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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:

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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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood