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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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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge