Tom Mockridge, who will succeed Rebekah Brooks as News Intl.’s chief executive, is a key Rupert Murdoch lieutenant who’s worked for News Corp. in his native New Zealand, as well as Australia, Asia and 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. In 1980 he moved to Australia, where he became economics editor for the Sydney Morning Herald. His background is in journalism, economics, politics and pay TV.

From 1984-91 Mockridge was press secretary to Australian finance minister Paul Keating, subsequently the country’s prime minister.

In 1991 he joined News Corp. in Sydney as assistant to Ken Cowley, then CEO of its Australian arm. He became chief exec of its pay TV platform Foxtel in 1997. A brief stint at Asia’s Star TV followed in 2000, and in 2001 he was appointed managing director of Independent Newspapers, New Zealand’s largest print media outfit, and prexy of the Sky New Zealand paybox.

In 2002 Mockridge was called in at the last minute to start up News Corp.’s nascent Sky Italia pay TV operation. Due to EU regulatory complexities as well as both rampant piracy and the treacherous politics in Italy, the job was considered at the time to be one of the conglom’s toughest.

“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.

He was drawing a parallel with his sudden move to take over News Intl.’s assets in the U.K., 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 Intl. topper. He referred to “many challenges” facing News Corp.’s U.K. newspaper unit, without elaborating.

At Sky Italia, chief operating officer Laura Ciolli and chief financial officer Domenico Labianca will temporarily take over Mockridge’s duties.

“Tom is an outstanding executive with unrivaled 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 that formed Sky Italia, then tackled piracy by introducing new decoders. As the number of subscribers began to grow, from 2 million to nearly 5 million today, so did hostilities with Mediaset, which launched its own cut-rate pay TV operation in 2008.

In 2008 Mockridge was also appointed chief exec of News Corp.’s European television unit in recognition of his success at Sky Italia.

In June 2008, when the Berlusconi government raised the value-added tax on pay TV subscriptions, in a move widely seen as favoring Mediaset’s paybox, Mockridge, who is known for being unpretentious, media-shy and feisty, reacted with a barrage of TV spots on Sky that 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 5 million immigrants.

Interestingly, in June, 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 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 his Current TV channel for political reasons tied to the liberal politics of news anchor Keith Olbermann. News Corp. has claimed the decision had nothing to do with politics.Mockridge, who is a big fan of the Kiwi All Blacks rugby team, is married to Italian TV journalist Lucia Baresi. They have two children, Rodolfo and Filippa.