When Rupert Murdoch launched a Sunday edition of The Sun earlier this year the action was interpreted as a grand gesture of defiance by the great media fox.
Holding aloft a copy of the tabloid, hot off the Hertfordshire presses that he opened with a £350m investment four years ago, Mr Murdoch was an inky-fingered symbol of commitment to his British newspapers.
It was a dramatic put down of the media sages who predicted that the fall-out from the phone hacking scandal would force Mr Murdoch to depart the Fleet Street stage where he has been such a dominant player since purchasing the News of the World in 1968. Less than six months later, the theatrical unveiling of The Sun on Sunday looks more like Rupert’s final bow.
Having split his News Corp in two and resigned his chief executive role at the publishing half of the business, Mr Murdoch has gone further and relinquished his director’s role at News International, which manages his British newspaper interests.
News Corp has been anxious to minimise the significance of the development by describing it as “nothing more than a corporate house-cleaning exercise”. But it feels like a critical moment.
Rupert Murdoch has stood like a protective father in front of his British newspapers as News Corp senior colleagues have regarded News International as a threat to share price and corporate reputation that makes a negligible contribution to the company’s coffers.
Chase Carey, the News Corp Chief Operating Officer, and the rest of the board of this phenomenally successful video entertainment empire, have no emotional attachment to a newspaper business which the company chairman has nurtured over more than 40 years. Now the 81-year-old New York-based Mr Murdoch has minimised further his physical link to his London newsrooms.
Without Rupert, The Sun, his new The Sun on Sunday and the heavy loss-making Times titles, which he fought so hard to get his hands on, are left without their champion. It is hard to imagine that the company would not listen to offers for any of them.
With a succession of criminal trials over phone hacking and bribery in the offing there is still plenty of dirt to come out of News International. Rupert Murdoch’s departure as a director might be seen by News Corp as an act of “house-keeping” but it looks likely to be part of a much larger home improvement operation that will see the company’s famous British newspapers swept away.
Ian Burrell is Assistant Editor and Media Editor of The Independent