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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?

Andre Carrilho
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Putin's revenge

Twenty-five years after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia is consumed by an insatiable desire for recognition as the equal of the USA.

President Trump meets President Putin. It’s the most eagerly awaited encounter in world politics. Will The Donald thaw the New Cold War? Or will he be trumped by “Vlad” – selling out the West, not to mention Ukraine and Syria?

The Donald v Vlad face-off comes at a sensitive moment for the Kremlin, 25 years after the demise of the USSR on Christmas Day 1991 and just before the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Were the heady hopes at the end of the Cold War about a new world order mere illusions? Was Mikhail Gorbachev an aberration? Or is Putin rowing against the tide of post-Cold War history? How did we end up in the mess we’re in today?

These are some of the questions that should be explored in Trump’s briefing book. He needs to get to grips with not only Putin, but also Russia.

 

****

Today President George H W Bush’s slogan “new world order” sounds utopian; even more so the pundit Francis Fukuyama’s catchphrase “the end of history”. But we need to remember just how remarkable that moment in world affairs was. The big issues of the Cold War had been negotiated peacefully between international leaders. First, the reduction of superpower nuclear arsenals, agreed in the Washington treaty of 1987: this defused Cold War tensions and the fears of a possible third world war. Then the 1989 revolutions across eastern Europe, which had to be managed especially when national boundaries were at stake. Here the German case was acutely sensitive because the Iron Curtain had split the nation into two rival states. By the time Germany unified in October 1990, the map of Europe had been fundamentally redrawn.

All this was accomplished in a spirit of co-operation – very different from other big shifts in European history such as 1815, 1871, 1918 and 1945, when great change had come about through great wars. Amid such excitement, it wasn’t surprising that people spoke of a new dawn. This was exemplified by the unprecedented working partnership between the US and the USSR during the First Gulf War in the winter of 1990-91 to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush and Gorbachev agreed that they shared a set of “democratic” and “universal” values, rooted in international law and in co-operation within the United Nations.

The new order of course assumed the continued existence of the Soviet Union. Despite the USSR’s growing economic and political problems, no one anticipated its free fall in the second half of 1991. First came the August coup, an attempt by a group of anti-Gorbachev communist hardliners to take control of the Union. Their failed putsch fatally undermined Gorbachev’s authority as Soviet leader and built up Boris Yeltsin as the democratic president of a Russian republic that was now bankrolling the USSR. Then followed the independence declarations of the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and crucially Ukraine, which precipitated the complete unravelling of the Union. And so, on Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev became history, and with him the whole Soviet era. It seemed like the final curtain on a drama that had opened in Petrograd in 1917. A grandiose project of forced modernisation and empire-building pursued at huge human and economic cost had imploded. The satellites in eastern Europe had gone their own way and so had the rimlands of historic Russia, from central Asia through Ukraine to the Baltic Sea. What remained was a rump state, the Russian Federation.

Despite all the rhetoric about a new world order, no new structures were created for Europe itself. Instead, over the next 15 years, the old Western institutions from the Cold War (the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union) were enlarged to embrace eastern Europe. By 2004, with the inclusion of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Nato and the EU reached the borders of Russia, less than 100 miles from St Petersburg.

Initially the West’s eastward expansion wasn’t a big problem. The Kremlin did not feel threatened by the EU because that was seen as a political-economic project. Nato had been repackaged in 1990 as a more political organisation. Indeed, four years later, Russia joined the alliance’s “Partnership for Peace”. And in 1997, when Nato announced its first enlargement to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Russia was invited to join the alliance’s new Permanent Joint Council. That same year, Russia became a member of the G8. In short, during the 1990s the consensual atmosphere of 1989-91 seemed to be maintained.

But Yeltsin failed to create a new Russia from the ruins of Soviet communism. Between 1989 and 1992, as the command economy disintegrated, inflation soared and national income fell by one-third – a crash as spectacular as those America and Germany had suffered in the early 1930s. The largest and fastest privatisation that the world had seen created a cohort of super-rich oligarchs. Crime and corruption became rampant, while millions of Russians were condemned to penury. “Everything was in a terrible, unbelievable mess,” Yeltsin’s adviser Yegor Gaidar later admitted. “It was like travelling in a jet and you go into the cockpit and you discover that there’s no one at the controls.”

