High-rolling Brooks couple in eye of phone hacking storm

15th May 2012, Comments 0 comments

Rebekah Brooks, one of Rupert Murdoch's closest confidantes, and her horse trainer husband Charlie are a high-society couple who are part of British Prime Minister David Cameron's social circle.

But the couple could both face jail sentences if found guilty after being charged Tuesday with obstructing justice, along with four others, in the first criminal charges from Britain's News of the World phone hacking scandal.

The scandal has already led to Brooks, 43, leaving her job and to the closure of the News of the World, the tabloid she once led as one of Britain's youngest newspaper editors -- and one of its few female editors too.

But until recently the couple were close to Cameron and moved with some of Britain's biggest names as part of the so-called "Chipping Norton set", an elite social circle based in a quaint Oxfordshire town.

They reportedly first met at a party hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the popular TV motoring show "Top Gear", at his Chipping Norton estate.

Red-haired Brooks -- until last year the chief executive of Murdoch's British newspaper arm News International -- comes from a relatively humble state-educated background, and is known as ambitious and a skilful networker.

Born Rebekah Wade in northwest England, she joined Murdoch's News of the World at age 20 as a secretary, and 11 years later was the paper's editor.

She became so close to Murdoch, now 81, that she was sometimes called his "fifth daughter".

After three years Brooks moved to become the first female editor of sister paper The Sun, where she stayed for six years before being promoted to chief executive of News International.

Her husband is a long-time friend of the prime minister, having met him at the elite boarding school Eton College.

Charlie Brooks, 49, is four years older than the premier but they remained friends as Brooks went on to become an amateur jockey then a racehorse trainer.

Known for his lavish socialite lifestyle, he has also written a racing column for the Telegraph newspaper and a novel, "Citizen", subtitled Greed, Speed, Corruption and a Race to the Death.

It was praised by The Sun for its "sex, intrigue and horses... the perfect ingredients for a smashing read".

Rebekah was herself the subject of tabloid stories in 2005 when she was arrested then released without charge after her first husband, actor Ross Kemp, suffered a cut to the mouth.

She and Kemp later split, and in 2009 she married Charlie Brooks, holding a wedding party attended by Murdoch, Cameron -- who was opposition leader at the time -- and then-prime minister Gordon Brown.

Cameron continued socialising with the Brooks, and has been forced to admit he even rode a retired police horse lent to Rebekah by Scotland Yard.

The admission was dubbed "horsegate" by the British press and was widely viewed by commentators as a symbol of overly close links between police, media and politics.

The phone-hacking scandal gathered pace in July 2011, leading to Rebekah Brooks' resignation after two decades at News International and arrest on allegations of phone hacking and bribery.

The couple have since avoided the public eye, apart from Rebekah's appearances at an inquiry into press ethics and before parliament.

They have also been caring for their daughter Scarlett, born in January from a surrogate mother.

In March, just before what Charlie Brooks said in his newspaper column would be "the happiest moment of my year" at the Cheltenham races -- one of the biggest meetings of the year -- both were arrested on suspicion of obstructing the course of justice.

Rebekah Brooks now faces three charges as well as remaining on police bail from her first arrest, while her husband faces one charge.

They are due to appear before magistrates in London on June 13.

© 2012 AFP

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