For a second time this year, Rupert Murdoch has been forced to kill off London reports that News Corporation is looking at ways of separating its troublesome UK newspapers from the rest of the group.

The denial came at the weekend, hours after his UK media empire revealed more of the costs of the hacking and corrupt payments scandals. News International, the UK arm of News Corp has revealed it had spent more than £53 million ($US84 million) for the so-called Management and Standards Committee that has been analysing and passing on to police, evidence of hacking and corrupt payments.

Murdoch moved to quash a story in London’s Daily Telegraph that reported about putting the UK papers in a trust, finding a joint venture partner or selling them to private equity. That’s the second time this year that this story has been floated in London newspapers.

The Financial Times also reported at the weekend in its UK edition that “Two people familiar with the company said senior executives were holding preliminary discussions about options for splitting off titles including The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times to insulate its core television and film business from the long-running scandal over phone hacking and police payments.”

News Corp remained “firmly committed to our publishing businesses, including News International”, its UK newspaper arm, Murdoch was quoted as saying in the Financial Times report. “Any suggestion to the contrary is wholly inaccurate. Publishing is a core component of our future.”

His comment came after one person familiar with the company told the Financial Times that “high net worth individuals without existing UK press assets had expressed interest in News International”.

It’s not the first that this idea has been floated: News Corp chief operating officer, Chase Carey mentioned it earlier in the year. Murdoch shut down that story as well. According to the FT, Carey mentioned the idea again after the News Corp third quarter results were announced earlier this month.

There’s a belief that such a spin-off or separation would be aimed at re-opening the way for Murdoch and News Corp to restart its £8 billion bid for control of BSkyB, currently 39% owned by News. But that is likely to meet significant opposition in the UK from government and others. Ofcom, the main UK broadcast media regulator, is still investigating whether BSkyB is fit and proper to control a UK broadcast licence. The investigation was stepped up following the Leveson phone-hacking inquiry and the charging of more than 50 journalists from The News of the World and The Sun and others over phone hacking, and corrupt payment allegations (which the expensive MSC investigated and revealed to police). The MSC should be regarded as part of Murdoch’s attempt to clean up the London papers and improve the remote chances of another BSkyB bid.

Carey told analysts last week that he was aware of investor interest in a publishing spin-off. “We take that seriously, as we should, both as management and the board. We discuss that and other strategic options,” he said. But with new newspaper management teams facing “headwinds” including weak advertising trends in the UK and Australia, “our focus is on improving those businesses”, he added, the FT reported.

The £53 million figure was contained within News International’s accounts, filed at the Companies House in London, which detail the company’s expenses during the 10 months since the closure of the News of the World. Most of the £53 million has been used to pay legal and professional fees to two leading law firms in the UK and one in the US. Some of the evidence saw several journalists from The Sun and various other people in the military, police and public service arrested in connection with making or receiving corrupt payments. The committee reports to two News Corp board members in New York and has been especially involved in finding and disclosing to police growing evidence of dodgy payments by journalists to UK officials in the civil service and military, as well as the police.

NI Group said it has spent £53.2 million between July last year May 8 to run the MSC, the body set up to internally investigate phone hacking and illegal payments within News International, with the costs attributed to “primarily legal and professional fees”. The costs of advisers had not previously been disclosed, although the accounts of other subsidiaries had already revealed that News Corp’s British division had take a charge of £23.7 million ($US37 million) in the year to July 3, 2011, to meet legal fees and damages of hacking claimants such as Sienna Miller and Steve Coogan.

In a filing with the UK Companies House just before Easter, the directors of News Group Newspapers revealed the closure of the News of the World had so far cost £244 million, or $US375 million.

The major parts of those costs were a £160 million ($US247 million) non-cash write-off on the value of the “publishing rights” for News of the World, in its accounts for the year to July 3, 2011. In addition, News Group took a a £55.5 million ($US87 million) charge relating to redundancy and restructuring costs and legal fees, and after sign-off on the financial documents filed to Companies House on March 30 this year notched up another £5.1 million.

In February News Corp revealed it had paid out nearly $US200 million in legal costs relating to the phone-hacking scandal, with the majority spent on external advice. The figures, contained within the company’s results for the past three months of 2011, showed the media giant spent $US87 million in legal fees and investigations into phone-hacking at News of the World during the period up to the end of December. The costs were in addition to a total of $US108 million News Corp had paid out during the previous quarter.

News Corp revealed a further $US63 million charge in its March 2012 results, which were revealed earlier this month. And, News Corp also revealed on Friday that it had now spent just over $US4.048 billion of the now expanded $US10 billion share buyback. That’s a total of 230 million shares as on last Thursday.

Peter Fray

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