Meanwhile, the proliferation of political parties resulted in chaos. Yeltsin managed to hang on, thanks to increasingly autocratic rule. In October 1993, after several months of wrangling over the balance of power between executive and legislature, he used army tanks to shell the parliament building in Moscow and imposed a new constitution built around a strong presidency. This and a succession of contrived referendums kept him in power for the rest of the decade. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1999, an ill and exhausted Yeltsin orchestrated his own departure. Declaring that he would hand over to “a new generation” that “can do more and do it better” at the start of a new millennium, he said that he was conveying his powers to an acting president.

His designated successor was an apparently unassuming little man called Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

***

Who was Putin? Where had he come from? Most immediately he had been prime minister since August 1999 – the sixth man to serve as Yeltsin’s premier. Yet he had made his career as a discreet outsider, often underestimated by those around him. In fact, he was a long-serving KGB officer: he joined in 1975, at the age of 23, entering a culture that would define his persona and outlook.

Crucially, the Gorbachev era was almost a closed book to Putin: he never experienced the intoxicating passions of reform politics within the USSR – perestroika, glasnost and demokratizatsiya – because he spent 1985 to 1990 as a case officer in Dresden in East Germany. To him, Gorbachev’s reforms signified destruction: an empire discarded and a country ruined. During the 1990s, as Putin rose through the ranks of the city administration of his home town St Petersburg and was then moved to Moscow, he witnessed the disastrous effects of chaotic privatisation, the erosion of Russia as a great power and the collapse of the national economy.

Out of the traumatic 1990s came Putin’s passion for a strong state. He spelled this out in a 5,000-word document entitled Russia on the Threshold of the New Millennium, published on the Soviet government website on 29 December 1999. In it, he stated bluntly that the Bolshevik experiment had totally failed. “Communism and the power of the Soviets did not make Russia into a prosperous country,” he wrote. It had been “a road to a blind alley which is far away from the mainstream of civilisation”.

Putin welcomed recent “positive changes”, especially the Russian people’s embrace of “supranational universal values” such as freedom of expression and travel, as well as “fundamental human rights and political liberties”. But he also highlighted traditional “Russian values”, especially patriotism – pride in “a nation capable of great achievements” – and “social solidarity”, which, he asserted, had “always prevailed over individualism”. He did not believe that Russia would become “a second edition of, say, the US or Britain, in which liberal values have deep historic traditions”. What he presented as “the new Russian idea” would be “an alloy or organic unification of universal general values with traditional Russian values which had stood the test of the times, including the test of the turbulent 20th century”.

Woven into Putin’s manifesto was a distinctive conception of his place in politics. He envisaged himself as a “statesman” in the Russian sense – meaning a builder and servant of the state, in a country where the state has always been seen as superior to society and the individual. He considered the true leader to be above mere electoral politics, occupying a more permanent position as the guardian of state interests. He looked back admiringly to the autocratic reformers of the late tsarist era – men such as Nicholas II’s prime minister Pyotr Stolypin – and had no time for Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who had both been submerged by democracy and had undermined the state.

Above all, he believed that Russia had to resume its rightful historic place as a “great power”. He considered the vicissitudes of the 1990s an aberration that had to be overcome. Adapting one of Stolypin’s celebrated phrases, he liked to say that the people did not need “great upheavals”. They needed “a great Russia” – with a “strong state” as the “guarantor of order” and the “main driving force” of any durable change.

The “acting president” was elected in his own right in March 2000 and won re-election in 2004 for another four years. During the 2000s Putin concentrated on kick-starting the economy, bringing the oligarchs of the Yeltsin era under firm control and building monetary reserves, aided by rising prices for Russia’s oil and gas. This enabled the country to survive the financial crisis of 2008 and stood in marked contrast to a decade earlier, when the Asian crash of 1997-98 led Russia to default on its foreign debt and devalue the rouble. In rebuilding prosperity and pride, Putin earned the gratitude of millions of Russians, scarred by the poverty and humiliations of the Yeltsin era.

