Rebekah Brooks arrest: phone-hacking scandal isn't going to fade

Many media observers predicted that the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal would peter out. But Rebekah Brooks's arrest today indicate the inquiry is still very much alive.

Sang Tan/AP/File
In this 2011 photo, former chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks leaves a hotel in central London.

The re-arrest of Rebekah Brooks this morning suggests little official let-up in a British tabloid phone-hacking scandal that captured the world’s attention last July and threatens to drag Prime Minister David Cameron into questions about his ties to Ms. Brooks and other journalists. 

The scandal proved to be a takedown of billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch and thwarted, at the last minute, his efforts to take over Britain’s most lucrative cable TV operation, an outcome that would have given his global empire unprecedented power in the United Kingdom.  

Ms. Brooks, former chief executive of the Rupert Murdoch-owned News International, was arrested by Scotland Yard at her home near Oxfordshire. Her husband, Charlie Brooks – a racehorse trainer who is an old, close friend of Mr. Cameron – was also arrested, along with four others. Mr. Brooks and Mr. Cameron are horse enthusiasts and school friends who still socialize together.  

The arrests came just as Mr. Cameron, whose private residence is close to the Brooks home, headed to the United States for a state visit with US President Obama.

“Brooks's husband is a close friend of the [prime minister] and so far [Cameron] has been Teflon-plated,” says James Curran, director of the media studies center at the University of London.

Today’s arrests were for "suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice” – in layman's terms, an organized coverup.

The arrests are part of an official inquiry following moral outrage by the British public over revelations that News of the World journalists hacked a phone belonging to a murdered 13-year-old girl named Milly Dowler. British newspaper The Guardian broke the story in July and disclosed that the News of the World also sanctioned intrusions Into the personal lives of British celebrities and the families of British soldiers killed overseas. Scotland Yard estimates that the number of people revealed to be hacked is approaching 800.

The formal inquiry is headed by Lord Justice Leveson and is backed by the police investigation "Operation Wheeting." So far, no arrests have been made, but 23 persons have been held.

In an earlier inquiry, Brooks admitted that News Corp. had paid off London police for information, including etails of victims whose phones were then hacked. In the Dowler case, the News of the World hacked the phone of the murdered girl but did not tell her parents she had been killed, reportedly waiting instead to listen to phone messages.

As members of parliament called openly for her to step down, Brooks refused, but did so shortly before she was arrested for the first time last summer.

The significance of the scandal is multifaceted. It is seen as highlighting the way Mr. Murdoch and News International executives used their power and fear it inspired to influence British politics. It also touches on a crisis of journalistic ethics, revealing collaboration between the so-called "red top" newspapers and public officials, including police. 

The proximity of Murdoch executives and friends to Cameron in recent years is being seen as a sign of Murdoch's political access and influence, and Cameron has been unable to disconnect himself entirely from the scandal. Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor and colleague of Rebekah Brooks who authorized several years of hacking, was later chosen by Cameron as his principal spokesman at 10 Downing St. Mr. Coulson stepped down last year during an earlier phase of the scandal and was arrested in July, but has not been charged. 

“No one has been arrested. But now this is coming back closer to the PM,” says Mr. Curran, speaking of the arrest of Rebekah Brooks's husband. Mr. Curran, co-author of “Power without Responsibility: Press, Broadcasting and the Internet in Britain," added, “Now a buddy of Cameron has been arrested.”

At its peak, public anger over the Dowler affair forced Cameron to return from a trip to Africa; prompted Murdoch to close the No. 1 Sunday paper in Britain, the storied News of the World; and delayed, perhaps indefinitely, News Corp.'s purchase of the BSkyB cable channel – described by Murdoch executives as the jewel of the media crown in Britain.

But by August, many denizens of British politics were predicting that the hacking scandal and public interest in it would collapse like an poorly baked cake. Last month, Murdoch launched a new weekly tabloid, seen as a replacement for the shuttered News of the World: The Sun on Sunday.

Instead, on Feb. 11, five tabloid journalists at The Sun were arrested, bringing Murdoch to London to reassure staff of his support. Shortly after, James Murdoch, the assumed heir of the media empire, was removed from his position as executive chairman of News International, News Corp's British newspaper arm, and transferred to the New York office, where he will focus on News Corp's television efforts. 

Today's arrests indicate that there are still new angles to this scandal for police to uncover.  

'A hard-faced ice maiden'

Brooks’s arrest engenders little sympathy in London newsrooms. She was widely feared as a hard-driving Murdoch acolyte.

While Brooks insisted on privacy for her own child, who was borne by a surrogate mother, a columnist for a London paper pointed out to the Monitor that Brooks oversaw stories about the handicapped child of former prime minister Gordon Brown, and dismissed his plea for her not to publish them. 

“There isn’t much sadness among journalists about the arrest,” says Jasmine Birtles, who runs a website on personal finance in Notting Hill

A New York Times article last summer ended with a story on Brooks and the junior Murdoch that showed “both Ms. Brooks’s closeness to the Murdochs” and “her love of a bold gesture.”

“She and James Murdoch showed up unannounced at the offices of one their rivals, The Independent newspaper, before the national election,” the Times reported. “They were upset, it seems, at a headline in The Independent saying that ‘Rupert Murdoch Won’t Decide the Election – You Will.' According to an account in The Daily Mirror, a non-Murdoch tabloid, ‘the wild-eyed duo then started to harangue bemused editor Simon Kelner in a foul-mouthed tirade.’ The words they used are not printable in non-tabloid newspapers."

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