When Rebekah Brooks returns to run Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers today she will face the toughest challenge of her career – rebuilding her reputation and the company in the harsh glare of the public spotlight.
Ms Brooks, the media mogul’s protege who was cleared last year of being part of a criminal phone hacking campaign to dig up news stories, will resume oversight of Britain’s The Sun and The Times papers as News UK chief executive. On her return, she will face a new fight to stem falling circulation at The Sun, the move of advertisers online and the simmering resentment from some staff who feel Mr Murdoch sought to protect Ms Brooks above all others when faced with the crisis engulfing his company.
Renowned for her networking abilities, the 47-year-old will also have to find a way to rebuild ties with those who run the country after her 2011 fall from grace led to her vilification.
Her return today marks a comeback for someone who worked her way up from the lowest rung on the newsroom ladder to become one of the most powerful women in Britain. That all seemed set to end in 2011 when the defunct News of the World tabloid she once edited admitted its journalists had hacked into thousands of voicemails including those of a murdered 14-year-old girl, Milly Dowler, to break news, sparking global revulsion.
Ms Brooks was later arrested and charged with conspiring to hack into phones, bribing public officials and perverting the course of justice, but was cleared after an eight-month trial.
Andy Coulson, who went on to become British prime minister David Cameron’s spokesman, went to jail, while a handful of other journalists were also found guilty.
A senior company insider said people who spent time with Ms Brooks over the last couple of months during her visits to News Corp headquarters had noted that she was now a much more congenial person than before.
Despite the acquittal, critics of the company were dismayed by her return, noting Ms Brooks’ defence had been that she could not be expected to know what her staff were doing. Chris Bryant, an opposition politician, said Mr Murdoch was “sticking two fingers” – a British gesture of insult – at the public, while media analysts said it signalled that his News UK operation was ready to put the crisis behind it.
The next challenge for Ms Brooks will be tough, however. In her four-year absence, Britain’s press, known collectively as Fleet Street after the London lane where the papers were for generations based, has changed significantly. Sales of The Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, have fallen 34 per cent since she left, while the paper has failed to carve out a niche online – unlike fierce rival the Daily Mail, which boasts one of the most popular websites in the world.
Prosecutors have said they are still considering whether to bring corporate charges against Mr Murdoch’s British newspaper business, while the resentment over how the crisis was handled internally has not gone away.
“The most generous thing you could say about her [Ms Brooks]is that her lack of managerial oversight and due diligence during a period which brought this fine company to its knees is something that few people will ever forget or forgive,” said a recently departed insider, speaking on condition of anonymity.