a public inquiry and was determined that the bid should go ahead, despite the growing chorus of allegations of phone hacking. And he was on the point of making an “extremely helpful” statement to the House of Commons.
But he wanted a bit of advice. As the lobbyist put it: “JH is now starting to look into phone-hacking/practices more thoroughly”, and he “has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No 10’s positioning”.
In other words, Hunt wanted News International to tell Britain’s Prime Minister how to play down the phone hacking story, which was beginning to threaten the success of the bid. We don’t know what advice Hunt was given, if any, because everything was getting “extremely fraught” by then, according to Brooks.
But one week later, the scandal blew. Two weeks after that, Brooks resigned and was arrested. And the PM was sending her a message via a third party that he was sorry he had not been able to do more to help.