Back in the spotlight: Rebekah Brooks has some explaining to do

As the hacking scandal grows, where does it leave News International's chief executive?
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For all her power and striking looks, Rebekah Brooks hates the spotlight. When parliamentary committees have requested her presence she has stubbornly resisted and it is not difficult to see why. On her only previous appearance, eight years ago, her performance was disastrous. Hesitant and awkward, she allowed her guard to drop when, as editor of The Sun, she told Chris Bryant MP, a member of the Culture, Media & Sport committee investigating media intrusion, that: "We have paid the police for information in the past."

Until recently, that was Ms Brooks's lowest moment in a career which she has dedicated to a single employer, Rupert Murdoch, climbing the corporate ladder at his News International publishing empire with raw determination and apparently unshakeable confidence. But now the team probing phone hacking want to interview her, and her 2003 statement has taken on an even greater significance.

As News International faces being engulfed by the growing scandal of phone-hacking at the News of the World, Ms Brooks is the one trying to put out the flames. With Mr Murdoch having whisked his son James out of London, promoted to a new role in New York, Ms Brooks, as CEO of News International, is the senior figure based in Britain. And her credibility is not helped by an admission that the company had taken part in activities which – as Mr Bryant pointed out to the Home Secretary – were in contravention of the Public Bodies Corruption Act 1889. She might have gone further had it not been for the presence at her side of Andy Coulson, editor of the News of the World, who tried to come to her aid, telling the committee that News International titles operated "within the PCC [Press Complaints Commission] code and the law".

I was there that day in March 2003 and saw Ms Brooks (then Rebekah Wade) arrive in apparent high spirits, joking with Coulson and Piers Morgan, editor of the rival Daily Mirror but an old friend. All three had sat in the editor's chair at the News of the World. All three would tell MPs that press regulation was working just fine. Mr Morgan said tabloid reporters had not been so well behaved in 15 years; Ms Brooks that the PCC had "changed the culture in every newsroom in the land".

Then she admitted paying the police. Ian Hargreaves, a former editor of the Financial Times, later commented that she had "clip-clopped into a big hole in the ground". Her error seemed borne of a lack of experience in the political arena and intoxication with the power of the tabloid press in which she had spent her working life (she tried to put Mr Bryant in his place by reminding him she had 10 million readers).

News International might argue that she deserves credit for a frank answer, if only it hadn't immediately gone into damage-limitation mode, with Mr Coulson leading the way in trying to brush over his colleague's tracks. Later that day Alison Clark, then NI's director of corporate affairs, would ring other news organisations to emphasise that paying the police was not company practice.

Once again NI is in damage-limitation mode as its admission of liability in a string of phone-hacking cases seems likely to lead to a wave of fresh civil litigation by victims. Mr Coulson has long quit his job at the News of the World over the scandal, though he maintains he knew nothing of what was happening. His loyal role that day is illuminating. Not just a fellow editor, he was Ms Brooks's long-standing deputy at the News of the World before her promotion to The Sun, only a few weeks before the hearing. A profile of Mr Coulson in The Guardian at that time noted how closely the pair worked. "By the time [Ms Brooks] moved to The Sun, the News of the World was already as much Coulson's creation as hers." When Ms Brooks was arrested in 2005 over a domestic incident, it was Mr Coulson who bailed her out. When David Cameron was under pressure to sack Mr Coulson as his head of communications Ms Brooks is said to have privately argued her friend's case.

She has many friends in high places. She sees Mr Cameron socially, inviting him to a Christmas party which has become the source of embarrassment for the Prime Minister. Her admiration for the PCC in 2003 will have been enhanced by her fondness for its then director Guy Black, a holiday partner and the best man at her first wedding, to the actor Ross Kemp. In recent years she has been more likely to take vacations with the Murdoch family. Rupert regards her almost as a daughter, meaning that she is unlikely ever to be dismissed from his News Corp empire. But with James Murdoch in America and claiming that the hacking issue has been put "in a box" (translation: no longer in my in-tray), Ms Brooks has become a lightning conductor for criticism as the story's gravity demands that someone senior accepts responsibility for the failures in management admitted last week.

With two more of Mr Coulson's senior staff being arrested by police and one of them sacked by NI, his previous claim to have been let down by a single rogue reporter is thoroughly discredited. MPs, including Mr Bryant, are furious that, eight years on, they still haven't been told the truth about tabloid intrusion. The Operation Weeting team, investigating phone hacking, wants to speak to Ms Brooks about NI's past behaviour. Those inseparable pals, Rebekah and Andy, both remain in the gun sights – and this time neither seems capable of pulling the other out of the line of fire.