Could Cameron's friend Brooks be the ultimate victim of phone hacking?

It will be a long game, but a judge's demand that those who commissioned the eavesdropping be named takes us a step nearer the truth

James Hanning
Sunday 27 February 2011 01:00

For those who have been following the phone-hacking story, last week's developments were perhaps not the most sensational. But the demand by Mr Justice Vos, in response to cases brought by Paul Gascoigne, Steve Coogan and Andy Gray, among others – that those who ordered the unlawful eavesdropping of voicemail messages be named – was yet another inevitable step towards finding out who knew what.

But it is clearer than ever that this will be a long game. The police are settling down to having a proper look at the thousands of apparent victims uncovered by their haul of files from the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire's office five years ago, as well as sifting through evidence from current News of the World staff. And the celebrities' lawyers are chugging through the courts, demanding further particulars.

For much of last year, the main focus of interest was Andy Coulson, then David Cameron's media chief, who was editor of the NoW when two people were jailed for organising unlawful phone hacking. Mr Coulson's resignation last month took some heat off the PM, but redirected it towards his predecessor at the NoW, Rebekah Brooks.

For a striking, high-energy redhead, Ms Brooks has been less evident publicly throughout the scandal than a demanding boss such as Rupert Murdoch might otherwise have expected. He and his son James, chief executive of News Corp, are big admirers of her 20-year rise from secretary to editorship of the NoW (2000-03) and then The Sun (2003-09) to the top job at News International. A frequent guest at the Camerons' home, she and her husband, the dashing horseman Charlie Brooks (an Eton contemporary of Cameron's brother Alex) enjoy weekends in the Cotswolds.

As chief executive of News International, which owns the NoW, Ms Brooks has always endorsed the "rogue reporter" defence, which has maintained, since Mulcaire and royal reporter Clive Goodman were sent to prison, that they had been acting of their own accord, unlicensed by their superiors. With the airing of accusations in The New York Times and elsewhere, and the drip of new evidence from civil cases brought by celebrities, this has come to look increasingly thin. The removal of the paper's news editor, Ian Edmondson, last month led cynics to wonder "how many rogues make a conspiracy".

Ms Brooks says she knew nothing of the phone hacking, and the company insists it has a zero-tolerance attitude to wrongdoing. But when the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee looked into phone hacking, Ms Brooks chose not to appear. This paper can reveal that the Labour MP Tom Watson, a member of the committee, is to ask again for her to appear before it, as well as for Mr Coulson and News International lawyer Tom Crone to be called back for further questions. He is also writing to James Murdoch – re the "zero-tolerance" attitude – to ask if he plans to question Ms Brooks over her admission some years ago that her newspaper paid police officers for information, which is illegal.

A curious discrepancy persists. When Rupert Murdoch came to London after Christmas, he did so partly to bolster News Corporation's attempt to purchase the part of BSkyB that it does not already own. He wanted no embarrassing overspill from the phone-hacking tale. It was well advertised that he was furious with his senior executives' handling of the phone-hacking story. Heads would roll, and one did: Mr Edmondson's.

But – lawyers apart – of the three people most responsible for what made Mr Murdoch so angry, one, Will Lewis, joined the company only last summer. The other two are his son James and Ms Brooks. If Rupert Murdoch were the cold-blooded monster of myth, wouldn't lobbing Rebekah overboard be a suitable gesture to his shareholders? Certainly, two senior figures at Wapping believe she will not survive if symbolic change is required. But those who know him and his company best say only the emergence of something "unimaginable" would make him sack her.

Rumours last week that News International was planning yet another attempt to draw a line under the story with a mea culpa – possibly to camera and possibly even by Rupert Murdoch himself, came to nothing, for now at least. So we are back to watching the courts and waiting for the bashfulness of some of the major players to pass. With police help, it should. When will Mulcaire tell us who commissioned his work? Will Mr Edmondson reveal if he was really the most senior "rogue"? Will senior reporter Neville Thurlbeck or former news executive Greg Miskiw clear the air? Were other papers involved?

Most tellingly, will the emails settle the matter once and for all? At the perjury trial of Tommy Sheridan, Bob Bird, the Scottish News of the World editor, said on oath that key emails had gone missing, having been sent to India to be put in storage. It now seems they have reappeared. If the police's "keyword" search button is working properly, and after the criticism they've had, you'd think it would be, we may begin to get some answers. But it will take a while. Meanwhile, Rebekah has a business to run.