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Rupert’s red top: the rise and fall of Rebekah Brooks

Peter Jukes watched the former tabloid editor’s extraordinary composure in court on every day of the hacking trial. Her story tells you everything you need to know about the way power works.

Cartoon by Ralph Steadman

In March, midway through her set-piece cross-examination at the phone-hacking trial, as she explained her campaigning style of journalism, Rebekah Brooks said: “When we did those campaigns we had to be above the law . . . I mean within the law.”

It was an uncharacteristic slip, perhaps the only one in three weeks in the witness box at the Old Bailey in London. Although she sometimes looked pale or tired, the former tabloid editor had an answer for every question. In a structured timeline delivered by her counsel, Jonathan Laidlaw QC, the jury was given almost a week-long summary of her career, from secretary to features writer, all the way up to the top of the most powerful publisher in British newspapers.

Full disclosure was the tone. Brooks never closed down under pressure, only opened up: about the “car crash” of her love life; about the unnecessarily cruel front pages she had published about the boxer Frank Bruno or the former Labour MP Clare Short; about her professional oversights, such as missing the scoop on MPs’ expenses. Talking of the “not-so-nice side of the business”, she even gently joshed Mr Justice Saunders about a “kiss and tell” about a high court judge.

Her other disclosures were more piteous. Tears welled in Brooks’s eyes as she described the conception of her daughter, Scarlett, in April 2011 – when she was under threat of imminent arrest – through the surrogacy of her cousin. When her mother, Deborah Weir, snapped during questions by the Crown prosecutor Andrew Edis QC about the texts she had shared with her daughter around the time of her arrest (“It was quite traumatic for me as well as Rebekah!”) Brooks held her head in her hands. But she was never angry, nor did she show any darker side.

Over the eight months I spent watching Brooks at the Old Bailey it felt as if the whole courtroom had become her friend. She nearly always smiled and said “hi” to journalists, whether from the Guardian or the Times. I found myself wishing her happy birthday towards the end of the trial (she shrugged back: “I can think of better places to spend it”). As autumn moved from winter to spring to summer, we were all in danger of what one of the prosecution barristers called “long-trial syndrome”: a feeling of familiarity and comradeship. By the end, several of the jurors would repeatedly turn to smile back at the defendants in the glass-fronted dock. This became so obvious that, when members of the jury had retired to reach their verdicts, the judge gave the defendants a written and spoken warning about making eye contact with them.

At the end of his long cross-examination, Edis, the lead prosecutor, called Brooks’s evidence “a carefully prepared and presented script”. But the jury didn’t agree, exonerating her on all counts of conspiracy to hack phones and pay public officials, and of covering up those practices. Brooks’s composure was beyond any script: she could improvise on the spot. When her former colleague and lover Andy Coulson’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing during part of his testimony, he threatened to stamp on it. Brooks intervened to calm the situation, adding only that she “wasn’t good at iPhones” (referring back to a key part of her testimony about “missing devices” from the time of her arrest). At one tense moment, when the court was discussing how to contact the office of Tony Blair to prevent the former prime minister commenting prejudicially on evidence, Brooks said, with perfect timing: “I have his number.” It provoked probably the loudest laugh of the trial.

Anyone who followed “the trial of the century” could well understand how the lead defendant had become such a powerful figure in the media and politics, having had three successive prime ministers on speed dial. For this most personable of defendants, the political was always personal.

 

Holding the spotlight

“This isn’t a tabloid newsroom,” Brooks had quipped two years earlier to the Leveson inquiry into press ethics, while being questioned about her personal relationships with some of the biggest players in the police, the media and politics over the past decade. It was a smart retort. As she told Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice, her friendships with powerful men would not have raised an eyebrow if she, too, had been a man. But the line hid an implicit admission. The former chief executive of News International – the youngest editor of Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World, the first female editor of his bestselling daily the Sun – implicitly conceded that tabloid newsrooms traded in personal disclosure, sexual innuendo and insider gossip, using private information against figures in public life.

