Media

Why resurrecting the red top might just help the Sun rise again

By Warren Johnson |

September 8, 2015 | 5 min read

It would be an understatement to say Rebekah Brooks’ reappointment to the role of CEO at News UK hasn’t been warmly welcomed in all quarters.

“It mystifies me that Rupert Murdoch would want to reappoint her,” was the reaction of Labour MP Chris Bryant. “Murdoch must be mad,” was the view of former Observer news editor Chris Boffey, writing in The Drum. Brooks’ return to the fold had reportedly been dismissed previously as “unthinkable” and “unfathomable” by company insiders.

Rebekah Brooks

There’s little doubt the appointment is a controversial decision and surprising in some respects, but is it actually a bad move?

Since Brooks’ resignation and the closure of the News of the World in 2011, revenues are down from £654m to £490m. Meanwhile, the most recent ABC figures showed the Sun’s website is the least popular of any UK national newspaper, with 800,000 daily browsers, compared to the Mail’s 14 million. The Sun remains dominant in print, but while it sold 430,000 copies more than the Mail in August 2014, this figure was reduced to 240,000 copies by August 2015.

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On softer measures than profits and sales, the company’s sense of swagger and the ability of its titles to set the agenda and dominate the political and media landscape, there’s an intuitive sense that News UK has gone backwards since Brooks’ departure.

Does it therefore follow suit that the best person to return the company to past glories is a figure from its past? Brooks is likely to encounter challenges on multiple fronts, but given her unique experience and understanding of News UK, the answer could well be yes.

Following former Mail deputy editor Tony Gallagher’s appointment as editor of The Sun, we can expect Brooks’ first moves to include supporting the implementation of a more sophisticated digital offering and the continued relaxation of the paywall, which could prove transformative for the title.

Brooks’ reputation as a consummate networker – demonstrated by close ties with the last three prime ministers – can also play a key role in re-establishing the News UK’s influence. Of course this won’t necessarily be easy to replicate – scandal-wary politicians won’t be overt in their courting of Brooks, regardless of her acquittal.

Business and political leaders still need close ties with News UK, however. Even if Brooks’ networking efforts necessarily skew more towards the former than the latter, it will be a true test of her renowned ability in this area to rebuild these relationships.

There is also the question of whether Brooks will face internal resentment as the beneficiary of loyalty beyond that which would be extended to other employees. Possibly so – and the skills Brooks used to win the ear of senior political figures will need to be applied to build trust and establish morale internally. It would be bolder than it might appear at first glance, however, to bet against her achieving this.

In many ways Brooks’ reappointment, in the face of these challenges, is a characteristic Murdoch move. On the one hand, it’s a strategic decision to bring back skills News UK has lacked lately, but it’s also an audacious signifier. It says the organisation will remain irreverent, won’t bow to the pressure of a perceived ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ and absolutely means business.

It’s a controversial decision – but it’s one that suggests a hunger to reassert the company’s dominance of UK media and politics. It’s bold, it’s risky and it has the potential to be a resounding commercial success.

Warren Johnson is founder of W

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