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Rebekah Brooks once made me cry, but I can’t help liking her

The first time I met Rebekah Brooks, she reduced me to tears. It was after a Women in Journalism party that had lived down to all my worst expectations. At the centre of the drinks reception were two men - Les Hinton, in charge of News International at the time, and Tony Hall, then boss of BSkyB. The women circled outwards from these two in layers, in order of importance. Brooks was very close to Hinton. Behind her were section editors from the national papers; beyond them, columnists; and so on, in circles of declining power. Right at the edge of the party, trying to get a look-in, were freelancers hoping to make connections. It was a miserable event.

We repaired afterwards to the Groucho Club, where journalists rub shoulders with celebrities they later stitch up, a corrupt relationship that somehow seems to serve both sides. I cannot remember now what Rebekah and I argued about - it was late and the wine had been flowing - but I do remember that I and another guest ended up in tears. The next day, when I arrived at work, I had an email from Rebekah, asking if I was OK. I realise that this is not an overwhelming weight of evidence but the wicked witch does have a heart.

I never met Rupert Murdoch. I am probably the only journalist ever to work for him who has turned down an invitation to have lunch with him. So I am not trying to curry favour when I say that he is (or was, until recently) a good newspaper proprietor. Not once in a decade, including a couple of years as comment editor, was I influenced in what I wrote for the Times or what I commissioned. I never recognise the organisation that I worked for in the hysterical coverage about the "Murdoch press" in the left-wing media.

Wapping mess

There wasn't a lot of crossover between Murdoch titles. Although the papers were housed together in Wapping, we were in different buildings and rarely saw journalists from the other papers. Presumably, News of the World news editors ate in the same canteen as us, but as I didn't know them I wouldn't have recognised them. Relationships at Westminster between political editors from all the papers - and between political editors and politicians - were far closer than daily relations between Times journalists and staff on the Sun, News of the World or the Sunday Times.

We were separate entities. The culture and ethics of the papers were determined by their editors, not by News International. Having worked under three different Times editors, I saw the culture change decisively with each new arrival. It takes a while: old ways remain embedded for a time under new editors and often they have to move the people on to change the paper, which can be hard.

This brings me back to Brooks. I like her. I always found her perfectly straightforward and, for somebody in her position, surprisingly forthcoming, even a little naive. I don't find it unthinkable that she did not know the methods that her journalists were using to get stories. Sometimes, when a culture is embedded in an organisation, you just don't ask, perhaps because you don't want to know. And if the practices were already entrenched by the time Brooks became editor, there would have been no reason for senior staff to check them with her. Payments are often authorised by managing editors and not by editors.

It is very hard, however, to believe that the editor didn't know about any of it: even the defence that Brooks had come up through the features side of the paper and did not understand the methods used in the newsroom is questionable, as the former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan has suggested that the features desk used hacking methods, too.

Rough justice

The point is "not asking". I have racked my brains about whether I was aware that journalists at News International or other titles across Fleet Street used illegal methods such as phone-hacking or data breaches to get stories. The answer is that I didn't know - but I suspected it (though not at the Times). I think we all suspected it but assumed that it stopped at celebrities and politicians. That makes all of us who worked in journalism in the past two decades complicit, I suppose, even if it didn't happen on our own papers.

That, of course, makes Brooks complicit even if she didn't know exactly what was going on. Those at the top of News International, swallowed up in this vast, swirling story, are engaged in a confused defiance, gasping at what they view as the inaccuracy of many of the stories in the papers and the lynch-mob mentality focusing on Brooks. It isn't fair, they say - and this is probably true.

Yet that isn't the point. The media are not "fair", and usually newspapers defend this as a form of rough justice. What is clear is that Brooks cannot fight the tide of allegations while remaining in post. It is unreasonable of Murdoch to expect her to. She should be put on gardening leave or moved elsewhere in the organisation while News International takes a cool look at the wave of allegations and responds.

Gordon and Sarah Brown, for example, have no evidence that their son's private medical records were illicitly obtained by the Sun. What they have been complaining about is press intrusion. Didn't we already know that the press is intrusive? The public - and the public inquiries - will need to decide what is acceptable. The Sunday Times appears to have "blagged" information that might genuinely have been in the public interest.

As each new attack comes, however, there has been no clear public response from the top of News International: no statements, no explanations, no answers. It is Brooks or his papers: Murdoch has to choose.

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India