Born in Warrington in 1968, Brooks attended a state comprehensive and did not study for a degree: her career in tabloid journalism, which began in 1989 when she joined the News of the World as a secretary, coincided with an era when news and entertainment became interchangeable. Through the course of the hacking trial, it became clear that during the time she was in her pomp, anyone in the public eye – whether by choice, in the case of celebrities, or by accident, such as the parents of murdered teenagers – was expected to accept routine intrusions into their private lives as the price of fame.

I first met Brooks at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival in 2006. I found myself dancing and chatting with her at a late-night party. Her first line to me was: “Everyone hates me” (the festival was sponsored in those days by the Guardian). We sat for the next few hours, drinking and talking in a corner, disturbed only by a ferocious dark-haired assistant who didn’t like me and was annoyed that Brooks apparently did.

I’m pretty sure this assistant was Cheryl Carter, who during the hacking trial was helpfulness personified. One lunchtime, while waiting for a spring shower to subside, I found Cheryl at my side, handing me a spare umbrella: “Peter,” she said. “Don’t get wet. Maybe you could do with this.”

Back in 2006, Carter’s boss was charming, unpretentious and indiscreet, telling me with an embarrassed smile about her night in police cells the previous year after a domestic dispute with her then husband, the actor Ross Kemp. As Brooks explained how she had found “Rupert” waiting for her the next morning outside the police station in his chauffeur-driven car, her eyes misted over; she was close to tears.

In 25 years inside the British media, I’d never met anyone quite like Brooks. She was one of the most powerful players on the scene and yet here she was, talking away to a stranger in a way that made me feel important. As Michael Wolff, Murdoch’s biographer, told me: “Everyone seems to like her. She’s very . . . game. When you meet her there’s this individual – open, all very special and very personal. Her talents are her affect.”

It was early morning before the party wound down and the music stopped. Only when the lights came on did the power relations become clear. Brooks’s assistant had spotted a photographer snapping us on a digital camera from the corner of the room. Brooks got up and told me that if he saw those photos, “Ross would kill you,” and she went over to talk to the bearded young photographer.

Within minutes she returned with the entire flash drive from his camera, including probably all the shots he’d taken that day. I shook my head and asked: “How did you do that? Did you say ‘if you don’t give me that, you’ll never work again’?” Brooks shrugged. I continued: “Or was it: ‘Give me that: you’ll never have to worry about work again’?” She laughed enigmatically, but never answered.

One of the benefits of holding the searchlight is that you know where the off switch is. Since then I have heard several similar accounts of Brooks’s power. There was the car ride she took with a well-known personality that was pursued by two paparazzi on motorbikes, until she made a call and they immediately backed off. We learned at the Old Bailey that in texts Brooks had sent to her mother, she said she “had more security than the Prime Minister” during the furore that followed the revelation of the hacking of Milly Dowler. About nine security and countersurveillance operatives surrounded Brooks during what Andrew Edis called “the most telegraphed arrest in history” – more than the number of police sent to search her London apartment. All this was because of publicity, Brooks told the court: she wanted to avoid “the killer photo” of the arrest.

The paradox is that, throughout their trial and before, media players such as Brooks and Andy Coulson insisted on a right to privacy. Through endless pre-trial hearings, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – which aims to protect family life and privacy – was deployed by counsels for Brooks and Coulson to exclude the unsent love letter she wrote to him in 2004 from evidence. Although the jury has since read the whole letter, only two paragraphs have been released to the public. The full letter has been embargoed to protect the Article 8 rights of Coulson’s children.

For one so powerful, Brooks exudes as much vulnerability as strength. It was in this spirit of half-mocking victimhood that she turned up at the Leveson inquiry in a white-collared black dress variously described as signalling “Puritan chic” or the “Salem look”. With a reported £16m pay-off from News International and the best PR specialists and lawyers in town, her style choices were unlikely to be accidental.

