In a surprise move, seen as a prelude to a major shakeup in Rupert Murdoch's crisis-hit British media group, News International, his son James Murdoch on Wednesday quit as director of the companies that publish The Times, The Sunday Times, and the Sun.
The move sparked speculation that the group might be preparing to sell off its British newspapers to stop the phone-hacking scandal from “destabilising” the parent company, News Corporation.
News International confirmed that Mr. Murdoch had “stepped down from the boards of a number of NI subsidiary companies, including News Group Newspapers (NGN) and Times Newspapers Ltd (TNL)”.
The NGN is publisher of the Sun while TNL publishes The Times and Sunday Times.
NGN was also the publisher of the News of the World which was shut down in July amid fresh revelations in the hacking scandal.
Mr. Murdoch, however, remains chairman of NI, and a director of a key holding company, NI Group Limited, as well as of Times Newspapers Holdings, the editorial board set up to ensure the independence of the paper.
“James Murdoch doesn't step back from NI. He remains chairman,” a spokesman said.
Analysts pointed out that the development meant that no member of the Murdoch family would now sit on the boards of NI's flagship British titles. Mr. Murdoch's decision came ahead of a crucial annual general body meeting of BSkyB at which he is likely to face calls to quit as its chairman. The Murdoch group holds 39-per-cent stake in the BSkyB and its multi-million-pound bid to acquire the remaining 61 per cent was derailed by the hacking scandal.
Mr. James Murdoch's position as his father's heir-apparent has become shaky after widespread criticism of his handling of the hacking affair. He has been summoned by MPs twice to explain how much he knew about the scale of use of illegal newsgathering tactics of his newspapers.
News International sought to play down the significance of his resignation. Sources were reported as saying that he was required to spend more time in America following his appointment earlier this year as deputy chief operating officer of News Corporation. They also insisted that the group remained “committed” to its British titles.