Rebekah Brooks dined with Britain‘s prime minister over Christmas and got a public show of support from her boss Rupert Murdoch before the cameras this month as allegations of phone hacking on her watch mounted.
Now the 43-year-old U.K. media executive is a criminal suspect, her world of power and connections shattered by scandal.
Brooks, who quit as head of Murdoch’s British newspapers Friday, was arrested Sunday in a widening investigation into years of alleged phone hacking of hundreds of celebrities, politicians and even murder victims, as well as bribing police for information, at the now-shuttered tabloid News of the World.
The arrest sealed Brooks’ swift transformation from one of Britain’s most powerful female executives to a figure of scorn and even parody.
On Sunday, an Irish discount airline seized on perceptions of Brooks as an outlaw, placing an ad in The Observer newspaper that showed a photograph of the longtime Murdoch confidant, said to be so close to him that she was seen as family.
“Hacked Off with High Fares… I’m outta here with Ryanair!” the caption crowed.
The implications of Brooks’ arrest stretch far beyond her own circumstances, with questions about the extent to which the scandal rocking Britain’s media establishment will dismantle the chain of command in Murdoch’s business empire and erode the stature of Prime Minister David Cameron and other politicians who had once-cozy ties to the 80-year-old press baron.
Another of Murdoch’s chief executives, Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton, also had to resign Friday after more than 50 years with Murdoch. James Murdoch, head of European and Asian operations for his father’s company, News Corp., is under increasing scrutiny. He and the senior Murdoch, along with Brooks, face questioning Tuesday by British lawmakers investigating the scandal.
Brooks has been at the center of the storm since the scandal broke.
Recognizable by a long shock of curly red hair, the 43-year-old Brooks was a loyal lieutenant of Murdoch and served as editor of the News of the World for part of the time when the tabloid’s journalists allegedly hacked into telephone messages.
Reports of illegal eavesdropping had percolated for years, but revelations that journalist had hacked into the voice mail of a 13-year-old murder victim, Milly Dowler, in 2002 caused a public uproar.
The scandal was deemed toxic for the tabloid, and Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old newspaper. Brooks was vilified for initially clinging to her job while 200 other journalists lost theirs.
Brooks’ career with the News of the World began in 1989, after briefly working for Murdoch’s group as a secretary. She started as a features writer, then became features editor, associate editor and ultimately deputy editor. She left the tabloid in 1998 to become deputy editor of Murdoch’s other London tabloid, The Sun, where she stayed for two years.
When Brooks returned to the News of the World as editor in 2000, she was only 31 years old — a feat for Britain’s press establishment.
She peppered the tabloid with celebrity scandals, and drew praise for using the newspaper as a platform to help get sex offender legislation, known as “Sarah’s Law,” passed in Britain. Brooks’ controversial campaign to publicly identify pedophiles drew criticism from some police, who said it disrupted investigations and could lead to cases of mistaken identity, but she defended it on the grounds that the public had the right to know.
In another stint at The Sun, another Murdoch tabloid, Brooks became its first female editor in 2003. She thumbed her nose at critics who expected her to end tabloid’s daily topless model pictures on page 3, attaching a headline that said “Rebekah from Wapping” to the photo of a nude model of the same name on her first day on the job.
Six years and a host of scoops later, Brooks was named chief executive of News International, joining the elite circle of Murdoch confidants.
No longer drafting the headlines from her perch in the executive suite, Brooks has still made plenty of them — from her lunches and social calls with top politicians to one unusual brush with the law.
In 2005, Brooks was arrested for allegedly attacking her husband, soap-opera star Ross Kemp. No charges were filed.
Brooks’s second marriage, to former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks, came in 2009. The couple have been known to rub shoulders with some of Britain’s most prominent politicians and appear at society events from Windsor Castle to Wimbledon.