When Kim Williams took over News Corp’s Australian publishing arm last year, it was seen as a strange move. Rupert Murdoch had decided to split News Corp into two global businesses: one concentrating on pay TV, broadcast and film; the other centred on publishing.
But Williams, who had no publishing experience but had presided over Australian pay TV assets including the Foxtel pay-TV group and Fox Sports, moved - along with his pay TV channels - to the Australian publishing arm. The logic being that pay TV would help to balance out some of the losses publishing businesses are increasingly incurring.
It looks like an experiment that failed: after 20 months at the top, Williams has become the latest News Corp chief to step down. In a message to his employees, he said it was a decision made ‘with a heavy heart and a mixed bag of feelings’.
‘It is certainly not a decision made lightly,’ he said. ‘I am confident that I leave the company in a strong position and with good foundations for the future.’
Why Williams has decided to step down isn’t clear, but it’s thought it centres on a dispute between him and News Corp newspaper editors, who have been executing a campaign to oust Australia’s Labour Party during election campaigning.
Apparently they had been told by Col Allan, the editor-in-chief of the New York Post, to ‘Go hard on [Prime Minister Kevin] Rudd... and don’t back off’. This week, as election campaigns kicked off, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a front page featuring Rudd with the headline ‘Kick this mob out’, while the Sydney Morning Herald did the same, with the words ‘It’s on’.
There are reports Williams wasn’t comfortable with those headlines - although to be fair, heading up News Corp’s Australian operations has always been a tough gig. Alasdair MacLeod - one of Murdoch’s son-in-laws - was ousted from running News Corp's original newspaper arm in 2010 without so much as a word of explanation.
So good luck to new incumbent Julian Clarke, former Herald and Weekly Times managing director and chairman. Clarke has been at News Corp since its takeover of Melbourne publisher Herald & Weekly Times in 1987, so he’s seen as a safe pair of hands. Although whether he can turn around the company, which is likely to post an AUS$1.2bn writedown when it publishes its results (although no one knows when that will be)
He also turns 70 in November - so there’s already speculation that he’s warming the seat for Murdoch’s son Lachlan.
With that level of complexity, at least News Corp’s Australian arm lives up to its UK counterpart...