The direct influence of Rupert Murdoch on his newspapers has vanished from Britain, with the news that he resigned from several boards, cutting himself adrift from Britain for the first time since he bought the News of The World in 1969. According to a report on Fox News on Saturday (US Time), Murdoch had not only quit the positions, but boards elsewhere in the world.

“News Corp chairman and chief executive Rupert Murdoch has quit the boards of several company subsidiaries as part of preparations for the coming split of the media giant into two companies, News Corp said.

“The boards include that of News International, the holding company of News Corp’s UK newspapers, said a person familiar with the situation. Other boards are in the United States, Australia and India.”

The Australian and Indian boards were not revealed in the News Corp comments or in the Fox News report (a sort of in-house journal). The Guardian reported that Murdoch resigned from the boards of about a dozen companies in India and Australia, but their names were not disclosed. The news seeped out in London on Saturday night and yesterday.

It came a day after 18 shareholders — including UK fund managers Aviva and Legal & General and the pension fund of the US state of Connecticut — signed a letter calling for Murdoch to step down as chairman of News Corp and for an independent chairman to be appointed following the phone-hacking scandal.

UK Companies House filings show that Murdoch stepped down from the boards of the NI Group, Times Newspaper Holdings and News Corp Investments in Britain last week. “This is nothing more than a corporate housecleaning exercise prior to the company split,” a News spokesman told British newspapers and media outlets. Under the split plans announced in late June, Murdoch will remain chairman of both companies as well as CEO of the entertainment company, which makes up the bulk of the existing company. News Corp hasn’t said who will be CEO of the publishing company, whose businesses will include The Wall Street Journal as well as the company’s UK and Australian newspapers.

The BBC reported that Murdoch had quit the boards of around a dozen companies in the media group’s publishing business. News International CEO Tom Mockridge sent an email to staff reportedly saying that Murdoch remains committed to chairing the newspaper interests when they are demerged from News Corporation.

The Murdoch family has form in quitting the boards of the UK papers, giving an anodyne explanation, only to reveal the real reason a little later. For example, News Corp played down the departure of James Murdoch from News International last November, pouring cold water on suggestions that he was walking away from the British newspaper arm. He did just that three months later when he quit as chairman. He also vanished from the BSkyB board as well in a complete break.

As a result, not too many analysts in London accept at face value the idea that Rupert Murdoch remains committed to the Britain newspaper business. He vowed at the time of the split announcement a month ago to remain a “very active chairman” of the publishing business. So the sudden resignation of directorships on both sides of the Atlantic has raised expectations that he is gearing up to sever all ties with the company.

Claire Enders, at Enders Analysis, told London media outlets that Murdoch’s resignations were part of the “slow fade of Rupert and James from the UK” that began last year and will be “complete and permanent”:

“The grip of the Murdochs, finger by finger, has been loosened and it’s not in order to return triumphantly. It’s a permanent shift. James and Rupert have decided that they are not welcome in the UK, and they’re right. There is an enforced emotional withdrawal from these assets because they are no longer useful [in terms of influence].”

After all, he managed to hold the UK (and the US, Indian and Australian) board positions while executive chairman of News Corporation. So is it because he can’t or won’t be as heavily involved with the publishing company? Again that’s not really a decent reason. After all, he will be chairman of the publishing company and chairman of News Ltd (according to News Ltd, quoted on the 7pm ABC News in Sydney on Sunday night). If he has the time to oversee newspaper operations in far-flung Australia, as well as those of Foxtel and Fox Sports, he should be able to fit in the UK newspapers.

So can it be a matter of reducing the workload for the 81-year-old? Perhaps that’s the real reason. The old chap is starting to feel his age and has started reducing his involvement in the affairs of his empire. No mention if any of his family (especially Lachlan and James) are on the same boards in the US, India and Australia, and remain there.

Meanwhile the final week of the eight-month-long Leveson inquiry starts tonight in London (to wrap up on Thursday, the day before the Olympic Games start). Leading off the list of witnesses is the senior Scotland Yard officer in charge of the investigations into alleged phone hacking and corruption of public officials by journalists. Metropolitan police deputy assistant commissioner Sue Akers is expected to tell Lord Justice Leveson whether she believes the investigations have much further to go or are close to winding up.

Akers is in charge of three investigations set up following revelations about phone hacking and other allegations at the now-closed News of the World: Operation Weeting, examining the phone-hacking claims; Operation Elveden, looking into allegations of payments to police and other public officials for stories; and Operation Tuleta, probing claims of computer hacking and other invasions of privacy.

So far 74 people have been arrested: 26 people in connection with Operation Weeting, 41 in connection with Operation Elveden and seven in connection with Operation Tuleta. The latest arrest was a journalist on The Sun late last week.

The total cost to News Corp of the hacking scandal and other debacles such as the bribery allegations concerning The Sun is estimated to be well over $US500 million. And rising.

Peter Fray

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