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Exit: Red riding hood

Rebekah Brooks mishandled a crisis. The worst sin of all for a tabloid editor.

india Updated: Jul 17, 2011 22:38 IST

Since she was made editor of the News of the World 11 years ago, there has been almost no briefing against Rebekah Brooks. Before she got the big job there were some attempts to dismiss her by reducing her to ambitious woman cliches but afterwards the shutters came down. She was tight with everyone, everyone wanted her favours, and she circled every administration, every agent, every rising star, every imploding career.

That is, until Thursday, when her close friend Elisabeth Murdoch was quoted telling friends that Brooks had “fucked the company”. Rebekah Wade, as she then was, was Elisabeth’s friend from the moment she arrived in London. They holidayed, worked, played and networked together for more than a decade. News International is an empire built on personal loyalty and clannish defiance. As an indication that it was all over, it was brutally efficient.

By now plenty has been written on Brooks, her hair, her charm and her husbands. But the key to her rise and fall is none of these things. It’s her membership of a very select group who have nothing to do with Chipping Norton. She is the archetypal red-top tabloid editor.

People who have known her very well for a long time, whose relationships with her began professionally and developed into friendship are baffled. These are not blind loyalists — they describe a warm, generous, ‘good’ person who they cannot reconcile with the crimes committed. But they don’t believe she could not have known either.

The thing about Rebekah is that she may have looked very different from those who came before, but you can draw a connecting line through two generations of tabloid editors and see the evolution of the species.

Kelvin MacKenzie, Piers Morgan, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade. Tabloid editors are ruthless and funny, arrogant and sometimes breathtakingly empathetic, monomaniacal yet inspiring leaders — and form cults around their personalities. MacKenzie essentially raised them all: puppyish Piers, Andy the professional and Rebekah the velvet glove. They were a generation of editors who grew out of the Sun’s Bizarre column, and the ability to work both sides of a story — be snapped with your arm around a celeb while simultaneously stitching them up.

We’ve been so busy exorcising the culture of fear and corruption that we’ve forgotten that while politicians and celebrities have always been scared of the tabloids, they were often enthralled by them. At their best these editors were fantastically intuitive, but the fatal flaw of the tabloid editor is overreaching. Morgan tried to be a City whizzkid, played the markets, got caught and ended up the subject of a DTI investigation into insider trading. It was allegedly fake photographs that brought him down, but it was the Viglen affair that put him in the last chance saloon. MacKenzie, oddly, was felled by his own ambition to be a mini-Murdoch. After a brief stint in management at BSkyB and the Mirror Group, he wanted to be the proprietor and tried to achieve mogul-dom with Talk Radio. Now he’s back in the tabs, a voice of the people columnist.

Brooks always had ambitions to run the show. Her supporters were pitching her as Les Hinton’s natural successor as News International chief executive almost from the moment she became editor of the Sun. But, having got the job, she was out of her depth. Tabloid editors aren’t strategists, they are instinctive; they don’t run businesses, they run campaigns, or feuds. The only truly successful one with longevity is Paul Dacre of the Mail, and he’s never ventured anywhere near the share price.

Brooks was not brought down by innate evilness, nor fragility, nor some dreadful father-daughter dynamic with Rupert Murdoch. She wasn’t even brought down by the crime, however thin the “I knew nothing” defence is wearing. She was brought down, like many a chief executive before her, for bad handling of the crisis. For failing to anticipate a public mood. Which, for a tabloid editor, is the worst sin of all.