Showing himself off as a military strongman, he targeted Chechnya, which had claimed independence in 1991. Yeltsin had failed to tame the anarchic north Caucasus republic in the Chechen War of 1994-96; Putin imposed direct Russian rule brutally in the first year of his presidency, reducing the Chechen capital, Grozny, to rubble in 2000.

Increasingly secure at home, he began to reassert Russian power in the international arena. Initially, this did not involve confrontation with the West. He co-operated with the US in the post-9/11 “war on terror”, though he didn’t support the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, abstaining from the Bush-Blair mission of forceful regime change. In 2003-2004 he protested but ultimately accepted the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the accession of the Baltic states into Nato and the EU – even if the Kremlin regarded them as part of Russia’s “near abroad”. In 2007, however, Washington’s plans for a Nato missile defence “shield” in eastern Europe (deploying interceptor missiles and radar tracking systems), officially justified as protection against “rogue states” such as Iran, prompted Russia to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. This was part of the fabric of co-operation woven in 1990-91. Nevertheless, foreign policy wasn’t Putin’s priority in his first stint as president.

***


In 2008, after two terms in office, Putin was obliged under the constitution to step down from the presidency. Under a notorious job swap, however, he was elected as prime minister to the new (nominal) president, Dmitry Medvedev, who within months pushed through a law extending the term for future presidents from four to six years. Then, in September 2011, Putin announced that he would run for the presidency again.

For millions of Russians, this second job swap seemed a cynical power play. Putin won the election of March 2012, naturally – the Kremlin machine ensured that. Yet he gained only 64 per cent of the vote despite having no serious opposition. Rural areas run by local clans tied to him were easily manipulated, but in many big cities, including Moscow, he polled less than 50 per cent.

The 2012 election campaign was the moment when Putin’s conception of the statesman-strongman collided with the democratic expectations of Russia’s perestroika generation, now coming of age. It marked a crunch point in the history of post-Soviet Russia – a clash between different models of the country and its future. Ranged against Putin were those whom the opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov, of the liberal People’s Freedom Party, called the new “mass middle class”, formed over the previous two decades. Taking to the streets in protest against the Putin-Medvedev “tandem” were managers, engineers, journalists, lawyers, IT specialists and the like. For these people, Putin had passed his sell-by date. After his announcement that he wanted another term in the Kremlin, images circulated on the internet of an aged Putin dissolving into the geriatric visage of Leonid Brezhnev – whose near-two decades in office symbolised the “era of stagnation” that Mikhail Gorbachev had swept aside.

Social media was transforming urban Russia. Between 2008 and 2012 internet penetration among the over-16s doubled from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. Russia had its own version of Facebook: VKontakte. The Kremlin’s alarm at the upsurge of virtual opposition and street protest was intensified by the Arab spring in 2011. Much international comment highlighted the role of a young “Facebook Generation” in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, fostering a “digital democracy” that toppled long-standing autocrats – supposedly financed and supported by Washington. Putin liked to claim that the protests in Russia had also been stirred up and/or funded by the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Little wonder that one of his priority projects after winning the 2012 election was refining a sophisticated system of internet surveillance known as Sorm, run from part of the old secret-police headquarters of Lenin’s Cheka and Stalin’s KGB in Lubyanka Square, Moscow. With that in mind, the oppositionist Ryzhkov declared that even though Russian society was now very mature and “European”, the regime was “still Chekist-Soviet”. This, he said, was the “main contradiction” in contemporary Russia.

The domestic protests and the Arab spring threatened Putin’s determination to rebuild Russia’s position in the world and consolidate its sphere of influence in the “near abroad”. He focused on a “Eurasian Union”, an idea first touted in the 1990s by some central Asian states, notably Kazakhstan, but picked up in earnest by Putin after 2011. Yet, for him, the crux of a viable Eurasian bloc lay in the west, not the east: in Ukraine, with 45 million people, a strong industrial base, and its critical geopolitical position. Putin didn’t just see Ukraine as Russia’s historic “borderland”. Celebrating Kievan Rus – the original east Slavic state of the 9th to 13th centuries – he insisted that Kyiv was “the mother of Russian cities”. Keeping Ukraine within Moscow’s sphere of influence was a red-line issue for the Kremlin.

