There is a distinctive type of News Limited editor and executive. First, they are men or women who don’t displease men. They are razor smart and steely tough, not formally educated but proud of what they have learnt in the school of hard knocks.

They tend to anti-intellectualism, are comfortable in a machismo culture, and have a largely unreflective loyalty to the company, and to journalism. Their loyalty to journalism is their greatest strength. The lack of reflection, their greatest weakness.

Kim Williams, until yesterday CEO of Foxtel, breaks the mould — the first boss of News Limited  to do so. John Hartigan’s departure was not a complete surprise. Williams’ appointment is.

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His elevation will bring some changes, and alter key dynamics in Australia’s largest newspaper publisher. Williams is a man of culture, confident in his own intellect. He is certainly hard-nosed, but he doesn’t have the rollicking boys’ club machismo of the classic News Limited man.

There were rumbles that Hartigan would be off weeks ago, and Harto himself had told people earlier in the year that his era was nearing its end. Yet it is also the case that he had more recently told people that he would not be going, or not yet, after all.

Clearly, he got that wrong. We will probably never know for sure the balance between push and jump in Harto’s departure, but Rupert Murdoch’s visit has followed the normal pattern, if a little faster than usual. Sun King flies in, executives depart. It normally takes a few weeks to play out, rather than a few days.

The key to Williams’ appointment is clearly his experience and success in building subscription media businesses, just as News Limited begins the move to a paywall model for content delivered online.

But how will he get on with the News Limited editors?

Williams is a clever and sophisticated man. To take just one example of how his approach differs from the more instinctual classic News Limited vibe, he has been one of the most intellectually cogent critics of the ABC.

He has gone beyond the knee-jerk and evidence-light bias allegations that have characterised News Limited’s attacks, and made a much more sophisticated critique. See this piece for an example.

He has also been one of the most consistent advocates of deregulation of broadcasting. See this 2009 example.

Politically, Williams is no pinko, but would line up several steps to the left of figures such as The Australian editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell and The Daily Telegraph editor Paul Whittaker. The dynamics between these men will be interesting. It is hard to imagine them working together without a blow-up sooner or later.

Mitchell has had a direct line to Rupert, with The Australian’s strategy of cornering a market in right-wing opinion driven from the Sun King himself. How will that play out now? It will be interesting to watch.

Mitchell and Williams have big egos, and fancy themselves as intellectuals. Where Harto has been a bit hands-off in his relationship with editors, either not wishing or not able to contain excesses, Williams has a reputation for being more interventionist.

This morning on the ABC’s breakfast program, asked about allegations The Daily Telegraph was conducting a campaign against the Gillard government, Williams seemed to tacitly acknowledge that it was so, while defending its right to do so, and criticising pollies for having glass jaws. Previously News Limited has strenuously denied any such campaign.

What about relations with government? Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is not a fan of Williams.

Nor can Williams claim that he has had much success in Canberra. As CEO of Foxtel, his main priority was to get changes to anti-syphoning legislation so that pay television could show more first run sport. He was not successful, either under Howard or under Rudd and Gillard. Meanwhile, Conroy has delivered big favours and commercial breaks to commercial free-to-air television.

Over time, I would expect the dynamic of News Limited to change if Williams wins the almost inevitable battles he will have with some of the rusted-on News Limited men.

Commercially, his savvy in building successful subscription businesses will itself mean changes of direction, with new approaches less driven by unreflective loyalty to traditional mass-media journalistic norms. That is not to say that Williams lacks commitment to journalism — only that he comes from outside classic journalistic culture.

What about Rupert? The other announcement yesterday was that he will become chairman of News Limited. Some speculated that this signals the preparation of an Australian bolt-hole, given how on the nose the family is in Britain and, to a lesser extent, the US.

Perhaps. Another and likelier explanation is that the bolt-hole is not geographic but corporate, with Rupert gradually becoming chairman of branches of the empire, while retreating from his CEO roles.

With the first round of hearings of the media inquiry wrapping up in Melbourne this week — the show moves to Sydney next week — it has surely been one of the biggest weeks in news media for some time.

But with the media inquiry and the changes at News Limited, there are a few shoes still to fall.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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