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Hackgate: the impact of Rebekah Brooks’ arrest

Rebekah Brooks travels to News International headquarters last year. EPA/Kerim Okten

Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie were among a number of people arrested yesterday UK time on charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. She was released without charge this morning.

The arrests are a dramatic new step in the ongoing “Hackgate” scandal that has enveloped British media and politics. British Prime Minister David Cameron, neighbour to the Brooks and former schoolmate of Charlie, will be particularly concerned that his government is being increasingly linked to a serious, ongoing criminal investigation.

The Conversation spoke with Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at City University (London), about the implications of these latest arrests of News International staff and their family members.

How much does the arrest of Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie move the phone hacking scandal along?

They are not the first people to be arrested for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in this matter, but they are the most senior.

I think it moves it along significantly. Firstly because of Rebekah Brooks’ position both and the News of the World (NOTW), The Sun and News International and because of her close links with David Cameron, revealed ever closer last week with the issue of the horse.

So the fact that the chief executive, and as it happens her security person, have been arrested under conspiracy to pervert the course of justice means this is serious, the thing is moving. And if Rebekah Brooks is charged then she has potentially very serious matters to face in court.

What are the political implications for David Cameron?

David Cameron has a reputation as the Teflon Man; in other words he’s able to get out of most scrapes unharmed. The most serious issue he faced in the course of what we call Hackgate was his connection with Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World that he made his press secretary.

His connections with Rebekah Brooks were supposedly social – they are neighbours and he went to school, Eton no less, with her husband Charlie. However, there have been revelations about the closeness of their relationship on a political level.

Over the course of Cameron’s first year in office, he met with Rebekah Brooks and other News International executives fairly frequently. I don’t think it will be fatal to David Cameron, but it certainly undermining and placing yet another question mark over his judgement.

Is the investigation heading slowly but inexorably towards James Murdoch. Is that a fair reading?

Yes and no. James Murdoch was chairman. But from what I can gather and my own knowledge of the News International operation, Rebekah Brooks was much more actively at the helm, and James Murdoch was never that interested in newspapers.

James Murdoch could yet find himself further embroiled in the phone hacking scandal. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

He was chairman of the holding company, and the buck would certainly stop with him. And it is no coincidence that he has been removed from that position by his father. I would say that the finger of suspicion if you like, and we’re aware of the legal niceties, is pointing more towards Rebekah Brooks because it will probably turn out that if there was a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, she was actually involved while James Murdoch was perhaps turning a blind eye.

Does the arrest of Rebekah Brooks trigger the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the USA, which could provide the wider News business with severe problems?

In theory it is. But in practice, I’m not sure it would be because there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Rebekah Brooks was actually in News Corp’s activity in the US, she was very much focused on News International here and the activities of The Sun and the News of the World.

However, there is undoubtedly serious concern in News Corp that there might be other aspects to this scandal that would involve them in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

That is, if in the course of their investigations the police discover that journalists working for News International were attempting to bribe or hack in a way that would affect either people working for US Federal authorities or other state authorities.

There has been some suggestion that there were stories that involved that. If that were to happen, then I think the ramifications for News Corp would be serious. But I’m not sure that the arrest of Rebekah Brooks per se takes us much further forward on that issue.

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