| 14.7°C Dublin

Ex-Murdoch stalwart Mockridge to run rival Virgin Media

TOM Mockridge, who worked closely with Rupert Murdoch in more than 20 years at News Corp, is to take over at Virgin Media, pitting the two men against each other in a battle for British pay-TV viewers.

Mockridge will take his in-depth knowledge of the European media market into the camp of Murdoch's long-time American rival John Malone - who is in the process of acquiring Virgin - and follows the New Zealander's obvious displeasure at missing out on a top job at News Corp in New York late last year.

Speaking of the move, however, he was anxious to play down industry chatter of boardroom betrayal and a thirst for revenge.

"I have 22 years of experience in News Corp, across multiple markets, but it's not like I'm taking a box of secrets out from News International that is going to be relevant here," Mockridge told Reuters. "Frankly I've got a lot to learn and absorb."

Mockridge ran News International, the British newspaper unit, for 18 months, replacing Murdoch protegee Rebekah Brooks in 2011 after the News of the World was hit by scandal over its hacking of the voicemails of celebrities and crime victims.

Mockridge, 57, will take over as chief executive of Virgin once Malone's cable firm Liberty Global completes its $15.75-billion purchase. He will replace Neil Berkett, who has said he would stand down as part of the takeover.

A newspaper reporter in his youth, a decade of success at Italian pay-TV arm Sky Italia had made Mockridge's name as a key executive and loyal lieutenant to the Australian-born mogul.

But after it appeared he would not be offered the chief executive position at a new publishing division in a forthcoming split of News Corp, he surprised colleagues and investors by walking out in December.

It was a sour note on which to end a succession of jobs at the media conglomerate, from newspapers in New Zealand to pay-TV channels in Australia, Germany and most notably in Italy, where he was chief executive of Sky Italia from 2003 to 2011.

"To be direct," he told News International staff at the time, "The reason I am leaving is that the new structure does not offer me a role I am comfortable with."

"CLEAR VISION"

He was the chief executive of European Television at News Corp and sat on the board of the satellite group BSkyB, which dominates the British pay-TV market with 10.7 million homes and is 39-percent owned by News Corp.

"Tom Mockridge is somebody with immense background experience in pay-TV, and European pay-TV through Sky Italia, and he obviously knows News Corp extremely well," industry analyst Toby Syfret of Enders said. "He has a reputation for being very direct and he has a clear vision."

Mockridge's first challenge will be to get his head around the changing dynamics of the British television market as it is shaken up by telecoms group BT and its acquisition of the rights to show Premier League soccer from next season.

After engaging in a costly row with BSkyB over the right to show certain content in 2007, New York-listed Virgin has withdrawn from that part of the business and now focuses on providing superfast broadband Internet and a programme discovery system to help consumers find television content.

BT is using its BT Vision television product to sign up more customers to its faster broadband offering, putting it in direct competition with Virgin Media, which licenses its brand from Richard Branson's Virgin Group, a 3-percent shareholder.

Virgin Media's approach has paid off, helping it restructure debt and steadily increase customer numbers and the average amount they pay. It had 4.3 million broadband customers by the end of March, and 3.8 million television customers.

Online Editors