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Rebekah Brooks at Leveson Inquiry: People's pal or power broker?

By Brian Cathcart, Special for CNN
May 11, 2012 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Evidence given by ex-News International executive Rebekah Brooks at media inquiry highlighted relations with politicians
  • Cathcart: Through her evidence Brooks strove to appear warm, helpful and honorable
  • It seemed to Cathcart that some of her comments and evidence were greeted with skepticism by legal counsel

Editor's note: Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University London and a founder of the group Hacked Off, which campaigns for press reform and speaks for victims of press abuses. He tweets at @BrianCathcart

(CNN) -- There had to be something special about Rebekah Brooks. Here was a woman, after all, who managed to be a close friend of Tony and Cherie Blair, then a friend (perhaps less close and more briefly) of Gordon and Sarah Brown, and then a very close ("lots of love") friend of David and Samantha Cameron.

Given the personality differences between those involved, and given their political differences, it is at least surprising that any one person could be cosy with them all. And for one woman to overcome the jealousy and suspicion of Brown towards a former chum of Blair, and then of Cameron towards a former chum of Brown and Blair, is nothing short of remarkable.

Looking back, it is hard to avoid the conclusion either that this woman was so powerful that politicians felt they had no choice but to clasp her to their bosoms, or that she was so amazingly nice and such utterly marvelous company that anybody would want her at their dinner table.

Giving evidence to Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry on her relations with politicians, Brooks did her very best to show us her amazingly nice and marvelous side -- even in the teeth of some pretty niggling questions from Robert Jay QC.

Demure and tidy beneath the famous mop of hair, she was polite and well-spoken, and always -- Andy Coulson-like -- controlled. But she also strove to appear warm, helpful and honorable. Where Jay tried to provoke, she smiled. When he pushed her towards a corner, she became engagingly baffled by his perversity.

Her friendships were just normal, she implied. How often did she send text messages to the prime minister? "I would text Mr Cameron, on occasion -- like a lot of people." Like you and me, perhaps. Her persistent forgetfulness about almost anything substantive was, her expression implied, normal too. Who remembers this kind of stuff?

As for influencing politicians, everything she did, she suggested, was driven by her loyalty not to Rupert Murdoch but to The Sun's millions of readers, whom she could not or would not distinguish from "the nation" or "the country." She acted "for the paper and for the readership," and insofar as she had power it was as a kind of embodiment of her readers.

So when she (or The Sun) did something tough, as they did more than once to Gordon Brown, she wanted us to know that it was done for high-minded reasons, and with pain in her heart. Notably when The Sun dumped Brown on the morning after his annual party conference speech in 2009, the timing was not, she said, designed to maximize damage, but to allow Brown a final opportunity to impress Sun readers in the speech.

She also told us she tried to ring Brown just ahead of publication to warn him, as a "general courtesy" and because it was "the right thing to do."

When The Sun published a story about the health of the Browns' son, it was all done in the nicest possible way, and if the couple had had reservations she would have spiked it.

All of this Jay greeted with an air of skepticism, but Brooks's message was clear: "Look at me. I'm nice."

What could be more natural than the Blairs, Browns and Camerons all falling in turn for such charms? Maybe you would too. Mince pies and mulled wine in your Oxfordshire retreat? Invite Rebekah. Girls' slumber party at Chequers? Invite Rebekah.

But of course it can't be natural, as Lord Justice Leveson himself stepped in to remind us. In one of his several pertinent interventions he spoke to Brooks of "relationships you have been careful to develop for professional reasons, and doubtless coincidentally for personal reasons, over the years."

Those words "doubtless coincidentally" carry a vast weight. Even if Rebekah Brooks were Snow White and Mother Teresa rolled into one, nobody could seriously believe that the professional and the personal reasons for her friendships with political leaders just happened to coincide. And Brooks is nothing like Snow White or Mother Teresa.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brian Cathcart

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