Rupert Murdoch’s recent resignation from the boards of his UK newspapers seems, at first glance, like a dramatic move to distance himself from News International, the British arm of his News Corporation empire.
His announcement came just days before the close of the Leveson Inquiry, the investigation that opened in November to examine culture and ethics in British media, focusing on NI. The Crown Prosecution Service, a government body, also announced on Tuesday that eight suspects in the criminal investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World are being charged with conspiring to intercept communications.
But some people say that the resignation is actually a strategic move.
“In symbolic terms it is very significant,” said Claire Enders, a leading UK media analyst who gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. “This is the first time Rupert Murdoch has not been on one of the newspaper boards in the UK. He’s being moved out of the way as a consequence of the phone-hacking scandal.”
Other commentators see the resignation as a strategic decision that has come from Murdoch himself. Michael Wolff, who published a biography of Murdoch in 2008, said it amounts to a snub of Murdoch’s British colleagues. “It is a way of dealing with your enemies, disdaining those who would judge you. A quintessentially Murdoch way,” he wrote in the Guardian.
NI has attempted to play down Murdoch’s resignation. In a statement, a press officer described the move as “a corporate house cleaning exercise.” Rupert Murdoch follows in the footsteps of his son, James, who resigned from News International and as chairman of BSkyB, another British media conglomerate, in April before retreating to run News Corp. operations in New York.
But the timing of the news fits with an announcement Tuesday that eight suspects will be charged with hacking into the voicemails of 600 celebrities, politicians, and crime victims over a period of six years. The eight facing charges include Murdoch’s top level associates Rebekah Brooks, the former CEO of NI, and Andy Coulson, former spokesman to Prime Minister David Cameron and the editor of the News of the World at the time of the scandal. Following the revelations, NI closed News of the World in July of last year.
Though his resignation may fuel rumors that Murdoch plans to sell off his newspapers in light of recent controversy, Enders thinks that it actually means the opposite.
“This is an essential move, because his future role is something shareholders will want clearly defined,” she told CJR. By removing Rupert and James Murdoch from UK operations, the NI board may be hoping that the company’s public perception, and eventually share prices, will improve. Last month the company announced plans to split its publishing enterprises and its “entertainment” operations, which include Fox News and 20th Century Fox, into two separate publicly traded entities. The decision puts more pressure on newspapers to turn a profit, because they make up almost half of the new publishing entity.
The resignation has limited practical implications. Murdoch remains head of the News Corp. empire, which means he retains control over final decisions. But some are optimistic that events of the last week could signal the beginning of a sea change in British tabloid culture. “The push-the-legal-limits newsroom culture that has gone untrammeled for years… could be a casualty of a new culture of caution,” writes John F. Burns in The New York Times.
While Murdoch’s exile from his UK media holdings will not protect him from any eventual findings stemming from the Leveson Inquiry, it does indicate a defensiveness on the part of News Corp. and the intention to move the Murdoch family out of the frame. Murdoch’s former employees, including Brooks and Coulson, are due to be formally charged in court on August 16.