LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch risked a spat with directors tasked with protecting the independence of London's Times and Sunday Times newspapers on Friday after ignoring their disapproval and appointing temporary acting editors to both titles.
The independent directors refused to formally approve the appointments in an apparent disagreement over the future of the papers, which Murdoch's British newspaper operation said were in a "very difficult financial position."
The Times reported that the independent directors "refused to accept News Corporation's nominations of the two men for permanent appointments." The company said it was going ahead with the appointments on an acting basis.
"During this interim period of continued consultation ... we still have a responsibility to provide these two newspapers and their journalists with strong and stable leadership," said News International Chief Executive Mike Darcey.
Darcey said John Witherow, the editor of the weekly Sunday Times, would become acting editor of the daily Times, effective immediately.
Witherow's deputy, Martin Ivens, takes over as Sunday Times editor, but again on an acting basis.
Witherow, who has edited the Sunday Times for 18 years, will fill the gap left by the departure of James Harding from the editorship of the Times in December.
The independent directors, who include former Bank of England Deputy Governor Rupert Pennant-Rea, are responsible for ensuring that Murdoch abides by undertakings he made when he bought the papers in 1981.
These include ensuring that the two titles remain distinct and have separate editors free from editorial interference. The appointment of a new editor requires the directors' approval.
"We see our presence as the editorial equivalent of a nuclear weapon - a deterrent to possible proprietorial interference," Pennant-Rea told an inquiry into British media ethics last year.
The undertakings mean Murdoch is unable to follow the lead of rival British newspapers which have merged much of the operations of their daily and Sunday titles to save money as circulations and revenues fall.
News International is reported to have made an informal approach to the government before Christmas to explore possibility of being freed from the undertakings, but it now says it has no intention of dropping the pledges or merging the titles.
Witherow and Ivens met the independent directors on Thursday, but the directors withheld formal approval of their appointments pending a review of the undertakings, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.
"Following (the directors' meeting) yesterday we welcome their clear understanding of the very difficult financial position of our newspapers and therefore the need to address the undertakings given in 1981," said Darcey.
"A thorough assessment of the undertakings will enable them to make recommendations to us and to government as to how the newspapers can be structured in order to reduce their costs and become economically viable," he added.
The stand-off with the independent directors comes at a torrid time for News International, following the departure of its former chief executive Tom Mockridge and coming after the phone-hacking scandal at its now defunct News of the World tabloid.
Responding to criticism from investors, Murdoch is splitting his News Corp media empire into two companies, separating his newspaper and publishing businesses from the more profitable film and television interests.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)