So Rupert Murdoch has wooed back his favourite 'red top' to run the Sun and much more besides. Yes, as I predicted in my Drum column several months ago, Rebekah Brooks is to return as UK supremo of Murdoch's British newspaper empire, encompassing the Times and Sunday Times as well as the country's biggest-selling tabloid.
It marks a remarkable, and inevitably controversial, comeback for the titian-haired favourite four years after she stepped down as CEO of News International at the height of the phone-hacking scandal, with a near £11m compensation package. Since then Rebekah Brooks has been cleared at a sensational eight-month Old Bailey trial of all charges (while her former deputy and lover at the now defunct News of the World, Andy Coulson, together with four other senior editorial executives, were convicted and jailed).
The latest reports of Rebekah's renaissance – in the Financial Times and picked up by the Independent and the Guardian – look rather like a judicious corporate 'leak' and significantly failed to trigger any denial from the Murdoch stable either in the UK or the US.
Since the phone-hacking scandal and the News of the World's demise, the 'Sun King's' global empire has been split into two, with the publishing arm hived off from the far more profitable, and valuable, entertainment division. The British newspaper division is now rebranded as News UK, headquartered in London's mini-Shard at London Bridge rather than Wapping, but Rebekah Brooks' position as head of the company's UK publishing operation is essentially the same as that she occupied as News International CEO when the hacking scandal erupted and effectively scuppered the Murdochs' ambitions to complete a full takeover of Sky television.
Sources close to the New York boardroom are quick to stress that Brooks' revived role will involve no influence over Sky, which is part of the corporation's separate entertainment division; a crucial distinction if Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, plan any fresh attempt to take total control of Sky.
Meanwhile, by a curious coincidence, the dramatic news of Brooks' corporate resurrection came on the day the company's bete noire the Guardian broke the story that the Crown Prosecution Service in the UK is considering corporate criminality charges against the company over the phone hacking scandal – an ongoing embarrassment that has so far cost Rupert Murdoch £332m in civil settlements and legal costs involving 377 victims, ranging from showbiz stars like Jude Law and Charlotte Church to Cherie Blair and ex-Cabinet ministers including John Prescott, David Blunkett and Tessa Jowell. Plus less famous targets, including crime victims, most notoriously the family of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler.
According to The Guardian, the CPS recently received the completed report from Scotland Yard's much-criticised Operation Weeting team into the possibility of corporate charges over the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World. The CPS confirms the Guardian account but refuses to be drawn on its final decision on whether any prosecution is likely to follow and many lawyers think there must be a very big question mark over the prospect of the company facing criminal charges.
That said, the Guardian report's timing won't exactly delight Rupert Murdoch and his high-powered international legal team just as they're poised to announce Brooks' return. Any prosecution, it's important to note, would centre on phone hacking and NOT paying public officials where most of the company's journalists who faced trial were acquitted, although their public official sources (whose identities were controversially handed over by the management to the chagrin of journalists) have been convicted, or pleaded guilty, and landed in jail.
IF a corporate prosecution does go ahead in the UK – and it remains a big if – it would almost certainly come under section 79 of RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000) which deals with consent, connivance or negligence by directors, managers or other senior staff in wrongdoing. Although she was personally cleared on phone hacking by an Old Bailey jury, Brooks would inevitably be thrust back into the maelstrom should a corporate prosecution go ahead. It would focus on her handling of the crisis, and its discredited 'one rogue reporter' strategy as CEO and whether negligence was a factor in the industrial scale hacking under Coulson and his lieutenants. All of which raises the question why Rebekah Brooks is being thrust back into the intense spotlight.
There seems little doubt that it's very much the personal initiative of Rupert Murdoch himself, who once described her as an honorary 'daughter' and has steadfastly remained a genuine admirer of her talent. There are (unconfirmed) 'whispers' out of New York that some other board figures were less enthusiastic than Rupert himself about bringing Brooks back to a top job. But, as one source confided to me, 'Just like Lola in the old song, whatever Rupert wants, Rupert gets'.
