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Rupert Murdoch confidante Rebekah Brooks recalls relationships with British elite

LONDON — They kept in touch, she said Friday, by telephone, text message and email. They met at lunches and dinners. They socialized at cocktail parties, birthday parties, summer outings, Christmas celebrations and, in one heady instance, on a yacht in Greece.

So chummy were the relations between Britain's political leaders and Rebekah Brooks, a former chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper subsidiary, that at one point Brooks found herself cheekily lecturing a future prime minister, David Cameron, about how to avoid humiliating himself by text message, she said.

"Occasionally he would sign them LOL — 'lots of love,' " Brooks told the Leveson Inquiry on media ethics and practices, speaking of Cameron's text messages to her when he was the leader of the opposition, "until I told him it meant 'laugh out loud.' Then he didn't use that any more."

Brooks had been summoned to the inquiry to speak to its current focus: the relationship between politicians and the media in Britain. The picture she painted was one of seemingly unfettered access for her and, implicitly, for her boss, Murdoch.

By her account, when political leaders were not arranging birthday parties for her or meeting her for cozy private dinners or sending her notes or attending her wedding, she was picking up the phone to chat with them — or sometimes to cajole or strong-arm them into seeing things her way.

But even as she described all that, Brooks repeatedly declared that they did not have to listen to her if they did not want to, and that the British media did not exert any special influence over politicians. When Robert Jay, the counsel for the inquiry, put it to her that media executives and editors were "unelected forces" influencing policy by exercising power over governments, Brooks said she disagreed.

"Your power is your readership," she said. "It's not an individual power. It's a readership power." And, she said, "every day, the readers can unelect us" by deciding not to buy the paper.

Brooks, 43, has became a central figure in the phone-hacking scandal that has swept through News Corp., Murdoch's company, and the upper echelons of Britain's political and law-enforcement elite. A Murdoch confidante and favorite, she worked as editor of News of the World, the paper at the center of the scandal, and of the Sun, another Murdoch tabloid, before being appointed chief executive of News International, the British newspaper subsidiary, in 2009.

She resigned last summer, as the scandal took hold and the Murdochs closed News of the World, and she is the subject of a criminal investigation into the matter. But at the time, even as some public figures were fulminating against News International, they were sending her messages of support, either directly or indirectly, she said.

These included "No. 10, No. 11, Home Office, Foreign Office," Brooks said, referring to Nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street, home to the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer. She also got a sympathetic message from Tony Blair, the former Labor prime minister, she said.

Because of the continuing criminal investigation, Brooks could not discuss phone hacking or other legal issues, but she stuck to the broader questions on hand. At every step, she identified herself merely as a journalist doing her job.

Yes, she said, she did informally lobby the government about the News Corp.'s bid to take over the 61 percent of BSkyB, the British satellite broadcaster, that it did not already own. At a pre-Christmas dinner at her house on Dec. 23, 2010, Brooks said, she raised the issue in a "not particularly forceful" way with one of the guests, Cameron. Another guest was her boss James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch's son and the architect of the BSkyB bid, which has since collapsed.

"For one three-minute conversation at the beginning of dinner, I got the opportunity to air our view," she said. "I don't think that is inappropriate."

Toward the end of her testimony, Brooks said she objected to Jay's having asked her about "gossipy items" like whether she and Rupert Murdoch had ever swum together (no, she said), or whether he had sent over a fresh outfit when she spent the night in prison in 2005, accused of assaulting actor Ross Kemp, then her husband, at a birthday party for Murdoch's son-in-law Matthew Freud that was attended by David Blunkett, the home secretary (no again, she said). She was not formally charged.

"I think a lot of it is gender-based," she said of how such items made their way into the newspapers at all. "If I were a grumpy old man of Fleet Street, no one would write the first thing about it."

Jay pointed out that the newspapers Brooks used to edit were themselves full of similarly gossipy material.

True, Brooks said. "But we're not in a tabloid newsroom now, are we?"

Rupert Murdoch confidante Rebekah Brooks recalls relationships with British elite 05/11/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 11, 2012 11:07pm]
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