The “witch hunt” theme was first introduced by Brooks herself in the acrimonious “town-hall” meeting with News of the World staff after the announcement of the paper’s closure in July 2011. She texted the same sentiments to her friend Kath Raymond Hinton around the same time. By November that year, her lawyers at Kingsley Napley were using the witch-hunt metaphor to explain why Brooks could not expect a fair trial. The theme reached its apotheosis in the closing address by Laidlaw in June. He spoke of “ducking stools” in a speech that portrayed Prosecutor Edis as witch-finder general. Once again, it was victimhood tinged with aggression. Laidlaw concluded that if Kath Raymond Hinton had found the tone of media coverage in 2011 sexist, “What would she make of Edis’s closing speech?”

There is no doubt that some of the press comments about Brooks since her arrest three years ago (and responses on my Twitter timeline during the trial, which I live-tweeted) have been misogynistic. But Laidlaw’s other main argument was more double-edged. Every week, before the jury came in, he would arrive in court with ring binders filled with “prejudicial press coverage”. It was the product of a media environment that his client did so much to shape.

 

Bizarre era

It’s no accident that three of the best-known tabloid editors of the new millennium – Piers Morgan, Andy Coulson and the Sun’s Dominic Mohan – progressed through the Sun’s show-business column, Bizarre. As newspaper readership and advertising revenues began to flag with the growth of free online content, time-consuming investigative journalism was cut down and cheap, popular celebrity gossip filled the gap. This has since become a huge trade: there are now more PR people than journalists in London. When Brooks joined News International – starting as a secretary, she rose to become editor of the News of the World in 2000 – she was floating on a rising tide of churnalism and infotainment.

A former agency photographer, Gary Wolens, who worked for the News of the World in the 1990s, remembers Brooks as she began climbing the ladder. She would occasionally take over the picture desk and put him on assignment. “She was a bit of a bugger,” he says: “in fact, a nightmare on all occasions.”

She once told Wolens to meet a male News of the World reporter to get incriminating pictures of an England footballer. They managed to infiltrate a private party at a pub in Billericay where strippers appeared and engaged in sex acts with the partygoers. But at the crowded, raucous lock-in, there was no way he could get out his camera without putting himself in danger. When Wolens finally escaped from the function room at 1am to update Brooks, she hit the roof. “She called me a ‘lying c**t’,” he says. “She told me I’d never work for the News of the World again.” However, the Sunday tabloid ran an exclusive the next day with him and the reporter as witnesses. “I’ve worked with dozens of picture editors, journalists and editors since,” Wolens says, “but none of them was ever as unpleasant as Rebekah.”

Seamy stories were the stock-in-trade of the News of the World, once the world’s biggest-selling English-language paper, and although many scoops were obtained by legitimate means, some weren’t. Although Brooks never asked him to do so, Wolens was assigned by the paper to meet a “man in a van”: Glenn Mulcaire, the freelance investigator whose reopened notebooks eventually provided the evidence for the phone-hacking trial.

Some blame the culture of the time. “Murdoch created an atmosphere where failure is not an option,” a senior editor at News International told me. “People had no choice,” he argues about privacy intrusion and the cut-throat world of the newsroom. “You couldn’t ask. You couldn’t tell. Management didn’t want to know.”

Others cite deskilling for the reliance on illegal short cuts and “dark arts”. “Brooks didn’t understand journalism,” says one journalist who lost his job when the News of the World closed. “I don’t think she was ever trained as a journalist. [In fact, she studied at the London College of Printing.] So she created an atmosphere where people felt under so much pressure . . .

“She just wanted a great story and didn’t understand the limitations.”