It's also clear that Murdoch, who funded Brooks' legal bill, accepts her trial defence that she was in the dark about the 'dark arts' operation sanctioned by Coulson and at least five of his most senior executives. The idea that Brooks' 'failure' to establish that culture was in place ill-equips her to return to the helm of the UK newspaper fleet also holds no water with Murdoch.
Fairly or not, Rebekah's reappointment will also trigger mixed feelings elsewhere, not least among some journalists, past and present, who found themselves in the dock, particularly those who faced prosecution over payments to public officials. But sources inside the Baby Shard report that Rebekah has been on a 'charm offensive' among journalists. It's also fair to say that she had already resigned and played no part in the much-criticised decision to shop journalists and their sources to the police. Indeed, some suggest Brooks has indicated that was a strategy she wouldn't have gone along with if she'd still been CEO.
According to those well-placed 'leaks', Rupert Murdoch had previously wanted to restore Rebekah to her former glory but she demurred until now. But it's fair to say that others who know her and her ambitions well find that a little hard to believe and that she always hankered after a return, particularly after that Old Bailey jury found her innocent.
Her return will inevitably reignite both media and political controversy. Not least for David Cameron, her one-time close friend, who publicly called for her resignation and poured cold water on Murdoch's well-advanced Sky takeover bid in the wake of the Millie Dowler fallout. Some suggest that the Sun's relatively cool attitude to Cameron compared to its enthusiasm for George Osborne isn't entirely unconnected to that scenario. Unlike the prime minister, Osborne (the prime mover in Coulson's ill-fated appointment as Tory communications supremo) has kept his head below the parapet and never disowned his friendship for Brooks in the way Cameron did. It should all make for an interesting occasion when News UK throws its traditional party at the upcoming Tory party conference.
There are even those Murdoch-watchers who believe the Brooks' comeback is partly Rupert's 'rascally' way of delivering a two-fingered salute to Britain's political (and media) establishment, including to Cameron personally. But as she braces herself for both a big job and big controversy ahead, Brooks could take heart from the reaction of Tom Watson MP, the politician who did most to expose the scale of the News of the World phone hacking scandal and coverup. Now the favourite to win Labour's deputy leadership, Watson said that while many 'won't take kindly to it, like everyone else Rebekah Brooks deserves the chance to rebuild her life'. For once in their lives, Brooks and Murdoch most assuredly agree with him.
According to the Guardian, Brooks' return isn't the only major change pending. It reports that Sun editor David Dinsmore will be moved 'upstairs' to a UK corporate position. Rumours have been rife among Sun journalists recently that the popular Dinsmore is being 'eased out' of the editor's chair, a move that wouldn't exactly boost staff morale, it's suggested.
On the face of it, it's also a puzzling move – if it happens – just as the Sun seems to have rediscovered some of its confidence and agenda-setting chutzpah with the Lord Sewel sex expose and the 'Royal Nazi salute' photo scoop. Daily Mail deputy editor and ex-Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher or Sun managing editor and former PCC director Stig Abell are the mooted favourites for the job, with the final choice no doubt down to Rupert Murdoch and, of course, a newly installed redhead.
Another name being mentioned by Baby Shard insiders if the Sun editorship is up for grabs is that of Tom Newton Dunn, the paper's political editor who was a central character in the 'Plebgate' scoop and the subsequent legal storm over the police's highly-contentious secret seizure of journalists' phone records WITHOUT seeking a judge's consent.However, Rupert Murdoch's 'loyalty' to Rebekah Brooks will hardly play well with those dissident institutional shareholder groups in the US who have consistemtly expressed anger over the company's handling of the hacking saga, its massive settlement costs, reputational damage and the unusual share structure which gives effective control to the Murdochs even though the family only hold a relatively small per cent of the stock.
Paul Connew is a broadcaster, media commentator&former editor of the Sunday Mirror, deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and News of the World. He is also co-author of 'After Leveson' and has worked as a senior executive both for and against the Murdoch empire on both sides of the Atlantic