There are very few women journalists – or indeed newspaper journalists of either sex – that Fleet Street colleagues know by first name alone. Yet even before her recent travails, most British newspaper journalists could identify who was meant by “Rebekah”, even if they couldn’t necessarily spell it.
Hers has not been a name appearing on multiple bylines down the years, but her rise to the top attracted awed comment from her peers. Rebekah Wade, born near Warrington, Cheshire, in 1969, elbowed her way to Fleet Street via a brief stint on Eddie Shah’s shortlived Post newspaper, where she appeared as a 20-year-old who said she had studied at the Sorbonne. Quite what she did there remains unknown.
After the Post folded, Wade moved to the News of the World, where she began work, then colleagues maintain, as a secretary. Quickly, she transformed herself into a journalist writing features about soap operas for the paper’s magazine, distinguishing herself with a front-page scoop about the footballer Paul Gascoigne in the early 1990s. Spotted by Patsy Chapman, then editor, Wade was promoted to the main paper. Her efficiency there impressed Chapman’s successor, Piers Morgan, in his brief stint as editor.
He wrote in his published journal about the way she expertly handled discreet preparations for a hotel-room interview by News of the World journalists with James Hewitt in 1994 about his relationship with Diana, Princess of Wales. It was around this time that she met Rupert Murdoch, and by the time Morgan left to edit the Daily Mirror in 1995, she was deputy editor. Three years later, Murdoch moved her to be deputy editor of The Sun, before she went back to edit its Sunday sister title, aged just 31, in 2000.
She has married, twice, to high-profile non-journalists whose worlds nevertheless interconnected with her career: first, in 2002, to Ross Kemp, the EastEnders actor, and then in 2009 to Charlie Brooks, an old Etonian racehorse trainer and writer who was a close friend of David Cameron’s elder brother Alex.
By then, Brooks – she changed her name only for her second marriage – had already spent six years editing The Sun, the first woman to occupy what was a politically much more demanding and important role. Soon, her fiery red hair was becoming increasingly familiar outside the newspaper world and she became close to both Gordon Brown and Cameron, with whom she exchanged many, often cloying, text messages.
As an editor she had been comfortable with a high profile. For instance, she pushed herself to the fore of newspaper campaigns such as the News of the World’s demand for a law to identify the whereabouts of paedophiles.
However, once she was appointed chief executive of News International in June 2009, Brooks found almost immediately that she was the recipient of unwelcome publicity. The phone-hacking scandal, which broke that summer, eventually led to the closure of the News of the World and, despite Murdoch describing her as his “priority” in dealing with the crisis, to Brooks’ resignation.
Subsequently, she has been charged with three counts of conspiracy to hack phones, three of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and one of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office. She has publicly announced her intention to defend herself against her accusers.
On January 25 this year, a surrogate mother gave birth to Scarlett Anne Mary Brooks, who had been implanted in the mother as an embryo conceived in vitro by Rebekah and Charlie Brooks. Had that been the only headline about her in the rest of 2012, it might well have been a year of unmitigated happiness.
Ben Fenton is a senior reporter on the FT’s live news desk
Women of 2012