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Rebekah Brooks and the woking of News UK

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LAST week it came to light that that Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News UK (formerly News International), the publisher of the Sun, the Times, the Sunday Times and – until it closed in 2011 – the News of the World, sent staff an email which ‘implored them to use their media outlets to fight racism’. A noble aim, surely, but many would argue that Brooks had no business delivering this order from on high. She does not edit any of the papers and, anyway, it suggests that what many readers would consider to be legitimate opinions are no longer welcome in Murdoch’s papers – and all because of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Some journalists working on the Times appear to agree with her. A trenchant piece, by columnist Melanie Phillips, asserting ‘We’re giving into the race revolutionaries’ apparently made them so angry that they are considering reminding Brooks about her anti-racist email. 

If they get their way, and pieces like the one written by Phillips are no longer allowed to appear in the Times, Brooks will have presided over a sorry mess in which diversity of thought has been abandoned. Murdoch, in his heyday, would have not countenanced such inflexibility.

So, what’s going on? Behind the scenes, quite a lot, as it happens.

As one who knows Brooks told me: ‘Nothing at News UK happens without Rebekah’s say-so. She has a hand in every key decision that’s made.’

That’s putting it mildly. The 52-year-old who has been unusually close to every prime minister and/or their spouse since Tony Blair was in Downing Street (remember the extraordinary 2008 Chequers ‘slumber party’, or Tony Blair’s email to her in 2011 when media interest in the phone hacking scandal was at its height in which he advised her to set up a ‘Hutton-style’ inquiry?) has certainly been busy this year.

In January, a new regime began at the Sunday Times. Editor Martin Ivens was suddenly replaced by Emma Tucker, who moved across from the Times. I am told Tucker’s elevation is part of a wider plan by Brooks to make News UK a more ‘woke’ company. This may explain why Adam Boulton, who has worked in Westminster since the 1980s, wrote his last Sunday Times column within days of Tucker’s arrival. It may also explain why the paper, which backed Brexit, has cooled markedly on this issue, even publishing what amounts to an anti-Brexit editorial comment on April 19.

Soon after Ivens’s departure, Tony Gallagher stood down as editor of the Sun to become deputy editor of the Times. Gallagher’s replacement at the Sun was Brooks’s close friend Victoria Newton, formerly editor of the Sun on Sunday (successor to the News of the World), which is now being edited by Steve Waring.

This means Brooks can now boast that two of News UK’s four newspapers are edited by women. For a company with a legacy like News UK’s, this sort of thing really matters. As BBC Radio 4 reported in July 2019, millions of pounds continues to be paid out in damages to victims of phone hacking to settle civil cases out of court. The eventual total could be as high as £1billion. This is a company with a very chequered history and its troubles are far from behind it. Shake-ups like that at the Sunday Times might be considered useful.

Press Gazette has reported on a recent High Court hearing at which it was claimed that phone hacking and other unlawful information gathering was ‘habitual and widespread from at least as early as 1994 onwards at both the Sun and the News of the World’. 

It went on: ‘Dozens of claimants suing News Group Newspapers say unlawful information gathering at the newspapers was ‘well-known to and approved of’ by senior employees, including former chief executive Rebekah Brooks.’

Brooks, 52, edited the News of the World between 2000 and 2003 and the Sun from 2003 to 2009. In 2009 she became chief executive of News International, resigning in 2011 with a £10.8million payoff. She was acquitted of phone hacking charges in June 2014 following a jury trial. In 2015 she was reappointed as CEO of News UK, the renamed News International. Today, she is paid several million pounds a year by News UK.

The newspaper industry’s code of omerta means not one of them has reported a word about matters of which Brooks has recently been accused, nor are they likely to any time soon. With UK newspaper sales collapsing (collectively all titles have lost two-thirds of buyers over the last 20 years – and that is a pre-coronavirus figure), there is zero appetite for dog to eat dog.

Yet this light being shone on Brooks prompts questions about her control of this troubled company she runs on behalf of Rupert Murdoch, who turned 89 in March but who remains active in his various businesses, which also include the book publisher HarperCollins and digital radio station Virgin.

To be clear, in February 2020 it was reported that the Sun – under Tony Gallagher’s stewardship – recorded a loss of £68million in 2019. Falling print sales accounted for some of this astonishing figure. But £54million was paid out by Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, which publishes the Sun and retains liability for the activities of the News of the World, in legal fees and damages related to illegal phone hacking. Gallagher, incidentally, is tipped to be installed as editor of the Times before long. This makes sense on the basis that the incumbent editor John Witherow, a tennis fan and close friend of the prime minister’s sister, Rachel Johnson, is nearing 70.

Some have suggested that News UK’s appalling legacy partly explains Brooks’s decision to buy the digital radio station Virgin in 2018. The Guardian has claimed she has staked her reputation on diversifying News UK away from print media. That does not seem inaccurate, but what did cause a lot of head scratching within News UK was Brooks’s decision to hire DJ Chris Evans as Virgin’s ‘star’.

In 2016, the Sun published a series of stories in which a former colleague of Evans claimed he exposed his penis to her ‘every day for two years’ and grabbed her breasts when they worked together in the 1990s on the Channel 4 show The Big Breakfast. ‘I have no idea if he was getting some gratification out of this, but he used to get his penis out every time I saw him,’ she told the paper. ‘He’d either just get it out, or he’d walk into a room naked. Sometimes it was erect, sometimes it wasn’t.’

Comments backing up this allegation were made by other former colleagues of Evans on Facebook. Evans was interviewed by police during the summer of 2016 but the matter was dropped. Brooks, of course, knew all about these allegations against Evans when she hired him. How could she not have done, given the interest in him shown by the Sun? With the #MeToo movement in full swing, Evans’s hiring certainly went against the grain.

It would be interesting to know what some of the Times’s ‘moral’ columnists such as David Aaronovitch or Matthew Parris make of all this? I wonder what another Times columnist plucked at random – Caitlin Moran – thinks of the fact that Prince Harry has an ongoing legal claim against the company she ultimately works for involving alleged historical phone hacking? Most of all, I wonder what Brooks really thinks about what is written about her and her newspapers?

While News UK warns of job cuts ‘as it speeds up its transition to a digital future as a result of the impact of the coronavirus’ I’m told Brooks’s master plan involves setting up a new TV channel in 2021. Now that Murdoch has sold Sky TV, he has no foothold in the UK television market for the first time since 1989. Brooks’s grip at News UK seems to be intensifying just as scrutiny of her past actions is becoming more robust. Stay tuned for what promises to be an absorbing story. 

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John Smith
John Smith is a journalist.

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