 

 

Lost children

Many terabytes and barrels of ink have been expended speculating on Brooks’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch, claiming that she was the media magnate’s protégée and even his “impostor daughter”. This was inadvertently encouraged by Murdoch. Flying in to London to manage the hacking crisis in July 2011, he told waiting TV crews that his first priority was “this one”, pointing to Brooks. But the myth masks the real players in her path to power.

Brooks didn’t have the Bizarre column as her alma mater but she had something even better – a close friendship with one of the rising stars in the PR world: Matthew Freud, son of Clement Freud, great-grandson of Sigmund and nephew of Lucien. In the late 1990s, while Brooks befriended Labour’s press supremo Alastair Campbell, Freud cultivated contacts such as Peter Mandelson, who later recruited him as an adviser on the disastrous Millennium Dome project. And when Freud fell in love with Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter, Brooks became a go-between in the on/off early relationship.

The couple retreated to a family cottage on the Blenheim estate in Oxfordshire after Elisabeth became pregnant with Freud’s child. Brooks rented a house nearby. She was a special guest at Elisabeth’s bridal shower and attended the very small private wedding at which Rupert Murdoch gave his second-eldest daughter away. And thus was born the so-called Chipping Norton set. It would have a profound impact on media and politics for the next decade.

This was at the height of the Blair era. With a young, dashing, telegenic prime minister in office and many senior Labour figures who had spent the wilderness years in the media, a boom in spin and PR was inevitable. If politics had previously been “show business for ugly people”, it was now becoming the hangout of the beautiful people – a “Cool Britannia” crowd that went about creating a post-partisan, personality-driven political culture.

By the time Brooks instituted her infamous naming and shaming campaign against sex offenders in the News of the World in July 2000, she was friends with the Blairs. Tony Blair hated her populist attempt to open up the sex offenders’ register to the public, but Brooks didn’t back down. According to one of her colleagues at the time, when the Blairs’ son Leo was born in May 2000, she sent Cherie a present of baby furniture wrapped in pages from the News of the World’s paedophile campaign.

“No one else would have had the courage to go for that the way that she did,” a senior editor who worked with Brooks says. “It was very aggressive, and it was also well targeted.”

Her campaign for Sarah’s Law – named after the murdered eight-year-old Sarah Payne – worked and came into effect across England and Wales three years ago, allowing parents and guardians to ask the police formally to tell them if someone has a record for child sexual offences. More than 700 such disclosures had been made by December 2013. However, for some, the cause may not quite justify using pictures of paedophiles as wrapping paper for a baby’s present. In 2006 when Brooks, as editor of the Sun, published confidential medical details showing that Chancellor Gordon Brown’s four-month-old son, Fraser, was suffering from cystic fibrosis (against Brown’s own wishes, he later said), it was further evidence of a problematic attitude to privacy and the children of public figures. But if no publicity is bad publicity, there is little doubt that Brooks raised the profile of the News of the World, turning it from a sleazy, salacious scandal sheet into a campaigning sleazy, salacious scandal sheet.

Coverage of children became a recurrent theme. Whether it was “Sarah’s Law”; or the obsessive coverage of the murder of two young girls in Soham in 2002; or, more ominously, the News of the World’s avid pursuit that same year of the missing teenager Milly Dowler (who lived just a few streets away from Sarah Payne), Brooks’s paper became obsessed by lost children.

Despite her professional achievements, as she told the jury at the Old Bailey, her private life was less successful and she could not have children of her own. But to see her public success simply through the prism of private obsession would be to fall into the tabloid trap of personalising everything. There was a good market reason to concentrate on dead children. Her boss, Rupert Murdoch, had learned how the public’s fascination with murder could sell newspapers when he personally supervised the New York Post’s “Summer of Sam” coverage in 1977, when the serial killer Son of Sam was stalking that city, shooting women and couples in parked cars. But the public was tiring of the psychopathology of serial killers and predatory sex offenders. Since the violent death of Diana in 1997, the tabloids had triumphed by turning celebrities into victims. Turning victims into celebrities was the logical next market move.

By then, News Corp was no longer just a news organisation. As Michael Wolff points out in his 2008 book The Man Who Owns the News, Murdoch had transformed it into a vast “integrated multi-platform content-creation and distribution conglomerate”. The Leveson inquiry gave us a brief insight into the backroom deals of this new, PR-driven culture through the testimony of the singer Charlotte Church. Murdoch wanted the 13-year-old prodigy to sing “Pie Jesu” at his wedding to Wendi Deng in 1999. Church was offered a £100,000 fee but, she claimed, her management said she would get “good press” if she waived it. In the end, she didn’t charge for her performance; yet the News of the World went on to write as many as 30 stories based on hacking the phones of Church and her family.

Often overlooked in Brooks’s career is the patronage of Murdoch’s longest-serving lieutenant, Les Hinton, who was executive chairman of News International until he took charge of the newly acquired Dow Jones group in 2007. A source close to the Murdoch family claims she was “very much the handmaiden of Les” and Brooks herself claimed Hinton was instrumental in her appointment to the editorship of the News of the World and then the Sun. Having worked with Murdoch since the 1960s, Hinton schooled Brooks in the treacherous but effective back channels between politicians and the press. “Everyone thinks she’s Rupert’s baby, but she was controlled by Les in the early days,” I was told. “He was the Machiavelli character.” The tension between Hinton and her secret lover Coulson, which Brooks spoke of in her unsent love letter, could easily be explained by this.

The charge of “sleeping your way to the top” is a recurrent smear made against many successful women, and given that Andy Coulson was junior to Brooks during the time of their affair, it applies more appropriately towards him. She was certainly not a natural Machiavelli. During questioning by a Commons select committee in 2003 (inadmissible at the trial because the hearing was held under parliamentary privilege) she stated that the company had paid police for information. Coulson stepped in to try to defuse the admission. The Labour MP who posed the question, Chris Bryant, was subsequently pursued by the Sun and News of the World, an experience he now describes as being “monstered”.

Brooks was friendly with ministers, and especially loyal to “our Tony” – Blair. However, that loyalty came at a price. David Blunkett’s special adviser Kath Raymond was one of Brooks’s best friends at the time, but the Sun editor still named Kimberly Quinn, the lover of the then home secretary, the day after the News of the World had revealed the affair.

“If you weren’t useful to her,” a senior Westminster insider says, “she was an utterly ruthless and tyrannical enemy.”

During the Old Bailey trial, the jury was shown an email Brooks sent to James Murdoch at the height of the Milly Dowler furore. It was titled “Plan B”. It suggested they could “slam” former News of the World editor Colin Myler and another senior executive. Later, an email detailing how Tony Blair had offered to advise Brooks and the Murdochs after the Milly Dowler scandal was effectively forced into evidence by her defence team. The prosecution had offered to redact it.

An ability to be extremely loyal and then switch allegiances astonished some of her friends – especially when Blair was replaced as prime minister by Brown in 2007. Around the same time, Brooks separated from her then husband Ross Kemp, a Labour supporter with East End working-class roots. In June 2009 she married Old Etonian horse trainer Charlie Brooks, a neighbour of David Cameron’s in Oxfordshire, in the same month as News Corp announced her appointment as chief executive of News International.

Brown attended the wedding reception, though by this point Brooks was riding two horses: she was secretly backing another guest at the reception, David Cameron, to become next prime minister.

 

Rupert Murdoch by Ralph Steadman

 

Questions of chemistry

Of all her political relationships, the grooming of Cameron was to be the most fateful. No one knows when they first met. Accord­ing to James Hanning, the Tory leader’s biographer, Brooks was present at a dinner organised by Matthew Freud a few days after Cameron won the leadership contest in 2005. However, the first public record appears in the MPs’ register of interests after she hosted the Camerons for a World Cup party with David and Victoria Beckham in 2006. By this time, James Murdoch had arrived in the UK and was working on his campaign to succeed his father as head of the company by creating a digital hub of combined publishing, internet and pay-TV services around a bid for complete ownership of BSkyB.

