UK hacking furore turns into 'sexist witch hunt'

LONDON (REUTERS) - Rebekah Brooks, former boss of Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper arm, told a London court on Tuesday the media mogul had persuaded her not to quit amid public revulsion over the hacking of a murdered schoolgirl's phone.

Brooks, on trial for phone-hacking offences, said a 2011 report that journalists on Murdoch's News of the World tabloid had tapped the voicemail messages of 13-year-old Milly Dowler had caused a national scandal, with her at its centre, describing it at the time as a "sexist witch hunt".

Despite the furore, Mr Murdoch and other senior figures told her not to resign, and she told the Old Bailey court that amid the public disgust and condemnation, former Prime Minister Tony Blair and CNN talk show host Piers Morgan had also contacted her to offer support.

The outrage began on July 4, 2011, when the Guardian newspaper reported that journalists from the News of the World (NoW) had accessed voicemails on the girl's mobile phone while she was missing nine years earlier, and had deleted some, giving her parents false hope that she was still alive.

The ensuing scandal led Mr Murdoch to close the 168-year-old newspaper and ditch a US$12 billion (S$15.2 billion) bid to take full control of British pay-TV operator BSkyB.

The court has heard Glenn Mulcaire, a private detective who worked for the paper, has admitted hacking Dowler's phone but police had later ascertained he had not deleted any voicemails.

Brooks, who had been NoW editor at the time of the hacking, of which she denies all knowledge, said she had been at a fertility clinic with her cousin, who was carrying her surrogate baby, when she was alerted to the news.

"First of all I didn't believe it," she said. "It was pretty horrific."

She said the news had stunned bosses at News International, News Corp's British paper business, and as the storm grew, she had been deluged with messages of support from friends and colleagues.

"When it rains, it fucking pours," CNN's Morgan wrote in a message to her. She replied: "Terrible, made me feel sick watching the news, can't believe any reporter could do that, must have been Mulcaire.

"If it wasn't a staffer, you have got to get that out there fast," Morgan responded before informing her that her name was trending worldwide on the Twitter social media site.

"He's an avid twit," she said to roars of laughter in the court before explaining Morgan was a constant user of Twitter.

The pressure continued the following day, not least because a decision by the government over whether to refer News Corp's BSkyB bid had been imminent.

That evening she heard from Mr Blair.

"Thinking of you. Anything I can help you with. I have been through things like this," he wrote.

In another exchange, the court heard she told a friend who had suggested the anger directed at her was misogynist: "Feeling slightly like a sexist witch hunt at times."

Days after news of the Dowler hack, the decision was taken to close the News of the World. She said when she held a heated meeting with staff after the announcement, there had been anger that while they were losing their jobs, she was keeping hers.

Brooks said she had first considered her position when it was suggested she might be arrested. But she said there was no immediate suggestion she should quit from her bosses, including Mr Murdoch's son James, in charge of News International at the time.

Mr Murdoch flew into London on July 10 to deal with the growing scandal when she said her future was among the issues he had to address. "He asked me not to (resign)," she said.

Brooks denies conspiracy to illegally intercept voicemails, authorising illegal payments to public officials and perverting the course of justice.

Her trial and that of six others continues.

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