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She was Rupert's red-top, the flame-haired charmer who clawed her way from tea girl at a local paper to become Britain's biggest media power broker. Four years after quitting her job as chief executive of News International and 14 months after her acquittal over charges relating to hacking into the cellphones of thousands of celebrities and politicians, Rebekah Brooks is back running Rupert Murdoch's newspapers in Britain.

It is an extraordinary victory for a woman who was once the country's most hated journalist. She was editor of News of the World when the Sunday paper was bugging and hacking its way across Britain, into not just celebrity bedrooms, but also the phone of Milly Dowler, a missing teenaged schoolgirl, later found to have been brutally murdered.

News of Ms. Brooks's resurrection provoked cries of shock and dismay among her many enemies. Chris Bryant, Labour MP and shadow culture secretary, said it was "two fingers up to the British public." However, her return should surprise no one. At the height of the phone-hacking scandal and even after closing the profitable News of the World, Mr. Murdoch declared that Ms. Brooks's future was his No. 1 concern.

Even so, her judicial escape and corporate rescue may turn out to be a less than glorious career move. She is now leading an organization that is smaller and facing trouble on many fronts. The hacking scandal is far from over, with the Crown Prosecution Service considering charges against News International (now renamed News UK). But the real problems lie much deeper than the prospect of a second round of legal fisticuffs before a judge. While Ms. Brooks was dealing with juries and parliamentary select committees, the tabloid newspaper world was quietly falling apart.

In the good old days, under her reign in Wapping, where she edited News of the World and then The Sun, tabloids mattered a great deal. The Sun once notoriously boasted it had won an election for Margaret Thatcher, but its influence then was genuine. Tony Blair's biggest political coup was not securing leadership of the Labour Party, but persuading Rupert Murdoch to allow The Sun to back Labour again. These links between the News Corp. titles and Downing Street became even more intimate than telephone tag between political editors and spin doctors. Ms. Brooks had the private numbers of three prime ministers and she used them, calling Tory David Cameron so often that she kept his number on speed dial. She occasionally spent weekends at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country residence.

As the hacking scandal ballooned, Mr. Cameron's political embrace of Mr. Brooks became a huge embarrassment, not least because he was persuaded to hire as his press supremo Andy Coulson, once editor of News of the World and a former lover of Ms. Brooks.

Yet, there is something about these shenanigans that smells a little dated – such as the waft of mouldering air from a drawer of old newspapers. The influence of the tabloids is waning. You can see it in the accounts – News Corp. UK suffered an operating loss of £3.5-million ($7.1-million) in the year to June, down from a profit of £51-million the previous year. Profits almost halved at The Sun, the group's London flagship paper and cash-flow generator.

The Sun's readership is dwindling fast. It remains the country's top-selling newspaper, at about 1.8 million copies, but circulation is falling at a rate of more than 10 per cent a year. It was hurt badly by its decision in January to scrap the Page 3 topless models, and the Daily Mail is snapping at its heels, selling 1.6 million copies and occasionally outselling The Sun's new Sunday edition.

Worse than the falling paper circulation has been the online experience. News Corp.'s decision to impose a paywall on The Sun's website has had a devastating impact on readership. Prior to launching pay-for-view in 2013, The Sun was getting 1.9 million readers, but in July that had fallen to fewer than 800,000, the worst figures for a British national newspaper.

It is hardly surprising that The Sun is now selectively dismantling its paywall. Someone seems to have noticed that a popular newspaper has to be popular. The purchase of The Sun and News of the World marked Mr. Murdoch's first big venture into British newspapers in 1969, and The Sun remains his much-loved, if sometimes wayward, child. Finding a digital strategy for The Sun will be Ms. Brooks's first priority.

She has the stomach to do what is necessary – an instinct to ignore caution and spot stories that press emotional buttons. Under her editorship, News of the World launched a notorious "name and shame" campaign to expose convicted pedophiles, which successfully ended up in legislation, the so-called Sarah's Law. And she is not afraid to use anyone and everyone: She revealed in The Sun that then-chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown's son had cystic fibrosis, apparently publishing the story against his wishes.

One wonders whether Ms. Brooks would have backed the decision to retire the Page 3 glamour girls. As editor of The Sun in 2004, she launched a vicious retaliation against Clare Short, a Labour MP who campaigned against tabloid nudes, accusing her of being "fat and jealous" and a "killjoy."

Popular instincts may not be enough to save The Sun, which is now swimming in a torrent of online tabloid journalism, a great deal of it generated by readers with iPhones and Twitter accounts. It's not just the competition, but the attitudes and preferences of a new generation that is barely aware of newspapers.

There was a time when prime ministers felt the need to have editors and publishers on a hotline. It was because they believed that newspapers could truly deliver a community of opinion, that the editors know what the world out there thinks and feels, and that knowledge could be owned. Today, the knowledge is disaggregated, atomized – it's a free-for-all.

If Ms. Brooks can't find a place for The Sun, there may come a day when it rises no more.

Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist and freelance consultant based in Britain.

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