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A file picture taken on July 10, 2011, shows Rebekah Brooks, right, former Chief Executive of News International and Rupert Murdoch Chairman of News Corporation in London. Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's News International, resigned Friday July 15, 2011, amid the phone-hacking scandal engulfing the British newspaper group, she said in a message to staff. (MAX NASH/MAX NASH/AFP/Getty Images)
A file picture taken on July 10, 2011, shows Rebekah Brooks, right, former Chief Executive of News International and Rupert Murdoch Chairman of News Corporation in London. Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's News International, resigned Friday July 15, 2011, amid the phone-hacking scandal engulfing the British newspaper group, she said in a message to staff. (MAX NASH/MAX NASH/AFP/Getty Images)

Margaret Wente

The old man and the redhead Add to ...

She really had a hold on him.

When Rupert Murdoch arrived in London to fight the crisis in his empire, among the first things he did was take Rebekah Brooks, his top executive, out to dinner. It was his way of showing loyalty to the woman he has called his "fifth daughter." When reporters mobbed them and wanted to know what his priority was, he pointed at her and answered, "This one."

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Everyone knew the flame-haired one had to go. But you don't fire family. In the end, it took a Saudi prince - the empire's largest shareholder - to pull the plug. By Friday, she was gone. By Saturday, she'd been grilled by the police. And now her dazzling career, like yesterday's newspaper, is in the trash bin.

What did the old man see in her? No doubt he saw himself. At the tender age of 22, he learned the dark arts of tabloid sensationalism at London's Daily Express, then owned by Canada's Lord Beaverbrook. He was hooked. As an Australian, he's always thought of himself as an outsider. He had nothing but contempt for the soft, clubby, dozy ways of the Establishment. In 1969, he bought the News of the World and promptly published the memoirs of Christine Keeler, the call girl who had brought down a government. Proper people were appalled. He was triumphant.

Rebekah Brooks was in a hurry, too. She started as a secretary and worked her way up. Soon she was gaining valuable on-the-ground experience, reportedly having a hotel room bugged before an off-the-record interview with James Hewitt, one of Princess Diana's lovers. Rupert Murdoch made her editor of NOTW when she was only 32. Like him, she was fearless, ferociously ambitious and hands-on. She was also extremely charming. As one former employee told Reuters, "She buttered up a lot of middle-aged men, and she's good at that."

To succeed in a man's world, a woman has to prove she's as tough as they are. She did. She rose to the top in a culture where brutality and bullying are legendary. NOTW's story-gathering methods included entrapment, bugging and subterfuge, as well as phone hacking. As a former employee told Reuters, raising questions about ethics "would have made you a laughingstock." Part of Rebekah's job was to call people up and make them miserable. She was the one who called Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, to inform him the paper was about to run a front-page story revealing that the Browns' baby had received a devastating diagnosis of cystic fibrosis. The Browns never forgave her.

"That is what we do - we go out and destroy other people's lives," said Greg Miskiw, who worked for her.

But Rupert brought out Rebekah's soft side. They talked every day. She introduced him to everyone, and told him all the gossip. Once, when she spent a night in jail after an altercation with her first husband, he sent her a fresh set of clothes so she'd look good for the cameras.

Not all the Murdochs were so enamoured. James and Rebekah screwed the company, said Elisabeth, one of Rupert's biological daughters, according to biographer Michael Wolff. (James is her brother.) The family's allegiances are tangled, to say the least. Blood and business seldom mix. And Rupert, now 80, is no longer the commanding figure he used to be. Many people believe that, if the Murdoch empire is to survive, the Murdochs have got to go. Rupert Murdoch taught Rebekah everything he knew. And she brought him down.

 

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