By Kate Holton and Estelle Shirbon
LONDON, May 11 (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron was among top politicians who commiserated with Rebekah Brooks when she was forced to resign in disgrace as head of Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper group over a phone-hacking scandal, she told an inquiry on Friday.
Brooks is a former editor of the News of the World, which Murdoch shut in July when it emerged its journalists had hacked into the voicemail of public figures and a murdered schoolgirl. She was appearing at a judicial inquiry into press ethics to answer questions about her friendships with British politicians and the influence of Murdoch newspapers.
Her testimony revealed she had met frequently with Cameron, lobbied key offices of government for the approval of a major Murdoch takeover bid and intervened in the long-running row between former Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
“We were a newspaper that was looking after the real serious concerns of our readers,” she said, glancing between her race-horse trainer husband Charlie, the judge and lead lawyer. Brooks was dressed in a demure black dress with white collar that contrasted with her more colourful public image.
Lawyer Robert Jay cut straight to the chase as Brooks began her day-long testimony, pressing her for names of politicians who had expressed sympathy when she was caught up in the hacking storm in July 2011. At first Brooks sought to evade the question, but eventually said:
“I received some indirect messages from Number 10, Number 11, the Home Office, the Foreign Office.” Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street are the prime minister’s and finance minister’s offices respectively.
The impression that the prime minister and finance minister George Osborne surrounded themselves with a coterie of privileged individuals for cosy dinners and horse riding in the English countryside has been pounced on by critics.
Asked if she had indirectly received a message from Cameron to “keep her head up” in the week she stood down, as reported by the Times, she said: “Along those lines. I don’t think they were the exact words.”
Cameron also sent a message to Brooks via an intermediary explaining that he could not remain loyal to her publicly because opposition leader Ed Miliband “had him on the run” over his cosy relationship with top people in the Murdoch empire.
Brooks said former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, with whom Murdoch had a friendly relationship, had also got in touch at that time, but his successor Gordon Brown had not. Brown had once courted Brooks and Murdoch, but had fallen out with them over coverage that he viewed as hostile and intrusive.
“He was probably getting the bunting out,” Brooks said with a smile at the Leveson inquiry.
The 43-year-old, a celebrity in her own right with her instantly recognisable bright red curls, was part of a small group of friends that included Cameron, Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and others known as the “Chipping Norton set” for their weekend gatherings in the picturesque Oxfordshire town.
Cameron, who has acknowledged politicians’ ties with Murdoch were far too cosy, is grappling with a series of disclosures from the Leveson Inquiry that have shown the close social ties between government and Murdoch’s most powerful executives.
Murdoch shut the mass-selling News of the World at the height of the hacking furore last July, and with the political and media elite embarrassed by the revelations, Cameron reluctantly ordered an inquiry.
The appearance last month of James Murdoch at the inquiry revealed how a senior ministerial aide had repeatedly and inappropriately sought to help Murdoch’s News Corp secure the $12 billion takeover of pay-TV group BSkyB.
The aide immediately quit but the minister Jeremy Hunt is also facing calls to stand down. In a written statement to accompany her appearance, Brooks said she had spoken to Cameron and other government members to express her feelings forcefully in support of the bid.
The Telegraph newspaper has reported that Cameron texted Brooks up to 12 times a day, while the Times, quoting from a new biography of Cameron, reported how the two also exchanged messages ahead of social events held in Chipping Norton, which is close to their respective country manors, arranging to meet but without being seen together in public.
Dubbed by some the “fifth daughter” of Rupert Murdoch, Brooks edited the News of the World from 2000 to 2003 and went on to become the first female editor of the Sun daily tabloid, Britain’s most widely read newspaper, for six years.
She confirmed her position as one of the most important executives in Murdoch’s global empire with promotion to run the British newspaper arm, News International, from 2009 to 2011.
A former secretary who rose to the top of Murdoch’s empire, Brooks could strike fear into politicians. While editor of the Sun, she was considered one of the most powerful people in Britain.
John Prescott, deputy Prime Minister under Blair, has told how Brooks played on the rivalry between Blair and Brown, widening a rift at the top of the then-ruling Labour Party which marred much of their time in government.
“It wasn’t a playground spat,” Brooks told the court, when asked about her relations with the two men when they battled over the leadership of the Labour Party. “They were the prime minister and the chanceller of the exchequer.”
Despite a tough demeanour that could intimidate hardened “hacks”, Brooks is described by current and former colleagues as a phenomenal networker who could charm and beguile senior politicians and police.
As the phone hacking scandal spiralled out of control last July, Rupert Murdoch flew into London to take charge of the crisis, putting his arm around Brooks in the street outside his house and telling reporters that she was his top priority.
But her fall has been as dramatic as her rise: she has been arrested on suspicion of phone hacking, bribing a public official and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Her second husband, race horse owner and columnist Charlie Brooks, went to Eton, one of Britain’s most prestigious schools, with Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson. Charlie Brooks has also been arrested for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.