Changing Times for Murdoch's empire

Rupert Murdoch has unveiled a widespread shake-up of his empire in which his son James takes more control, two key News International colleagues move to New York and The Times gets its youngest-ever editor. Sarah Lagan profiles the characters involved and asks what the future holds

Last week saw a massive shake-up at News Corporation as James Murdoch took the helm as chief executive in Asia and Europe. News International executive chairman Les Hinton was moved to New York to head up Dow Jones as chief executive, along with Times editor Robert Thomson, who was appointed publisher. Current Times business and City editor James Harding was named as the new Times editor.

Harding’s predecessor increased sales by transforming the paper of establishment to a tabloid format and making strides in the development of Times Online. And Thomson claims the title will go into profit next year.

Harding is the youngest-ever Times editor, at the age of 38. He joined the paper as business and City editor in 2006, replacing Patience Wheatcroft as she left to edit The Sunday Telegraph.

Press Gazette asked the experts what they make of the new Times editor and of Rupert Murdoch’s decision to hand over control of News International.

‘Creative flair’

Former Financial Times editor Andrew Gowers, was once Harding’s boss, appointing him Washington bureau chief. He said: ‘I am a huge fan of James. He combines high intelligence with great creative flair.

‘He’s a very imaginative journalist, and what will stand him in good stead is his infectious enthusiasm – he has great charm and he is one of these people who makes thing happen.

‘When meeting people, James often volunteers the information that he is not a particularly well-organised person in a rather charming and disarming way, but the crucial point is that if you know that about yourself, you are going to put people around you who are going to address that and support you.

‘When he was media editor at the FT I think he did it as well as I’ve seen anyone do it. Every day he made a very positive impact on those pages.

‘I think [the promotion of business and City editors to high-profile positions] is a trend because business has become more important for general interest newspapers to cover and to cover well – it’s become a key battleground of competition between The Times and the Telegraph.

‘Everybody wants to have a good business section, and they tend to nurture journalists who cut their competitive teeth there and go on to greater things. The other way of looking at it is that business has become a more exciting subject for people to cover – it’s not a backwater; it’s more like the front window, and therefore it has attracted better journalists over the past 10 years.

‘While the WSJ has been attempting to penetrate the European market, one of the peculiarities is that they never really made a very serious go after the UK market, so this could be a springboard. They have lots of opportunities to build the position of the WSJ in the US on multimedia platforms, with Fox Business and the like, and there is also the promise of the WSJ’s already powerful online presence.

‘I’m just not sure how important a role further expansion of print internationally will play for the WSJ. That’s one of the question marks. The key interest for Rupert Murdoch now is the WSJ. He will do whatever is in the interests of expanding the brand around the world, and other things are secondary.”

‘Lively and intelligent’

Prospect editor David Goodhart recalls commissioning Harding early in his career.

‘I found him lively and intelligent. He was obviously an ambitious young man,’he said.

Harding wrote a column for Prospect in which he compared himself with Yigal Amir, the killer of Jewish politician Yitzhak Rabin, and spoke of his Jewish heritage.

Harding wrote at the time: ‘Until last month, Yigal Amir and I seemed to have a lot in common. Both in our early 20s, university educated professionals of immigrant stock and Jewish. Admittedly, he lived in Israel and I in the Diaspora. He claimed to be an observant and I am wholly ignorant of Jewish law. But no matter, we shared a pride in a 5,000-year history and a distinction of being Jews.'”

‘Refreshing’

David Cracknell, the Sunday Times political editor who is about to move to City PR firm Financial Dynamics, said: ‘James, a bit like Will Lewis, is part of a refreshing new breed of young editors who understand business and the business of newspapers, which is particularly important in these tough times. Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay brothers know how important it is to have business acumen.

‘Both are great scoop-getters in their own right, but they also have that important extra dimension. You have to have that all-roundedness these days, because there are tough times ahead in the print industry and also the expanding web business.

‘James is intelligent, well-liked and I’m sure he’s going be a great success.’

‘Wise Hinton’

Former News of the World editor Phil Hall suggested News International might miss the presence of Les Hinton. He described Hinton as ‘probably the wisest journalist I have ever met”.

‘He’s the guy that everyone will go to when they are in a crisis – he’s always very level-headed, always has an opinion on something and is extremely well-connected, from the most junior members of staff to the most senior levels of government. He’s very effective for that reason.”

But he added: ‘I don’t think the company will suffer a loss at all. James Murdoch has vast experience – they have a very good succession policy, they have very good people inside the company who will step into Les’s shoes, so it will move on like nothing has happened.”

He said Murdoch ‘still calls every senior manager regularly, so I don’t think he will be away from it at all”.

Michael Leapman, a former Times journalist who wrote a biography of Rupert Murdoch, said that although James Murdoch might now be the most powerful man in British media, it is far from inevitable that he will inherit his father’s empire.

‘Grave doubts’

Leapman said James would be a more liberal boss than his father, but said: ‘It’s a bit hard to find anyone less liberal than Rupert Murdoch.”

He said: ‘The subtext to this is that he will take over the company, but I have grave doubts about that. These days corporate governance makes it much harder to inherit [businesses] – the days of family dynasties are over.

Although he controls the company and its assets, Murdoch does not have a majority share in News Corp. For Leapman, James Murdoch ‘may well be the best man for the job’but he will have to win over the investors.

‘The Murdoch dynasty could die with Rupert,’he said. ‘There will be other people from within the company and outside who will be looking at James’s job”

Leapman speculated that Murdoch’s transferral of power to his son will not end his involvement with his UK newspapers.

‘He will be less involved day to day, but he is in charge of the company and he won’t let his lack of a formal position stop him calling up editors and asking: ‘What’s on the front page?'”

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