Prime Minister Kevin Rudd intensified a bitter war of words with Rupert Murdoch yesterday as the head of the media mogul’s Australia arm quit in a shock move during an election campaign.
Rudd, facing an uphill battle to win September 7 polls against the Tony Abbott-led conservative opposition, has become a target of the Murdoch media and he accused the powerful tycoon of an orchestrated plan to get rid of him.
“Fact number one is Mr Murdoch has said in black and white that he wants Mr Abbott to be prime minister of Australia, (and) no one disputes he controls 70% of newspapers,” Rudd told reporters in reaction to the surprise announcement that News Corporation Australia chief Kim Williams had quit.
“We also know as a fact that Mr Murdoch sent out his right hand man to Australia, Mr Col Allan, (and) we know as fact a large number of his editors were called to a meeting in Sydney last week.
“What we know from that meeting, because those editors have spoken to various people, is the message that was given to them was: Go hard on Rudd, start from Sunday and don’t back off.”
The mogul jetted in his trusted Australian lieutenant, New York Post editor-in-chief Allan, last week to shake up his titles.
Days later Williams, who came from a pay television background, resigned after overseeing some brutal cost-cutting and staff reductions as the group transitions to a more digital platform.
Margaret Simons, director of advanced journalism at the University of Melbourne, said Williams was the victim of internal News Corporation politics, with the old newspaper hands winning their battle to have him removed.
“News Limited has always been dominated by its newspapers, as opposed to News Corporation, and its most powerful people have traditionally been the editors of the mastheads,” she said, referring to the Australian arm by its old name.
“Right from the early weeks he (Williams) was in conflict with other people.
“Yes, he was brought in to restructure and had experience in paid content models, but he was strongly opposed by the well-established men in the newsrooms. It is clear now who has won that battle.”
Williams has been replaced by Julian Clarke, a long-time company man who was most recently chairman of Murdoch’s Melbourne-based Herald and Weekly Times group in Australia, whose titles include the Herald Sun.
“Clarke is an old hand on the Murdoch carousel. He will be a popular appointment,” added Simons.
Murdoch said Williams had been “a steady and courageous leader at a time when our businesses have faced unprecedented pressure and economic challenges”.
Williams took the job 20 months ago, moving from his role as head of Foxtel, a News Corporation joint venture that is Australia’s largest pay television company.
In an internal memo to staff, he said he was leaving with “a heavy heart and a mixed bag of feelings”.
“It is certainly not a decision made lightly,” he said.
Murdoch said he was “so pleased” to have Clarke take the helm at News Corporation Australia. “He is an experienced executive with a unique understanding of our company’s culture,”he said.