Rupert's Red Menace

Article excerpt

Byline: Lloyd Grove and Mike Giglio; With Dan Ephron and William Underhill

The rise and fall of Rebekah Brooks, the woman at the heart of the scandal that has rocked the world's most powerful media empire.

Minutes after Rebekah Brooks announced her resignation as chief executive of News International--among the most stunning reversals in Rupert Murdoch's monumental career as a media baron--the plaintive words of a former staffer at the now-shut News of the World were posted on Twitter: "It feels a bit like we've been sacrificed for nothing."

An image of sacrifice was present, ironically, in Brooks's parting statement, when she said that her "desire to remain on the bridge" was "detracting attention from all our honest endeavors to fix the problems" that beset Murdoch's News Corp. "Therefore," she said, "I have given Rupert and James Murdoch my resignation." With that, the woman at the heart of the scandal that is consuming Britain--a tabloid editor who was the apotheosis of Fleet Street's incomparably amoral "hack" culture--opened a new chapter in a tale that promises to be littered with many more scalps than Brooks's own.

And what a scalp hers is, metaphorically and--as we're constantly reminded--literally. There is scarcely a story about her in the British press that does not dwell on her magnificent mane. The tabloids refer to her unfailingly as a "flame-haired temptress"; the broadsheets--the more up-market newspapers that affect a disdain for the tabs--as "Titian-tressed" or "Pre-Raphaelite." Either way, Brooks's appearance is an essential part of the narrative--offering a disconcertingly sexy complement to a biography that boasts great prowess in the exercise of power, vengeance, and subterfuge, dark arts that many observers have come to associate with Murdoch's media empire.

The 43-year-old Brooks was, until her resignation on July 15, a member of Murdoch's innermost circle. As editor of News of the World from 2000 to 2003, she is a pivotal figure in the worst scandal to have engulfed the Murdoch media, including charges of hacking by News of the World and Sun reporters into the cell phones of celebrities, politicians, 9/11 victims, and a murdered English teenager, as well as the payment of bribes to policemen for scoops and information. The hacking took place on an industrial scale: Scotland Yard suspects that there were 4,000 victims. And yet Brooks, on whose watch at News of the World much of the worst malfeasance occurred, has insisted that she didn't know it was happening.

This assertion has always seemed incredible. Brooks was a textbook Murdoch tabloid editor, hands-on, scoop-obsessed, and steeped in cutthroat competition in which the ends--a good story--always justified the frequently unedifying means. A veteran media executive with intimate knowledge of Murdoch newspapers told NEWSWEEK that it was as inconceivable that she did not know about (or even greenlight) the hacking as it would have been for her to go to Les Hinton, then executive chairman of News International, and say, "Les, there are terrible things happening at the paper, and I have to fire all these hackers."

Now Hinton, too, has resigned--he did so as NEWSWEEK went to press--paying the price for telling a parliamentary select committee in 2007 (and again in 2009) that the hacking at News of the World was merely the work of a rogue reporter. He is the highest-ranking Murdoch executive to fall on his sword. Above him, now, are the Murdochs themselves.

So how did Brooks surf on the power wave so high and for so long? She became CEO of News International in June 2009, but her job title scarcely begins to do justice to her profile in Britain. "She was drunk on power, and she had amazing power," says Hugh Grant, the movie star and a frequent tabloid target who has become Britain's favorite critic of Fleet Street. "She was best chums with the prime minister--this prime minister, the previous prime minister--and was virtually running the country. …