Murdoch's setting son
James Murdoch’s departure from News International makes it highly unlikely he will step into his father’s shoes
Published 03/03/2012 | 05:00
The resignation of James Murdoch as executive chairman of News International almost certainly ends hopes of a family succession at Rupert Murdoch's global media empire.
Ever since the long-running phone-hacking scandal in the UK turned toxic last summer, James Murdoch has been in the firing line. When it emerged that the News International Sunday tabloid, the 'News of the World' had hacked the voice mail messages on murdered teenager Milly Dowler's mobile phone, a crucial tipping point was reached.
The public revulsion that resulted from the Dowler revelations not only forced Rupert Murdoch to close the 'News of the World', it also stripped News International (the company that publishes parent company News Corp's UK newspaper titles) of the political support and protection that had been such a crucial factor in its success.
Nervous politicians, who had previously fawned to the Murdoch empire, were suddenly queuing up to condemn its alleged iniquities. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had previously hired former 'News of the World' editor Andy Coulson as his director of communications and who counted former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks as a close friend, performed a U-turn and set up the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics.
Ever since Leveson began its public hearings in November 2011, an increasingly horrified British public has been to treated to a series of ever-more lurid revelations on the workings of the British print media, particularly at News International.
Even more worryingly for the Murdoch empire, a scandal that was originally confined to just one of its titles has since spread to some of its other newspapers. This week, Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner Sue Akers told Leveson that her investigation had uncovered a "culture of illegal payments" to public officials by journalists at 'The Sun' newspaper, the daily tabloid that has long been the cash cow of News International's UK print media business.
With 'The Sun' now in the firing line amid mounting fear among the newspaper's journalists that, like the 'News of the World', it too would be thrown to the wolves, something close to mutiny erupted at 'The Sun', after 10 of its journalists were arrested in connection with the police investigation into payments to public officials.
Fuelling the paranoia at Wapping was the fact that much of the information being used by the police in their investigation had been supplied to them by News International itself as the company belatedly sought to clean up its act in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.
In what was widely interpreted as an attack on Rupert Murdoch himself, 'The Sun's associate editor Trevor Kavanagh penned a piece in the paper slamming the arrests as a witch-hunt and then did a tour of the broadcasting studios to drive home the point.
With 'The Sun' threatening to go into meltdown, Rupert Murdoch flew to London and addressed its journalists on the newsroom floor during which he announced that the 'News of the World' would be replaced by a new 'Sun on Sunday', which made its debut to tepid reviews last weekend.
For News Corp-watchers, the most interesting thing about Murdoch's speech was that he was accompanied for the occasion not by his second son, and presumed heir-apparent, James, but by his eldest son, Lachlan. To keen observers, this surprise line-up was an indication of a fresh chapter unfolding in the complicated Murdoch family psycho-drama.
It was Lachlan who since his teens had originally been groomed to take over the News Corp reins from his father. However, in 2005 he abruptly resigned from the family company and returned to his native Australia. While the reasons for Lachlan's decision to quit have never been adequately explained, the steady rise of his brother James within the News Corp ranks certainly contributed to his departure.
After dropping out of Harvard after less than a year, James founded an independent record label, Rawkus. Unfortunately, it was somewhat less than an outstanding success. Eventually he joined the family company in 1996 at the age of 24. He was initially put in charge of News Corp's fledgling internet operations before being appointed head of News Corp's ailing Hong Kong-based TV network Star TV in 2000.
In 2003, he moved to London where, amidst some controversy, he was appointed chief executive of satellite broadcaster BskyB, which is 39pc owned by News Corp. Then, in 2007, he became non-executive chairman of BskyB when he was put in charge of all News Corp's TV and print media assets in Europe and Asia, including News International in the UK.
Until the phone-hacking scandal burst into full public view last summer, it seemed as if James Murdoch had defeated his siblings in the battle to succeed their father -- James and Lachlan's sister Elisabeth quit News Corp in 2001.
However, since the dramatic events of last July, the sun has been rapidly setting on James's News Corp career. News Corp was forced to drop its £7.8bn (9.36bn) bid for the 61pc of BskyB which it didn't already own just days after the Dowler phone-hacking revelations. As this was the deal that was supposed to cement his status as the News Corp boss-in-waiting, the signs were ominous.
There were unconfirmed, but apparently well-sourced, reports that his sister Elisabeth had accused James of having "f**ked" the company and encouraging her father to remove him from his position. The re-emergence of Elisabeth Murdoch, who following her departure from News Corp went on to found Shine, the UK's largest independent TV producer, and more recently Lachlan Murdoch, was a clear signal that James status as heir-apparent was being rapidly eroded.
Then there were James's unfortunate appearances before the House of Commons Culture and Sports Committee and the Leveson Inquiry.
Testifying to both, he was adamant that he had been unaware of an internal 'News of the World' email stating that phone hacking was widespread at the newspaper when he approved a £700,000 payout to Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of England's Professional Footballers Association, whose phone was tapped by the newspaper.
This version of events was contradicted by Colin Myler, the last editor of the 'News of the World', and Tom Crone, News International's former legal manager, who both asserted that James's recollection of these events was "mistaken".
One wag commented that: "Never in the field of human management has one man known so little so often."
This week it was announced that James Murdoch would be stepping down as News International's executive chairman, although he remains, for the time being at least, as non-executive chairman of BskyB. He is moving to News Corp's New York headquarters to take charge of the company's international pay-TV businesses.
No one expects James Murdoch to last long in his new job. It now seems increasingly probable that, like Lachlan and Elisabeth, he too will quit News Corp.
With Rupert Murdoch set to celebrate his 81st birthday this week, it is now unlikely that any of his children will succeed him at the head of the world's second-largest media group.