The Inevitable Departure of Rebekah Brooks  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2011

The Inevitable Departure of Rebekah Brooks   

As the chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers steps down, the spotlight shifts to Rupert’s son James. Fri. July 15, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Well, that was quick.

On Sunday, as he arrived in London to take charge of the scandal that had enveloped his British empire, Rupert Murdoch bent over backwards to declare his undying loyalty to the embattled Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, the parent company of Murdoch's newspapers in the UK.

Brooks had been editor of the News of the World in the early 2000s when the Sunday tabloid engaged in a world class round of phone hacking. She had not only survived, she had flourished after the episode first came to light. But the disclosure that the paper had hacked the phone of a missing 13-year-old girl had infuriated the nation, which had previously pretty much shrugged off the bad behavior when it was thought to be limited to the phones of celebrities. Now people were calling for Brooks' scalp.

So Murdoch made an ostentatious show of support for his close confidante, appearing with her in public, the two all smiles. Asked what his top priority was as he tried to get a grip on the snowballing crisis, Murdoch motioned toward Brooks and remarked, "This one."

Five days later, "this one" was gone. She announced her resignation Friday.

Actually, it's amazing that she hung on as long as she did after the disclosures nearly two weeks ago about the hacking of missing teenager Milly Dowler's phone, the hacking of the phones of relatives of terrorism victims, the enormous scope of the hacking enterprise.

Ordinarily, the person running the operation would be the first go. Instead, in a major misstep, he gave her a big-time vote of confidence and said she would coordinate the company's cooperation with law enforcement officials. And he shut down the 2.7 million -circulation News of the World. But it was too late. The dramatic gesture did nothing to stop the bleeding. Soon his cherished attempt to assume total ownership of the lucrative British Sky Broadcasting was also history.

Brooks stayed around because Murdoch is enormously fond of her, and because the mogul is a tough, stubborn man who doesn't like anyone to tell him what to do. But perhaps there was more to it than that. Roy Greenslade, who blogs about the media for the British newspaper the Guardian, described her as a "human shield" protecting Murdoch's son James, the chairman of News International.

But the anti-Brooks pressure was relentless, with everyone from Prime Minister David Cameron―who until only recently was close to both Rupert Murdoch and Brooks―to the family of Milly Dowler calling for her to go. And it continued to mount. On Thursday, the second largest investor in Murdoch's News Corp. gave Brooks a shove. In an interview with the BBC, the Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud said if there were any evidence that Brooks knew about the improprieties at the News of the World, "for sure she has to go, you bet she has to go." He also said, "Ethics to me are very important. I will not deal with a lady or a man that has any sliver of doubt on her or his integrity."

The British paper the Telegraph also reported that Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth had gone off on a "furious" tirade against Brooks.

The Brooks endgame was soon to follow.

After days of brutal pounding in the media, News Corp. has hired the public relations firm Edelman to deal with the imbroglio. And a new damage control campaign is well underway.

Murdoch met Friday with Milly Dowler's family and apologized "many times," according to the family's lawyer, Mark Lewis. Lewis said Murdoch was "very humbled, he was very shaken and he was very sincere," the Associated Press reported.

Also, News Corp. is launching an ad campaign in Britain's national newspapers this weekend to apologize to the nation for the misbehavior of its journalists. The ad, signed by Rupert Murdoch, says News International is "deeply sorry for the hurt" it has caused, and that the company regrets that it did not move more quickly to "sort things out." And it says, "I realize that simply apologizing is not enough. In the coming days, as we take further concrete steps to resolve these issues and make amends for the damage they have caused, you will hear more from us."

But Murdoch hardly helped his cause with an interview he gave to his Wall Street Journal, in which he sounded more like the imperious buccaneer we've known for years rather than the "humbled" and "shaken" Rupert who spoke to the Dowlers.

Murdoch said his company had handled the crisis "extremely well in every way possible." He said it had merely made some "minor mistakes." As for the impact on his company, Murdoch went all "What, me worry?" The fallout, he said, is "nothing that will not be recovered."

I'm not sure that approach came out of the Edelman playbook.

We'll hear more from both Murdochs as well as Brooks next Tuesday, when they are scheduled to testify before Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee. James is likely to be grilled about the generous cash settlements he approved for hacking victims, which included non-disclosure agreements. Committee members will no doubt also be curious about the now-inoperative assurances from News Corp. that the hacking was simply the handiwork of one rogue reporter.

Brooks' exit "will move the spotlight onto James Murdoch," Labour Member of Parliament Tom Watson told Sky News. "Terrible things happened over a long period of time in that company, and they tried to cover it up. They must be held to account."

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