When I worked at the Sunday Times in the early 1990s, the basement of the Wapping offices was full of satellite dishes.
Then in its infancy, satellite television was the new, coming media force. And Rupert Murdoch with his Sky operation was leading the way. As journalists on one of his newspapers we were proud to be part of the revolution.
It was a cultural bonding that went far beyond giving up spare storage space to boxes of hardware. We worked for an organisation that moved quickly and aggressively, that prided itself on being an establishment outsider that was managed very much in the image of its ultimate boss.
If someone had said that two decades later, Murdoch would be voluntarily tearing that pyramid apart, they would have been ridiculed. Sky was joined at the hip with his newspapers as they were in turn with his TV interests in the US – we were all part of one giant and growing Murdoch “family”.
Any suggestion that Rupert is deep-down happy with the splitting up of his News Corporation business into broadcast and publishing must be absurd. It is not what he wanted, never what he intended. His plan, surely, was to pass the whole lot on to an heir drawn from one of his two sons, Lachlan and James. Working with professional managers, they would ensure that News Corp continued to flourish for the rest of the family, that the Murdoch dynasty would remain omnipotent.
That hasn’t happened. Instead, thanks to the fall-out from the behaviour of a small group of journalists, the edifice is being dismantled. There will now be two companies, separately managed and owned, pursuing different strategies. The opportunities for cross-fertilisation will diminish.
There are precedents – notably Viacom breaking out its CBS TV business in 2005. But while that also led to one bit – Viacom – that was perceived as faster-growing, with a concentration on cable TV and the other – CBS – that was slower, here the contrast is even more marked. What’s really occurred is that the investors, using the hacking scandal as a stick, have forced Murdoch to off-load the parts that might have dragged the overall entity back and to create a slicker, stream-lined vehicle, and one capable of powering ahead, unhindered, into digital television.
That’s not to say the unit that houses the newspapers and book publishers isn’t a great company. It is – it’s home to some of the world’s most familiar brands. But without the likes of 20th Century Fox and BSkyB partnering them they will not have the same lustre.
Ten years from now, it will be interesting to see how the two groups have fared.