Partying with PMs: the charmed life of the ultimate networker

Rebekah Brooks’ evidence provided revealing insights into the Murdoch empire’s special relationship with power
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Prime Ministers, current and past, attended her birthday party. She has had lunch and dinner with anyone that has mattered at the top table of British politics over the last decade. And when Rupert Murdoch tried to explain why he had closed the News of the World and what his priority now was, he simply pointed to Rebekah Brooks and said, “This one.”

Yesterday, the unofficial member of the Murdoch "family" directed her charm at the Leveson Inquiry. The High Court heard nothing of the details that led to her arrest on charges of phone hacking, the bribing of police officers, and conspiring to pervert the course of justice. It was a revelatory day nonetheless.

Brooks and the BSkyB bid

Although Brooks told the inquiry she had no formal role in News Corp's bid for the part of BSkyB that it did not own, her role appears to have been substantial. She was kept informed about what the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was telling Parliament. She discussed the £8bn deal with the Chancellor, George Osborne, and claims she "mentioned" it to David Cameron during a dinner in December 2010.

Osborne was evidently more a lobbying target than Cameron. During that year's Christmas period, Osborne was reminded over another dinner with Brooks of the new jobs the deal would bring. An email exchange between Brooks, Osborne and the News Corp lobbyist, Fred Michel, says Osborne's response to a negative Ofcom announcement on the bid was "total bafflement". Brooks believed he was on-side.

She also knew of the News Corp bid, and the "Rubicon" codename for the company's strategy, two months before it was announced. Asked if anyone inside the Government knew of the private codename, Brooks said she "never heard them acknowledge that name".

Her involvement, she said, was to counteract the anti-Sky alliance that involved almost every other media outlet.

'Hacking' Brown's son's medical record

Last night Gordon and Sarah Brown dismissed as "untrue" a claim by Brooks that she would have pulled a story in The Sun about the medical condition of Gordon Brown's young son Fraser if she had been asked.

In 2006, The Sun revealed that Fraser suffered from cystic fibrosis. Five years later, Mr Brown told the Commons that The Sun had obtained the information on his son by hacking into his medical records. The Sun branded Mr Brown's claims "false and a smear".

Last night after Brooks told the inquiry that the Browns had given permission for the 2006 story to be published, Gordon and Sarah Brown said "at no stage" was permission was given. They said it was "untrue" they were happy to see a story on their son's health published. But where had the medical detail come from? Brooks told the inquiry that a man, whose son also had cystic fibrosis, and been passed on the information "through a charity". There may have been a donation to the charity, she admitted, but that is as far as she was prepared to go.

Mulled wine and mince pies

Brooks disclosed that on Boxing Day 2010 she was at a Christmas party attended by David and Samantha Cameron. The party was at her sister-in-law's house. Her husband Charlie Brooks was an old family friend of the Camerons. The presence of the PM and his wife appears not to have registered with the former NI chief executive. She could not remember if she spoke to Mr Cameron or not.

But she did speak to him three days earlier at her Oxfordshire home. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, had just been ditched from his decision-making role on the BSkyB bid. Discussions on this came up at dinner, but it was "not widely mentioned". It was brought up "because it was in the news". She may have mentioned that "our" [News International and News Corp] view was that the bid needed to be fair.

Kate and Gerry McCann's story

Brooks was asked how much News International paid for the serialisation of Kate McCann's book on her missing daughter Madeleine. She couldn't remember. But the deal was clinched with a promise by The Sun to back a campaign that would re-investigate Madeleine's disappearance.

So was the Home Office and No 10 contacted and pressurised to deliver what the McCanns wanted? "I'm pretty sure there will not have been a threat," she said.

She denied The Sun would be putting Theresa May on the front page every day until demands were met.

Blair's secret agent

Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry, suggested that any information she got from discussions with Gordon Brown was passed on to Tony Blair. She denied this was true, telling Mr Jay: "I think your source may be John Prescott." Mr Jay refused to comment.

