Third Time Lucky? Murdoch Finally Accepts U.K. Chief Exec’s Resignation As FBI Launches News Corp. Investigation

  • Share
  • Read Later

Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch attend day 3 of the Cheltenham Horse Racing Festival on March 18, 2010 in Cheltenham, England. (Photo: Indigo - Getty Images)

In an affair that intrigues and baffles, perhaps the most puzzling question was this: why on earth was Britain’s highest-ranking redhead after Prince Harry still clinging on to her job at the helm of News International, News Corporation’s London-based subsidiary—and why did Rupert Murdoch seem so determined to keep her there? Those questions have not gone away though the mogul has finally accepted his CEO’s resignation. On July 15, after the F.B.I. opened an investigation into an allegation that phones belonging to victims of the 9/11 terror attacks and their relatives may have been hacked by the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks finally quit, reportedly on her third attempt to do so.

Here is an extract from her lengthy email to staff:

At News International we pride ourselves on setting the news agenda for the right reasons. Today we are leading the news for the wrong ones.

The reputation of the company we love so much, as well as the press freedoms we value so highly, are all at risk.

As Chief Executive of the company, I feel a deep sense of responsibility for the people we have hurt and I want to reiterate how sorry I am for what we now know to have taken place.

I have believed that the right and responsible action has been to lead us through the heat of the crisis. However, my desire to remain on the bridge has made me a focal point of the debate.

This is now detracting attention from all our honest endeavors to fix the problems of the past.

Therefore I have given Rupert and James Murdoch my resignation. While it has been a subject of discussion, this time my resignation has been accepted.

Rupert’s wisdom, kindness and incisive advice has guided me throughout my career and James is an inspirational leader who has shown me great loyalty and friendship.

She adds:

I now need to concentrate on correcting the distortions and rebutting the allegations about my record as a journalist, an editor and an executive.

On July 19 she’ll have an opportunity to do just that, at a hearing of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which plans to grill Brooks about allegations of criminal practice at the Sunday tabloid that she edited from 2000-2003. She will be joined at the committee by her estwhile bosses. Rupert Murdoch originally declined his invitation and James Murdoch proposed an alternative date for the hearing, but their defiance melted. In his sole interview since the crisis broke, with the News Corp.-owned Wall Street Journal, Murdoch senior said that he intended to address “some of the things that have been said in Parliament, some of which are total lies. We think it’s important to absolutely establish our integrity in the eyes of the public.”

With the parliamentary committee, two separate Scotland Yard investigations, a judicial inquiry and the F.B.I. all raking over the events leading up to the extraordinary crisis now engulfing News Corp. and shaking the British government, police and media, it would be tempting to assume that the truth, whoever’s truth it proves to be, will out. But #hackgate, to call it by its most common Twitter tag, has the hallmarks of one of those thrillers in which the more you know, the less you understand. The arrest on July 15 of the News of the World‘s former deputy editor Neil Wallis was quickly followed by the revelation that Wallis had acted as a communications consultant to top Scotland Yard cop John Yates at the time he made the decision not to reopen the 2006 investigation into hacking by the News of the World. Wallis also had a contract to advise police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson. The F.B.I.’s concern over the behavior of one British tabloid appears to have been triggered by a single, flimsy report of a conversation between an anonymous former New York police officer and an unnamed source that appeared in another British tabloid.

Or take the question I started with: why did it take Brooks so long to resign?

Here are two possible explanations, both plausible—and both apparently contradictory. The first is the domino theory. Knock down Brooks and who might fall next? James Murdoch, hitherto seen as a strong contender to succeed his father at the pinnacle of News Corp., has oversight of News International, the company at the eye of the storm.

The second is that Brooks, far from being the human shield for James Murdoch, is regarded as one of the family, at least by its patriarch. The day after the News of the World‘s highly regarded political editor Ian Kirby learned he was out of a job—an unreported aspect of this story is that the News of the World employed some very good journalists as well as some who were neither good nor recognizably journalists—I asked him about working for Brooks, or Rebekah Wade as she was before her 2009 second marriage. Kirby said that staff knew she was “central to [Rupert Murdoch’s] plans in the future even before she joined us.” He recalled observing her close relationship with Murdoch at first hand:

I remember going to dinners with Murdoch where she was basically holding court and he was like the affable father. I can remember him…after he had his child with Wendi [Deng, his second wife]. I remember we all went for a dinner with him and he was sharing photos. He was saying to Rebekah, ‘It’s your turn next. You’ve got to have a baby. It’s amazing. We’ll pay for you to have a nanny and we’ll look after you’ and all this kind of thing. It was kind of half in jest, but it wasn’t really half in jest. He kind of meant it.

So when they say she’s very much part of the family, I think that’s true. It’s an extraordinary achievement by her. She was an absolutely dedicated networker and you can’t criticize her for that because you know…what she’s done in her career rising from being a secretary in the features department at the News of the World is an astonishing achievement.

The admiration is by no means universal. The Daily Telegraph reports that Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth told unnamed friends that Brooks “[expletive deleted] the company”; erstwhile friends of Brooks, including Prime Minister David Cameron, had publicly cut her loose; her enemies are gleeful. The enigma about her role—in the drama, in the Murdoch empire and the heart of the family—remains.

Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME