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Ex-Murdoch editor Brooks launches hacking defense, acquitted on one charge

Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie Brooks (L) arrive at the Old Bailey courthouse in London Fe
Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie Brooks (L) arrive at the Old Bailey courthouse in London Fe

By Michael Holden and Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) - Rebekah Brooks's meteoric rise to wield vast power from the pinnacle of Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper empire should not be held against her when jurors decide whether she is guilty of phone-hacking, her lawyer told a London court on Thursday.

Brooks, a close friend of the last three British prime ministers, took the stand for the first time on day 62 of her trial, explaining how she rose from an ordinary background to become one of Murdoch's leading editors in a matter of years.

The case centers on widespread phone-hacking by journalists at the 168-year-old News of the World Sunday tabloid, which Murdoch closed amid huge public anger in July 2011, and on other allegations of crimes by staff on its sister daily paper The Sun, both of which she used to edit.

Brooks was cleared of one of the five charges on Thursday on the judge's instruction - that of authorizing a payment to acquire a picture of Prince William in a bikini - but faces four other charges, which she denies.

Six others, including her husband who is accused of trying to conceal evidence, are also on trial.

Opening her defense, Brooks's lawyer Jonathan Laidlaw urged the jury to forget the myth that had built up around one of the most famous women in Britain and to focus on the specific charges of a case that has rocked the country's elite.

"It is time for you to see Mrs Brooks as she is, not as she is described or spoken of, but as she is," Laidlaw told the jury. "She is not being tried, is she, because she was the editor of a tabloid newspaper.

"Neither is she on trial for having worked for Rupert Murdoch's company or for having worked her way up literally from the bottom through that organization."

During the first few hours of testimony, the 45-year-old Brooks detailed the advice she had been given by Murdoch and also the resistance she had faced as she rapidly rose, as a young woman, through the ranks of the male-dominated newsroom.

"There was probably a bit of old school misogyny," she said, relating how colleagues had kept a file on stories they deemed to be no good and how she suspected they had also cut her phone lines after she had got a good scoop.

RAPID RISE

Wearing a dark blue dress and white cardigan, she appeared apprehensive as she started answering questions in a quiet voice before relaxing as she explained the inner workings of a newspaper. She occasionally cast glances at her husband Charlie.

The jury was told she went to the News of the World to work on its magazine as a researcher in 1989 and later as a feature writer.

Asked how good she was at interviewing people for stories, she said: "Well I kept my job so I must have been alright."

Despite a lack of experience and only basic journalism training, the court heard how she rapidly rose through the ranks. By March 1994, she was deputy features editor and the following September, at the age of 27, was made acting deputy editor of what was then Britain's biggest selling newspaper.

"It was a tough world," she said, adding she later helped form a group with female staff from other papers called "women in journalism", which some male journalists dubbed "whinge".

She said Murdoch would call the editors of his two British Sunday titles every Saturday evening, wherever he was, to find out what was going into their papers. "He would ask what's going on, that was always his opening gambit. He was news-obsessed."

In personal advice to Brooks, Murdoch advised her not to become the focus of attention herself. "Early on I remember him coming into my office for the first time ... and he said it's a big challenge at a young age," adding she had a long career ahead of her, to take her time and to learn on the job.

Murdoch made clear he wasn't fond of his editors appearing on radio or TV to offer their opinions on subjects he said. "Don't create publicity," she said was his advice.

Brooks told the court how, as features editor, one of her biggest decisions had been to spend some $250,000 in 1995 to get an exclusive story from Divine Brown, a prostitute who had a liaison with British actor Hugh Grant.

Brooks said they gave Brown $100,000 and then hired a jet to fly her and her family to the desert in Nevada to keep them away from other British reporters.

"It seems silly now," she said, adding that it had seemed important at the time.

By 1998, Brooks, who said she owed her appointments to Les Hinton, a Murdoch stalwart who worked for the media mogul for 54 years after starting his career in Australia by bringing him his sandwiches, was made deputy editor of the Sun tabloid, Britain's biggest-selling daily paper.

"I was 29 with not much to show," she said of the "mixed" reaction to her appointment, describing the first few months as "very tough".

Before she began her defense, the jury were instructed by the judge overseeing her trial at London's Old Bailey court to return a verdict of not guilty on one of two charges against her of conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.

This related to an allegation that Brooks had approved an illegal 4,000-pound ($6,700) payment for a picture of Prince William dressed as a "James Bond girl" and wearing a bikini while at a military academy party in 2006.

Brooks is still accused of four other offences relating to conspiracy to hack voicemail messages on mobile phones, authorizing illegal payments to public officials and then plotting to hinder a subsequent police investigation.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

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