Brooks stayed intent on courting Cameron. “Rebekah effectively stalked David Cameron in his constituency home,” is how a News International insider put it. “The phone would ring all the time, and it would be, ‘Hi, it’s Rebekah.’ ” A minister close to Cameron recalls that, when asked how the prime ministerial couple distinguish friends from hangers-on, Samantha Cameron once replied: “Well, there’s X and there’s Y and there’s Z . . . And then there’s Rebekah . . .”

In August 2008 Matthew Freud arranged to fly Cameron, his wife and their children out to the Greek island of Santorini, at a cost of £30,000, to meet the News Corp boss on Murdoch’s super-yacht, the Rosehearty. Before then, Michael Wolff says, Murdoch had dismissed the Tory leader as “a PR guy”. “Look, he’s charming, he’s very bright and he behaves as if he doesn’t believe in anything other than trying to construct what he believes will be the right public image,” the media tycoon reportedly said in 2006. Sources close to the Murdoch family say the appointment of Brooks’s long-time confidant and colleague Andy Coulson as Cameron’s communications director in April 2007 played a crucial role in building the relationship. (Coulson had resigned from the editorship of the NoW in January after the first phone-hacking convictions. His affair with Brooks ceased around this time, he said in evidence.)

According to Hanning, it was Brooks who ultimately persuaded Cameron to hire her successor at the NoW. Although Cameron told Lord Justice Leveson he had quizzed Coulson about phone-hacking, Coulson maintained under oath that the Tory leader never did. It was a decision with far-reaching consequences. Under Brooks’s guidance (with an echo of the “It’s the Sun wot won it” headline of 1992), the Sun sabotaged Brown’s speech to the Labour party conference in 2009 with the front-page headline “Labour’s lost it” on 30 September, the morning after his speech. By the time of the election in May 2010, the full might of News International’s four national newspapers had swung behind Cameron.

Yet the Tories did not win a majority in 2010 but were forced to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. And despite being warned by the country’s top legal officials – the Attorney General and the director of public prosecutions – that the former NI executive could be a liability, Cameron took Coulson into No 10.

Compared to that decision, the famed “country suppers” in Chipping Norton, Brooks’s nights at Chequers and her alleged early-morning riding trips together with Cameron and Charlie Brooks pale into insignificance.

Those in public life should of course be allowed to have private friendships. But the combination of press preferment, politics, billion-pound media bids and the public’s insatiable appetite for intimate details was bound to make the connections toxic.

Yet one can’t discount the accidents of personal chemistry, either. A news industry insider tells of the disastrous meeting between Ed Miliband and Brooks during his leadership campaign in 2010. Miliband had been badly briefed and kept calling Brooks “Rachael” and asking if she had children, according to my source. Not that her team was any better prepared: as Cheryl Carter joked to Court 12 at the Old Bailey, Brooks had booked a meeting with Ed thinking that it was his brother, David.

The new Labour leader played a critical role in Brooks’s fall. Because of forced legal disclosure in civil suits, senior News International executives knew what was coming weeks before the Guardian’s Nick Davies reported the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone in early July 2011. Miliband decided not to hold back: on the floor of the House of Commons, he insisted that Brooks should resign because of the Dowler hack. According to Labour sources, a senior journalist on the Sun told Miliband’s advisers: “You’ve made it personal about Rebekah. We’ll now make it personal about you.”

The politics of personal destruction in the press is not something that Brooks created but she did preside over and professionally benefit from it for nearly a decade. The hacking trial jury was not persuaded that Brooks “must have known” about the fees paid to the hacker Glenn Mulcaire during her editorship of the Sunday tabloid, or the payments made to public officials during her time at the Sun, or precisely what her assistant was doing on the day Coulson was arrested, removing seven boxes marked “notebooks from Rebekah Brooks nee Wade 1995-2007” from the News International archive, the contents of which have never been recovered.

