To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, the woman at the centre of Britain’s phone-hacking scandal has managed to keep her head, while all around her others are losing theirs. Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International and editor of the News of the World tabloid, was acquitted of charges in connection with a controversy that has shaken Britain from Fleet Street to Downing Street.
The acquittal by a jury in London has added an improbable next act to a life that already has more drama than most nighttime soap operas. Ms. Brooks – friend to prime ministers and once the most powerful woman in British media – was charged with phone hacking, bribing a public official and hiding evidence from police. Four other co-accused, including her current husband, were also acquitted. However, Ms. Brooks’s former lover and colleague at the News of the World, Andy Coulson – one-time spin doctor to British Prime Minister David Cameron – was found guilty of overseeing telephone eavesdropping at the paper.
It is a tangled story that started with revelations of eavesdropping on a murdered girl’s cell phone and eventually exposed the cozy ties between politicians and Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper empire, which Ms. Brooks ran from 2009 to 2011. Prior to that, she had been editor of the Murdoch titles the Sun and the News of the World, known in Britain as “the Screws” for its salacious content. The latter was shuttered in 2011 when it was revealed some of its reporters had illegally listened to, and bought information about, celebrities, royals and crime victims.
At the centre of the storm, although remarkably unscathed by it, was the red-headed Ms. Brooks, who started out as a teenaged “tea girl” at her local newspaper and rose to a position at the right hand of the world’s most powerful media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch.
By all accounts, Ms. Brooks was the perfect person to carry out Mr. Murdoch’s ambitious plans to wield influence through his tabloids and TV stations. She was “a galaxy-class schmoozer,” as one former colleague told the Daily Telegraph. Roy Greenslade, media analyst for The Guardian (which broke the phone-hacking story), wrote that the editor was equally good at handling politicians and news stories: “Brooks’s skills as a networker, in getting up close and personal with the powerful and the well-connected, ensured that she was better informed about political affairs than any reporter.”
Various e-mails and text messages from powerful politicians, leaked since the scandal broke, would seem to bear this out: One prime minister (that would be Mr. Cameron) would sign his messages to her LOL, which he apparently believed meant “lots of love.” Another (that would be Tony Blair), offered to act as Ms. Brooks’s unofficial adviser during the eight-month hacking trial, recommending that she should take sleeping pills and set up an independent inquiry.
Mr. Cameron’s involvement with Ms. Brooks and her racehorse-trainer husband Charlie Brooks would prove deeply embarrassing when he hired their mutual friend Mr. Coulson to be his spokesman. Tuesday, Mr. Cameron distanced himself from his former spin doctor by saying: “I am extremely sorry that I employed him.” (The hacking jury is deliberating on further charges against Mr. Coulson.)
Ms. Brooks has long been a figure of fascination in British media circles, partly for her parties with the horsey power elite, called the “Chipping Norton set” for a wealthy village northwest of London where second homes abound, and partly for her private life. There had been a previous brush with the law in 2005, when she was accused of assaulting her first husband, noted actor and soap-opera tough guy Ross Kemp. (No charges were laid.)
In this more serious legal battle, Ms. Brooks presented herself as more sinned against than sinning. She insisted she had not known about any phone hacking or illegal activity going on at the News of the World, which she edited from 2000 to 2003, and where reporters were under fierce pressure to produce scoops. “No, not at all,” she testified in response to questions about whether she knew about her employees’ illicit activities. When asked how this was possible, she answered: “It’s impossible for an editor to know every source for every story. Of course it’s impossible with the sheer volume that’s coming into the paper.”
Now that she has been acquitted, rumours are flying around London newsrooms about Ms. Brooks’s next professional act, with the most popular seeing her travel to Australia or the United States to work for her old boss, Mr. Murdoch.
Jan. 26, 2007: News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman is sentenced to four months in jail after pleading guilty to intercepting the voice-mail messages of royal aides. Editor Andy Coulson quits, saying he had not known about the offences but that he should take responsibility. The company says it was an isolated incident.
July, 2009: The Guardian newspaper reports that journalists at the News of the World worked with private investigators to access the messages of “two or three thousand” private mobile phones. After a brief examination, the police say they will not reopen the investigation.
2010: In a civil case brought by actress Sienna Miller against Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper arm News International, three e-mails come to light showing the involvement in phone hacking of another senior journalist at the tabloid.
Jan. 21, 2011: Mr. Coulson quits his job as communications director to Prime Minister David Cameron, which he had taken after leaving the News of the World, due to renewed interest in the hacking scandal.
Jan. 26: Police reopen their investigation.
June, 2011: The Guardian reveals new victims of phone hacking throughout June, raising pressure on News International and its parent company News Corp. which was trying to buy out the rest of pay-TV broadcaster BSkyB. The political storm prompts the media regulator to examine whether News Corp. would make a “fit and proper” owner.
July 4, 2011: A lawyer for the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler says police believe her voice-mail messages were hacked in 2002. Three days later News Corp. announces it will close the News of the World. The July 10 edition is the last.
July 8: Mr. Coulson is arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.
July 13: News Corp. withdraws its bid for BSkyB.
July 15: Rebekah Brooks, a former News of the World editor, resigns as chief executive of News International. Les Hinton, Mr. Murdoch’s right-hand man and head of Dow Jones, also quits.
July 17: Ms. Brooks is arrested as part of an investigation into allegations of phone hacking and illegal payments. Two of London’s top police officers quit over two days due to their close ties to Mr. Murdoch’s firm.
July 19: Mr. Murdoch, questioned by Parliament’s media committee, says he was “shocked, appalled and ashamed” when he heard about the Dowler case. He describes his appearance at the hearing, alongside son James, as the most humble day of his life.
Nov. 14: A public inquiry, chaired by judge Lord Leveson, begins its investigations into media ethics.
March 13, 2012: Ms. Brooks is arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
May 10: Mr. Coulson appears at the Leveson inquiry and says Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party had asked few questions about his past and not carried out full security checks. Ms. Brooks appears on May 11 and provides colourful details of her friendships with leading British politicians.
May 15: Ms. Brooks is charged with interfering with a police investigation into the phone-hacking scandal.
Nov. 20: Mr. Coulson and Ms. Brooks are charged with conspiring to make illegal payments to officials for information for stories.
July 24, 2012: Mr. Coulson and Ms. Brooks are charged with offences relating to phone hacking.
Oct. 29, 2013: The phone-hacking trial begins at London’s Old Bailey, with the judge John Saunders telling the jury that justice itself is on trial, in a case that reveals the close links between press barons, police chiefs and senior politicians.
June 24, 2014: The jury hands down its verdicts. Ms. Brooks is found not guilty of all the charges and Mr. Coulson is found guilty of a conspiracy to hack into phones. Ms. Brooks’s husband, her personal assistant and head of security are also found not guilty of attempting to hinder a police investigation.