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Rebekah Brooks, who led News Corp. (NWSA)’s U.K. unit until last year, said she discussed the company’s phone-hacking cases and its bid for British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc (BSY) with Prime Minister David Cameron before resigning.
Brooks, 43, gave details to a media-ethics inquiry today of dozens of informal meetings, dinners, lunches and birthday parties with Britain’s political elite when she edited News Corp.’s best-selling Sun tabloid starting in 2003, and later as the unit’s chief executive officer. She was arrested in a phone- hacking probe in July, two days after she stepped down.
The inquiry, led by Judge Brian Leveson, is scrutinizing News Corp.’s ties to government after the company’s critics argued an often cozy link prevented the extent of the phone- hacking scandal from being uncovered sooner. Cameron called for the inquiry after revelations that hacking at another News Corp. tabloid, the News of the World, was far more widespread than the single “rogue” reporter jailed in 2007.
“If a politician or a prime minister ever put a friendship with an executive of a media company in front of his or her ability to do their professional duties properly, then that is their failing,” Brooks said in London. “If a journalist ever compromised their role as a journalist through friendship, then that is their failing.”
Discussion of News Corp.’s proposed bid for the 61 percent of BSkyB it didn’t already own was “entirely appropriate” and came up in casual conversations, Brooks said. Cameron was “even-handed” about the bid, and neither he nor Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, with whom she also discussed the proposal, ever explicitly backed it, she said.
Testimony by News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and his son James, the former head of U.K. operations, last month led to calls for the resignation of Cameron’s culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt. An aide to Hunt stepped down after e-mails were released at the inquiry showing inside information about the politician’s views was given to News Corp. during the bid’s approval process.
The proposal has been discussed regularly at the ethics inquiry because Cameron’s government had to approve the deal. Rupert Murdoch abandoned the bid in July as a result of the phone-hacking scandal.
Fred Michel, the News Corp. lobbyist who communicated with Hunt’s aide, said in an e-mail to Brooks disclosed at the inquiry today that Hunt asked Michel for the company’s view on the phone-hacking scandal just weeks before the company was forced to shut its News of the World tabloid in July. Hunt sought News Corp.’s assistance to develop a position on the issue based on his belief that the police are “pursuing things thoroughly,” Michel said.
Hunt said today that Michel has misrepresented conversations with his aide as being directly with him. The culture secretary will address the Leveson inquiry at a later date.
As civil lawsuits by phone-hacking victims mounted in late 2010, and the company was accused of a cover-up, Brooks discussed the situation with Cameron, who became prime minister in May of that year. Phone hacking had “been on the news that day and I explained the story behind the news,” she said.
Brooks said she exchanged text messages with Cameron about once a week, increasing to about twice a week during the 2010 general election. Cameron signed off his texts with “LOL, for lots of love,” Brooks said. He stopped doing so after she told him it meant “laugh out loud,” she said.
Cameron and other high-ranking U.K. politicians sent Brooks “indirect messages” offering her support when she resigned from the company in July 2011, she said.
One of Cameron’s messages said, “Sorry I couldn’t have been as loyal to you as I have been, but Ed Miliband had me on the run,” Robert Jay, the inquiry’s lawyer, said today, referring to the leader of the opposition Labour Party. Brooks agreed that was the “gist” of the message.
Brooks and Cameron met occasionally in the English countryside, where she went on the weekends and he visited his constituents, she said. She also said she attended his private birthday party in 2010.
Rupert Murdoch’s close relationship with Brooks wasn’t a motive for prime ministers seeking her friendship, she said. “I don’t think people ever thought if they wanted to get to Mr. Murdoch they had to get through me,” Brooks said.
Brooks “sometimes” sent cases of wine to the Metropolitan Police’s pedophile unit to thank them for their work, and took senior politicians and police to “good restaurants that were appropriate to their seniority,” she said in a witness statement posted on the inquiry’s website.
The police probe into phone hacking expanded to include allegations of widespread bribery of police and other public officials by News Corp. journalists. At least a dozen journalists from the Sun were detained in that probe.
Brooks occasionally grew impatient with questions today about whether she went swimming with Rupert Murdoch or what gifts she received at parties and at one point replied, “we’re not on the floor of a tabloid newsroom.”
Brooks said she also received messages of support from former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and that he once attended a surprise birthday party for her. She said she thought she had three private dinners with Blair toward the end of his time in office.
The inquiry, now in its third phase, largely avoided questions about voice-mail interceptions because Brooks faces potential criminal charges.
Rupert and James Murdoch testified at the inquiry last month. The elder Murdoch said Cameron, when he was the opposition leader, flew on Rupert’s son-in-law’s plane and stopped off in Santorini, Greece, to meet with him on a yacht. Brooks said today that she was there, too.
“Politicians did want to get access to the editor of the Sun and his or her team as much as possible, but I don’t think people ever thought if they wanted to get to Mr. Murdoch they had to get through me,” Brooks said.
Brooks, arrested last year in the probes into phone hacking and bribery by News Corp.’s journalists in Britain, was arrested a second time in March with her husband Charlie on suspicion of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. About 45 other people have been arrested in the investigations, including Brooks’s longtime personal assistant.
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