Blog by John Miller

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Fast rise, fast fall

No one rose so far, so fast in British journalism as Rebekah Brooks. And now, as a result of journalistic sins so heinous they defy explanation, she stands to lose it all.

Britain has been in a furore since The Guardian newspaper alleged that in 2002, when Brooks was editor, the tabloid News of the World hacked the voicemail of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler (later found to be murdered) to access and delete messages left by her parents.

British Prime Minister David Cameron described the hacking as a "truly dreadful act" and urged police to investigate it vigorously. Opposition leader Ed Meliband went further, saying it "represents one of the darkest days in British journalism" and that Brooks, now chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's News International, should "consider her conscience" and resign.

What Brooks says about it, and also what she does not say, provides a cautionary tale for all editors and CEOs: What's done in the name of your company is done by you, and you stand accountable for it.

Brooks doesn't see it that way, yet. In an email to News International staff the other day, she said: "It is almost too horrific to believe that a professional journalist or even a freelance inquiry agent working on behalf of a member of the News of the World staff could behave in this way. If the allegations are proved to be true then I can promise the strongest possible action will be taken as this company will not tolerate such disgraceful behaviour. I hope that you all realize it is inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations."

At the time, Brooks was the youngest editor of a national newspaper. She joined the News of the World as a secretary in 1989 and, 11 years later, became its top editor. In 2009, Australian media tycoon Murdoch made her CEO of his British newspaper division.   

Her journalism has always been controversial. While at News of the World, she oversaw its controversial campaign of "naming and shaming" convicted child sex offenders, actions that led to several angry mobs terrorising those suspected of being offenders. There were several cases of mistaken identity, leading a police chief to label it "grossly irresponsible journalism."

In her email to staff defending herself from the latest hacking allegations, Brooks proudly referred to her campaign to "out" pedophiles, saying it "defined my editorships."

Instead, what appears to have defined her editorship is either lax supervision, or outright perfidy. The New York Times has written that if the allegations are true, "it would mean either that Ms. Brooks had no idea how the paper she edited was obtaining information about the Dowler family for its articles, or that she knew about the hacking and allowed it."

Alarm bells should have rung at News International and the newspaper after one of its reporters, Clive Goodman, was jailed along with Glenn Mulcaire, a hired investigator, for illegally intercepting the phone messages of members of the royal family in 2006. A police enquiry revealed that the News of the World had a routine practice of intercepting mobile phone messages of celebrities, politicians and other public figures. Andy Coulson, formerly deputy editor to Brooks and her successor as editor, was forced to resign as the prime minister's communications chief after allegations of journalistic dirty tricks at his former paper mounted earlier this year.

Instead of fully investigating the extent of phone hacking in its newsroom, the News of the World assured a parliamentary committee that it was an isolated case done without the knowledge of top editors. The head of that committee, John Whittingdale, now tells BBC radio that "we expressed considerable doubts as to whether or not that investigation was thorough. I think now we can almost certainly conclude that it wasn't."

Similarly, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission said it was now clear the watchdog had been lied to during its earlier investigation of phone hacking practices at the paper.

Although Brooks seems to still enjoy the confidence of Murdoch, the British press is about to undermine that with its reporting. The Dowler fiasco happened under her editorship. She certainly encouraged the hiring of private investigators to work with her reporters. Paul McMullan, one of her former assistant editors, told The Guardian last year that he personally had authorized several hundred acts that could be regarded as unlawful, but that senior editors were aware of it.

Under Brooks, the paper was rife with questionable journalistic practices. Records published by the Information Commissioner's Office show that 23 journalists from the News of the World hired one private investigator a total of 228 times, including for the purchase of addresses and former phone numbers relating to Milly Dowler's disappearance.

(The animus directed towards Brooks by even her own colleagues was evident when she turned up in the News of the World newsroom to deliver the shocking announcement that the paper would be closed. When she offered to answer questions, the paper's current editor, Colin Myler, quietly told her to leave the floor, and was applauded by his staff.)

As a former newsroom manager myself, I feel it is inconceivable that this could have happened without Brooks' knowledge. If it did, she was incompetent and responsible for it because of her neglect of line authority as editor. I think it is only a matter of time before she is forced to step out of journalism, where perhaps she never actually belonged.