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After Rupert – welcome to the game of thrones at News Corp

EPA/Andrew Gombert

It seems like only yesterday that Rupert Murdoch and son James were fronting up for News Corp executive management at the UK House of Commons culture select committee, dodging comedy cream pies from protesters and struggling to explain how the phone-hacking which destroyed the News Of The World and the company’s potentially hugely lucrative bid for BSkyB could have happened without their awareness or involvement.

Those were difficult days for the Murdochs. They were facing not merely the destruction of their corporate and personal reputations in the UK, but the serious possibility of criminal charges in the US, where the parent company is based.

Had they been pursued by the US authorities to the next level, allegations of paying public officials and phone-hacking levelled at News International in the UK would have been terminal for News Corp as a global corporation. At the very least, such an outcome would have forced the Murdoch family to relinquish control of the company.

It never happened. While Andy Coulson and others were convicted of serious crimes, and hundreds of ordinary hacks lost their jobs at the News of the World, James and Rupert saved themselves and scuttled back to the US. They were damaged, but not down and out.

In an effort to create distance between the toxic UK news division and the highly profitable global entertainment business, Rupert split the company in two. His beloved, resolutely loss-making journalism became the remit of News Corp, and the rest went to Fox.

Since then, and notwithstanding the loss of BSkyB, profits have soared, and something like normal service has been resumed. Even Rebekah Brooks, having been cleared by a London jury but forever tainted with the reality of what went on during her tenure as a key Murdoch executive, is back in the frame.

In March 2014, James was appointed co-chief operating officer at Fox headquarters in New York under the mentorship of Carey Chase. He must have done OK in that position, because he is now earmarked to become CEO, while Lachlan Murdoch will join him in the US as co-executive chairman. Rupert himself, we are told, will become non-executive chair. The hold of the Murdoch family on the business will be well and truly restored.

Well, maybe. These proposed changes have the look of testing the water about them. If Rupert wishes to put his intentions out there and see what the market – his shareholders in particular – make of it. Will they buy James Murdoch as a suitable person to run one of the world’s largest media corporations, given what happened on his watch at Wapping? Will they endorse what looks like a succession plan, or seek to put a spanner in the works? Will ethical concerns triumph over the bottom line?

And what of the future for news and journalism at News Corp? One imagines that if James and Lachlan do succeed their father, they would bring to the roles his personal commitment to investment in journalism, and a readiness to lose money in an activity with overreaching political value, here in Australia not least.

On the other hand, when Rupert does eventually depart for the great newsroom in the sky, will more mundane corporate realities come to the fore, spelling trouble for the loss-making Australian, The Times in the UK, and other outlets?

The answer to this question will depend not just on the avoidance of further ethical breakdowns of the phone-hacking type, but on the success of News Corp’s digital transition strategy. If News can find that elusive business model which makes journalism profitable as well as politically important in a market such as Australia, or the UK, or the US, and sooner rather than later, one can see how the parent company could be persuaded to let it continue.

If not, its future must be in question. That would be a shame, because for all that Rupert has long been an ideological bogeyman figure for many, he has been a force for good in stressing the importance of journalism, and the need for consumers to be prepared to pay for content that they want to see preserved.

First things first, though. Let’s see how the market responds to the news about James and Lachlan, and if the corporation’s shareholders are now ready to forgive and forget the phone-hacking scandal, once and for all.

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