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Rupert Murdoch has stepped down from the boards of all of News Corp’s UK newspaper businesses, symbolically distancing himself from the Fleet Street empire he began when he bought the News of the World and The Sun in 1969.
News Corp described the move as “nothing more than a corporate housecleaning exercise” before the media group splits its publishing assets into a separate company from its Fox, Sky and Star entertainment brands. He will remain chairman of both companies, giving him continued influence over the newspapers, and chief executive of the entertainment business.
The 81-year-old’s exit from boards including News International and Times Newspaper Holdings Limited was announced to staff on Saturday in an email from Tom Mockridge, chief executive of News International. Mr Mockridge said Mr Murdoch had also resigned from more than a dozen, mostly small, subsidiary boards in the US, India and Australia.
But the news resonated most in the UK. The country where Mr Murdoch turned The Sun and the News of the World into tabloid market leaders, bought The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981 and fought print unions at Wapping in 1986, was pivotal to his transformation from an Australian press baron to a global media mogul.
However, investigations into phone hacking, payments to officials and alleged computer hacking at the UK titles have ensnared Mr Murdoch’s wider group in the last year, shattering his political clout and prompting previously unthinkable moves including a $10bn share buyback and the plan to split the company.
Mr Murdoch took personal charge of the launch of The Sun on Sunday only five months ago, and his outsized influence over the UK newspaper market remains a focus of regulators.
The newspaper scandals that have led to 70 arrests prompted Ofcom, the UK media regulator, to examine whether BSkyB, and News Corp representatives on the satellite operator’s board, are “fit and proper” owners of broadcast licences.
Ofcom could in theory force News Corp to sell some or all of its 39.1 per cent stake in BSkyB, but it was unclear on Saturday whether Mr Murdoch’s resignation from its UK newspaper companies would have any bearing on News Corp’s ability to retain its BSkyB holding or try again to acquire full control.
Some News Corp UK newspaper subsidiaries remain the focus of civil litigation. James Murdoch, Mr Murdoch’s second son, resigned in February as executive chairman of News International, having stepped down as a director of News Group Newspapers in November.
Speculation has been rife that News Corp could sell one or all of its UK newspapers, with some executives and Murdoch family members said to support an exit, but Mr Murdoch has said the UK titles will be included in the publishing company that he is expected to spin off in about a year.
The chairman and chief executive of News Corp is expected in London during the Olympic Games. He has been increasingly critical of the UK economy, British “snobs” and David Cameron’s “weak” government.
In June, he said “the English” made him reluctant to invest in the UK and on Saturday he took to Twitter to write: “Britain more an entitlement state. Bigger than ever with growing debts. Is it too late to change culture and restore energy?“