Should she have known about these things, as a competent editor and executive? Other senior executives at News International at the time say that, with editorial budgets ring-fenced from management, her decision not to “police” payments and sources is baffling. Journalists who worked with Brooks at the Sun, however, speak of an editor who was often out of the office, on corporate trips around the world or meeting politicians and celebrities.

The only person more charming than Brooks in Court 12 was Mr Justice Saunders, who managed to extract from her a confession that she’d offered Goodman a job on release from prison because he was “loyal to the company”. Brooks conceded that for the same reason she’d offered a sub rosa £1m deal to the PR guru Max Clifford to stop him pursuing phone-hacking claims when she was chief executive of News International. (That the Clifford trial for sexual offences ran alongside the phone-hacking case for several months was coincidental, but it did contribute to the feeling of an “end of an era”. The disgraced publicist did more than any other to establish a trade in secrets while blinding us to his own crimes.)

What will Rebekah Brooks do next? For many years (under strict orders from Rupert Murdoch) she made very limited media appearances. Rumours that she might be moved to a senior position in News Corp – perhaps in Australia – seem unfounded, especially as the company fears it may yet be served with corporate charges both here in the UK, under the Bribery Act, and in the US, under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, over alleged payments to public officials.

With a multimillion-pound pay-off, Brooks hardly needs the money; her husband has an elderly mother, and he re-registered as a horse trainer in 2011, so relocation halfway round the world would be hard. She is now a mother, too, and might want another child. Hemmed in by lawyers and other lawsuits, and not in such great health, Murdoch might not even have the clout to reinstate Brooks to a position of power. He spent many millions on her legal defence but in the end, to save herself, Brooks had to admit that there was a corporate cover-up inside News International.

All the same, it’s hard to imagine the woman I saw day after day at the Old Bailey settling down as a housewife in rural Oxfordshire at the age of 46. She has spent most of her adult life in the media, at the centre of political events and close to prominent people; and although the past eight months were stressful for her, you could also see she enjoyed telling her story. A life of rural obscurity would bore her. (Richard Bean’s new play Great Britain, at the National Theatre in London, which is loosely based on the events at News Corp, finishes with its protagonist hosting her own Oprah Winfrey-style chat show on American television. But although that might have suited Piers Morgan, Brooks has never been naturally confrontational.)

The scandal and subsequent trial have shrunk her social circle – a harsh penalty for a woman who enjoyed being a broker among the powerful and well connected. She did not attend this year’s Cornbury Music Festival on the Great Tew Estate near Chipping Norton. She had been present the previous two years: in 2012 she just missed meeting both Cameron and Coulson. Last year I saw her by the VIP enclosure (where she was also snapped by Tatler), smoking a cigarette and chatting to Jeremy Clarkson. The Top Gear presenter has stood by his friend: on the day of her acquittal, he tweeted that he was “beyond ecstatic” and he was later pictured visiting her London home.

However, other friends have been less loyal: she might have a harder time in the court of public opinion (at least, the Chipping Norton branch of it) than she did in Court 12 at the Old Bailey.

It seems likely that even though she was found not guilty, Brooks will never come close to regaining the influence she once had. In her public statement on the day of her acquittal, she spoke of feeling “vindicated”. But she also seemed contrite and uncharacteristically tongue-tied, alluding to understanding “both sides”. She made no mention of any of the 5,500 hacking victims named in Glenn Mulcaire’s notebooks, but perhaps too she had been reflecting on what her mother said in the witness box: that this whole episode had been traumatic for many other people as well. 

Peter Jukes’s “Beyond Contempt: the Inside Story of the Phone-Hacking Trial” will be published later this month. More details at: hackingtrial.com

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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