Exec takes over at scandal-ridden paper

ROME — Tom Mockridge, who will succeed Rebekah Brooks as News International’s chief executive, is one of Rupert Murdoch’s key lieutenants who has worked for News Corp. in Australia, in his native New Zealand, in Asia, and in Europe, over the past two decades.

He is known in Italy as the mild-mannered exec who took the gloves off in a protracted clash with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset while turning News Corp.’s Sky Italia into Italy’s pay-TV leader.

Mockridge, 56, started his career as a print journalist in New Zealand. He then moved to Australia in 1980 where he became economics editor for the Sydney Morning Herald.

His background is rooted in journalism, economics, and politics, and pay-TV.

Between 1984 and 1991 Mockridge was press secretary to Australian Finance Minister Paul Keating, subsequently the country’s premier. In 1991 he joined News Corp. in Sydney as assistant to Ken Cowley, then CEO of its Australian arm.

After becoming chief exec of Australian pay-TV Foxtel, in 1997, a brief stint at Asia’s Star TV, in 2000, and being appointed in 2001 managing director of Independent Newspapers, New Zealand’s largest print media outfit — and also prexy of the Sky New Zealand paybox, Mockridge in 2002 was called in at the last minute to start up News Corp.’s then nascent Sky Italia pay-TV operation.

Due to EU regulatory complexities, Italy’s rampant piracy, and the country’s treacherous politics, it was considered at the time one of the toughest jobs at News Corp.

“In 2002 I received a midnight call from Rupert in New Zealand where I was managing many newspapers and our Sky TV business, and he asked me to fly to Milan the next day,” Mockridge reminisced on Friday in an email sent to Sky Italia employees.

Mockridge was making a parallel with his sudden move to take over News International’s operations in the UK, which are about half the size of Sky Italia in terms of staff and profits.

In the email Mockridge said he had been asked “very quickly” to go to London to immediately take on his new role as News International topper.

He referred to “many challenges” facing News Corp.’s UK newspaper unit, without elaborating.

At Sky Italia, COO Laura Ciolli, and CFO Domenico Labianca, will temporarily take over Mockridge’s duties.

“Tom is an outstanding executive with unrivalled experience across our journalism and television businesses,” James Murdoch said on Friday in a statement.

“He has proven himself to be a very effective operator in his time at Sky Italia.”

In 2002 Mockridge oversaw the merger between payboxes Stream and Telepiu into Sky Italia, and then tackled Italo piracy by introducing new decoders.

As subs began to grow, from 2 million to nearly 5 million today, so did hostilities with Mediaset which in 2008 launched its own cut-rate pay-TV operation.

In June 2008, when the Silvio Berlusconi government raised the VAT tax on pay-TV subscriptions, in a move widely seen as favoring Mediaset’s new paybox, Mockridge, who is known for being unpretentious, media shy, and feisty, reacted promptly with a barrage of TV spots on Sky which called it “an illiberal measure that penalized Italian families.”

Mockridge has also been highly critical of Italy’s TV ratings system, Auditel, claiming it does not reflect the viewing habits of the country’s five million immigrants.

In 2008 Mockridge was additionally appointed chief executive of News Corp.’s European Television unit, in recognition of his success at Sky Italia.

Interestingly, in June of this year Mockridge took a strong stance against Berlusconi’s attempt to restrict media use of leaked wiretaps, many of which linked to Berlusconi’s scandals.

“It’s a wrong law and we will fight it by all means. If the head of our news programs goes to jail, I am ready to go with him,” he said at the time.

Sky Italia’s Sky TG24 news channel in Italy is considered among the country’s most objective and non-politically influenced news operations.

But Mockridge and Sky Italia also recently got into a big spat with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore in May after Gore claimed that Sky did not renew its contract with Gore’s Current TV channel for political reasons tied to the liberal politics of news anchor Keith Olbermann. News Corp. has denied this claiming the decision was economic and had nothing to do with politics.

Mockridge, who is known to be a big fan of New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, is married to Italian TV journalist Lucia Baresi. They have two children, Rodolfo and Filippa.

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