A public reputation in shreds. The prospect of lengthy public inquiries and high-profile court actions. The enmity of every political party. A company apparently riven by family feuds at the top. Gloating rivals and unhappy advertisers. Tom Mockridge, the new boss of Rupert Murdoch’s British operation, faces a rare set of challenges at News International, where he takes charge after the resignation today of their former chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, over the phone-hacking scandal.
But Mockridge is no stranger to hostility or vicious scrapping with governments. Back in 2002, the 55-year-old New Zealander masterminded the creation of Murdoch’s satellite broadcaster Sky Italia, becoming the first foreigner to head a major Italian media organization. And that’s meant confrontation with a mean and powerful adversary: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In recent years Mockridge has found himself locked in conflict with Berlusconi, who jealously guards the revenue—as well as the influence—that his own media empire can supply.
Once, Murdoch and Berlusconi were friends and allies, sharing an enthusiasm for right-of-center politics. No longer. Berlusconi’s recent move into the pay-TV business spells direct competition with Murdoch’s largely subscription-based operation, and the fight looks set to intensify as Sky Italia takes on Berlusconi’s Mediaset stations on the free-to-air market.
It’s a long-odds struggle. Berlusconi controls more than half of all TV advertising through Mediaset, and enjoys considerable power over public broadcaster RAI. As ever, critics allege that to maintain his dominance he’s happy to confuse his political and commercial interests. In the past, Murdoch’s Sky found itself hit by a hefty tax hike on pay-TV subscriptions as well as regulations restricting broadcasting hours.
For once, the Murdoch media represents the champion of democracy against the unaccountable forces of business and government. In contrast to Britain, where the Murdoch press is seen as a sinister and too-powerful influence in national life, Sky Italia has emerged as a dissenting voice that won’t echo the government line on its 24-hour news service.
Such a stance has gained Mockridge some enthusiastic admirers. “He has been a truly brilliant CEO,” says William Ward, London correspondent of the Italian daily Il Foglio, and an occasional Sky Italia contributor. “Unlike the heads of any other Italian news outlets, who are beholden to some politician or other, he’s utterly independent.” His manner too sets him apart. “Italy is a land of serial blatherers but he never says anything. He is revered by his staff but he is almost unknown to them. If they have seen him, they have never heard him speak.”
Inevitably, there are fault-finders. Fabrizio Perretti, an authority on the media at Bocconi University in Turin, praises Mockridge’s success in building subscriber numbers at Sky and acknowledges his independence. But he claims the Sky platform lacks a distinctive identity in Italy. “He is more an organizer than an entrepreneur. The battle between Mediaset and Sky is really about access and price rather than quality. He is really just buying and distributing content. It is just a replica of what [Sky] has done in other countries.”
Mockridge clearly enjoys the confidence of his boss. Originally a newspaper journalist, he joined parent company News Corp. in 1991, after a spell on the staff of the then-finance minister of Australia, Paul Keating. Three years ago, Mockridge was given an extra role as chief executive of European television for News Corp. Announcing today’s appointment, Murdoch spoke of a highly respected and accomplished media executive who had shown “leadership and integrity” in Italy. These are qualities he’ll badly need in London.