That line was crossed in February 2014. For a decade Ukraine – an ethnically fractured country (78 per cent Ukrainian; 17 per cent Russian) – had hovered between Russia and the West, depending on the latest change of leaders in this corruption-riddled state. In November 2013 the Russia-leaning Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, stalled Ukraine’s long-discussed “association” agreement with the European Union. Thousands of pro-EU protesters surged into Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv.

In the face of repressive police measures, the mass demonstrations continued for three months and spread across the country, including the Crimea, where Russians were the majority, bringing Ukraine to the brink of civil war. Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Russia on 21 February 2014. The next day Putin began a campaign of retaliation, culminating in the forcible annexation of the Crimea, rubber-stamped by a referendum in which (officially) 96.77 per cent of the Crimean electorate voted to join Russia.

For the West, Putin had finally overstepped the mark, because the Crimea had been part of Ukraine since 1954. Putin claimed that the Russian inhabitants of the region were invoking the right to “self-determination”, just like the Germans during unification in 1990, or the Albanians in Kosovo in 1999 when seceding from Yugoslavia. But in the West, Russia’s military intervention in an independent state was condemned as a flagrant breach of international law. The US and the EU imposed political and economic sanctions against Russia, precipitating a financial crisis and a collapse of the stock market. By the spring of 2016 the rouble had fallen 50 per cent in two years. This was coupled with a halving of the price of oil, on which Russia’s economy depends. The country slid into recession, reversing the economic success of the president’s first stint in power.

Yet the slump does not appear to have damaged his domestic popularity severely. The state-controlled media whipped up patriotic fervour: Russia v the West. And Putin – the “History Man”, as Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy dub him in their book Mr Putin – has deliberately constructed his own version of the recent past to justify his actions. Playing on the trauma and humiliation of the Soviet break-up, he appealed to national pride, touching the emotions of millions of Russians.

Putin has presented his intervention in the Crimea (and subsequently eastern Ukraine) as an assertion of Russia’s right as “an independent, active participant in international affairs”. In a major policy statement on 18 March 2014, he harked back to the era of “bipolarity” as a source of “stability”, arguing that America’s arrogant attempts after 1991 to create a “unipolar” world, exacerbated by Nato’s progressive enlargement, had pushed his country into a corner.

It was not just that Kyiv’s turn towards the EU threatened to detach Ukraine from Russia and its “Eurasian” sphere; talk about actually joining Nato raised the spectre of the Western military alliance being “right in our backyard” and on “our historic territory”. Putin conjured up the prospect of Nato warships entering the Black Sea and docking in Sevastopol, that “city of Russia’s military glory” – a “real threat to the whole of southern Russia”. Enough was enough, he declared: “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”

***

 

To Western eyes the story looked very different. The enlargement of the EU and Nato was driven less from Brussels and Washington than by the desire of eastern European countries to escape from the clutches of “the Bear”. Putin had tolerated the loss from Russia’s “near abroad” of Warsaw Pact states from Poland to Bulgaria, but the Baltic states (former Russian imperial territory) were a very different matter. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had won their independence from the tsarist empire after the First World War, only to be absorbed into the Soviet Union after the Second World War. For the Balts, 1991 therefore represented the rebirth of freedom and statehood; they saw membership of the institutional West – the European Union and Nato – as an essential guarantee of national security.

Nato has become a “four-letter word” for Russia and one can argue that, ideally, the “new world order” should have been based on new institutions. But in 1989-90 the persistence of Nato was essential to allay European fears, not least in the USSR, about a unified Germany at the heart of the continent. There was no discussion at this moment about Nato’s further extension beyond Germany, let alone a firm pledge that it would not. Contrary to Putin’s assertions, an expansionary blueprint did not exist.

Whatever the arguments about ­history, however, relations between Russia and the West are deadlocked. So are we in a “New Cold War”, as touted by the Russian government since Dmitry Medvedev’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2016? In fundamental ways: no. Russia and America are not engaged in an all-encompassing global power struggle, military, political, economic, cultural, ideological. The new Russia is essentially capitalist and fully integrated into the world economy, with a multitude of trade and financial links with the West.