But her dislike of Mr Brown was not masked in her evidence. On the evening when The Sun ditched Brown's Labour party in favour of support for the Conservatives, she claims she had tried to contact Mr Brown. She instead spoke to Peter Mandelson, who sounded "angry but not surprised". Mr Brown's leadership speech at Labour's conference was derailed by the switch.

When they did speak in October, after The Sun published a letter written by Mr Brown to a bereaved mother of a soldier, she described the then PM as "very aggressive". Rupert Murdoch has previously accused Gordon Brown of blowing his top and declaring war on the Murdoch empire, which Mr Brown has denied. Ms Brooks backed up her former boss at the inquiry.

The Sun and power

Throughout her evidence, Brooks insisted that if she had power it came only from one source – the readership of The Sun. Her job as an editor, and then as chief executive, was to reflect readers' views, not make them follow blindly. But there were allegations from the inquiry that explored a more pro-active political side to her role. The Tory manifesto contained a pledge to dump the European Human Rights Act and replace it eventually with a British "Bill of Rights". At a lunch with the then shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve, Brooks learned he thought the policy too simplistic and should not have been promised in the way it was.

The meeting was "quite heated". Mr Jay asked Brooks if she had used her influence with those at the top of the party to stop Mr Grieve getting the Home Secretary's job. "No, I did not tell Mr Cameron to move him. And in the end he [Mr Grieve] was right." Dominic Grieve has never been Home Secretary.

Jeremy Hunt's relation to News Corp in the PR chief's words

On 27 June 2011, Fréd Michel, the News Corp lobbyist, sent the following email to Rebekah Brooks. The date of the email is crucial: Operation Weeting had already arrested the former News of the World chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, the paper's former news editor, Ian Edmondson, the assistant news editor, James Weatherup, and two others.

What the email said ...

Hunt will be making references to phone hacking in his statement on Rubicon this week.

He will be repeating the same narrative as the one he gave in Parliament few weeks ago [1].

This is based on his belief that the police is pursuing things thoroughly and phone hacking has nothing to do with the media plurality issues [2].

It's extremely helpful.

On the issue of the privacy committee, he supports a widening of its remit to the future of the press and evidence from all newspaper groups on the regulatory regime.

He wants to prevent a public inquiry [3]. For this the committee

will need to come up with a strong report in the autumn and put enough pressure on the PCC to strengthen itself and take recommendations forward.

JH is now starting to looking to phone hacking/practices more thoroughly and has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No 10's positioning... [4]


... and what it reveals

[1] This is more evidence that News Corp had a secret back channel to the Government. It was being told what a key cabinet minister, Jeremy Hunt, was thinking and planning to do when he was supposedly making an independent decision on the BSkyB bid. The question is, did Mr Hunt authorise this – or, as he claims, was his special adviser Adam Smith going behind his back?

[2] This suggests a potential link into Scotland Yard's inquiries. Mr Coulson was arrested on 8 July, 12 days later. So why was Mr Michel confident phone hacking had nothing to with media plurality issues?

[3] At the time the Government's official position was that a public investigation into phone hacking was unnecessary because of the on-going police investigation. This email suggests that Mr Hunt was actively opposed to one and, as it says, "wants to prevent" it. The arrest of Andy Coulson was less than two weeks away. So was Mr Hunt showing a wider concern about trying to limit the damage?

[4] This is the most damaging allegation, suggesting that ministers were keen to "subcontract out" responsibility for the Government's position on phone hacking to the very company responsible for repeatedly trying to cover it up. The reference in the email to No 10 will be particularly uncomfortable for David Cameron. It suggests that Downing Street was also engaged with News Corp about what to do about phone hacking. Mr Coulson's link to Mr Cameron will have raised the temperature inside No 10, regardless of the official line that this was a matter for the police.

James Cusick