Business

Murdoch should sell NOTW

James Murdoch's decision to quit the chairmanship of BSkyB was an extraordinarily personal wrench. Perhaps more than any other business in the family empire, the satellite broadcaster was the project of the prodigal son, not the imperious father.

Duncan Painter, a former BSkyB executive who comes across like The Office's David Brent but with knuckledusters, waxes lyrical about his former boss.

At a conference for his new staff at trade magazine publisher Emap back in January, Painter said that it was Murdoch who set BSkyB the target to hit what appeared to be an overly ambitious 10 million subscribers. Painter told the Emap sales force that they could only be successful if they were similarly driven and, if they weren't, would be shown the door.

Ruthlessness: a true trait of News Corp disciples.

Murdoch set that goal in 2004 and BSkyB went on to hit his deadline in 2010. According to Painter, Murdoch didn't really have a plan, but he sure as hell had a vision and his BSkyB troops were suitably inspired to ensure that our streets are now full to the brim with satellite dishes.

Despite that extraordinary success, BSkyB investors have been openly discussing Murdoch's future since the height of the phone hacking scandal last year. More than a third of them voted against his reappointment to the board in November.

Aside from an intriguing but slightly sketchy BBC Panorama investigation into the demise of ITV Digital and admissions last week of occasional email hacking " in the public interest", BSkyB has not been dragged into the scandals that engulfed News International, the News Corp subsidiary behind The News of the World.

However, shareholders were worried that Murdoch's continued presence had the potential to bring unwarranted speculation and suspicions to the business. Murdoch recognised this and admitted last week that, as chairman, he risked becoming a "lightning rod" for negative publicity:

"As attention continues to be paid to past events at News International, I am determined that the interests of BSkyB should not be undermined by matters outside the scope of this company."

That this was a belated decision is undeniable: his leadership had already hurt BSkyB. The scandal derailed News Corp's ambitions to snap up the 61 per cent of the company it didn't already own, and shares have fallen from £8.50 last summer to well under seven quid today.

However, Murdoch junior did the right thing, eventually. And, given the 39-year-old's pride in what he had achieved at BSkyB, it is understandable he should wait to see if the storm would subside so that he could carry on.

Now it is time for his father, Rupert, to make a similarly gutsy choice that will hurt him both emotionally and commercially: he must sell The News of the World title, which he bought more than four decades ago, so that a new owner might restore its former glories.

NOTW is one of the most important rags in the history of not just British, but global newspapers. We shouldn't allow a disregard for tabloid hackery to cloud our judgements. The 168-year-old paper had such a rich history of scoops, from the Profumo affair to exposing Jeffrey Archer's courtroom lies, that had everything to do with journalistic excellence and nothing to do with hacking.

Even in its final weeks, the paper was hugely successful financially: the brand wasn't hurt by the scandal; the management team and the journalists allegedly behind that culture were.

This was a true working-class newspaper that at times sold more than any of its peers, anywhere in the world.

NOTW was bigger than the scandal - at least it should have been.

The right thing would be to sell it on to one of the parties that have tentatively asked about buying it. The well known example was a consortium fronted by former Sunday Express editor Sue Douglas, but there has also been Middle Eastern interest.

News Corp's ruthless streak means that this is highly unlikely to happen - there have been plenty of rebuffed approaches to take Today since Murdoch senior closed it in 1995. A NOTW resurrection would eat into sales of the recently launched Sun on Sunday, and the group is suing Saddam Hussein's lawyer, Giovanni Di Stefano, who is apparently using the title for an online venture.

This suggests that the Murdochs will earnestly protect a title they no longer even publish.

But, if they're still in the mood to do the right thing, News Corp will give someone else a shot at running one of the most important newspapers to have ever hit the printing presses.

Topics:  james murdoch, news of the world, rupert murdoch


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