Despite bellicose rhetoric at the top, Russian and US diplomats talk and work together behind the scenes, not least in the recent selection of a new UN secretary general, António Guterres. Above all, the language of “unipolarity” and “bipolarity” no longer reflects the reality of international affairs: a “multipolarity” of world powers, a profusion of “non-state actors” capable of terrorism and warfare, and potent transnational forces, notably mass migration – all of which are deeply destabilising. This is very different from the Cold War.

Amid this new world disorder, today’s Russian-American stand-off revolves around differing approaches to international relations. Putin’s policy is rooted in traditions of great-power politics: the control of territory and the assertion of state sovereignty, especially within what Russia regards as its historic sphere. By contrast, the United States, albeit erratically, has promoted humanitarian interventionism, pursued regime change and indulged in the rhetoric of global democracy, especially since the 9/11 attacks.

So, why the divergence? One can say that the West has failed to pay consistent attention to Russia’s sensitivities about its post-Soviet decline. Nor has it given due recognition to the reality of Russia as a great Eurasian power. On the other side, Putin has increasingly pulled his country out of the network of co-operative political forums and agreements forged with the West in the aftermath of the Cold War. He has also challenged the independence of small states on Russia’s periphery. Today, abandoning any vestiges of entente with America, Putin seems to believe that Russia can regain its great-power status only by distancing itself from the West and by overtly challenging the US in hot spots around the world. This is very different from the world imagined by Bush and Gorbachev and pursued to some degree by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Putin is undoing what he sees as a “democratic” peace, made to Russia’s geopolitical disadvantage in 1989-91.

Take Syria: Putin knew that Barack Obama had no stomach for wholesale military intervention on such a fragmented battleground, where few direct US interests are at stake. As an appalling human tragedy has unfolded, especially in Aleppo, Putin has exploited his free hand by despatching Russia’s sole (Brezhnev-era) aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to Syrian waters and building a Russian airbase near the key port of Latakia. US passivity has allowed him to establish a novel, if tenuous, military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and thereby to strengthen his position in the Middle East as a whole.

On the Baltics, Washington drew a firm line last summer: Nato’s Warsaw summit in July 2016 committed Alliance troops and aircraft to each of these states by way of a token but unequivocal act of deterrence. Putin responded by further beefing up the Russian short-range nuclear arsenal in Kaliningrad. This tit-for-tat in the Baltic Sea area is likely to spiral.

In the standoff over Ukraine – where Russia has done nothing to end the fighting – the Americans have been content to let Angela Merkel take the lead in trying to broker a peace deal. While playing tough in the Baltic, she has kept open channels of communication with Putin over Ukraine. Significantly, the president has not spurned her offer to talk. The two can converse without interpreters, in German and in Russian; Merkel seems to be one of the few foreign leaders for whom Putin entertains a certain respect, if only because she recognises Russia’s need to be taken seriously.

Nevertheless, all these various power plays reflect essentially conventional ways by which Putin seeks to unpick 1989-91. More significant is the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive avant-garde methods of combating the Western “bloc” of liberal democracies – by manipulating transnational financial and commercial ties, spinning the global media and steering policy discourse in target states. Russia can leverage its relative weakness if it cleverly exploits its post-Cold War immersion within the global capitalist system and Western popular culture as a kind of “Trojan Horse” .This is what Putin’s personal adviser Vladislav Surkov has termed “non-linear war”.

It is no secret that, in this vein, Moscow used cyber-power in an attempt to mould American opinion during the 2016 presidential election campaign. For all the media hype about hacked computer systems and leaked emails, the Kremlin’s information warfare is not that innovative. After all, the underlying concepts and most of the techniques were developed by the USSR (and equally by the United States) to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs during the Cold War. Let’s not forget that the young Mr Putin was schooled in KGB Dresden.

So, although we may not be back in the era of bipolarity, some of the new ways are also old ways. Under Putin, Russia seems to have resumed its historic quest for position against the West and its insatiable desire for recognition as America’s equal. Will it ever be possible to forge a stable “alloy” blending “universal” and “Russian” values? That would truly be a Russian revolution. l

Kristina Spohr (London School of Economics) and David Reynolds (Cambridge) are the co-editors of “Transcending the Cold War” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge