By Kate Holton and Paul Sandle
LONDON, May 8 (Reuters) - Tom Mockridge, who worked closely with Rupert Murdoch in more than 20 years at News Corp, is to take over at Virgin Media, pitting the two men against each other in a battle for British pay-TV viewers.
Mockridge will take his in-depth knowledge of Europe’s media market to work with Murdoch’s veteran American rival John Malone just five months after the New Zealander walked out of News Corp in frustration at being passed over for a top job in New York.
Speaking to Reuters, however, he played down any industry chatter of boardroom betrayal or a thirst for personal revenge.
“I have 22 years of experience in News Corp, across multiple markets, but it’s not like I‘m taking a box of secrets out from News International that is going to be relevant here,” he said. “Frankly I’ve got a lot to learn and absorb.”
Mockridge, 57, ran News International, the British newspaper unit, for 18 months after Murdoch protegee Rebekah Brooks quit when the News of the World was hit by scandal in 2011 over its hacking of the voicemails of celebrities and crime victims.
He previously led the Italian pay-TV operation Sky Italia.
Mockridge will take over as chief executive of Virgin Media once Malone’s cable firm Liberty Global completes a $15.75-billion purchase - one of several deals this year for Malone as he tries to consolidate cable operators across Europe.
One former colleague said Mockridge felt hard done by at News Corp after he had uprooted his Italian family to act as a troubleshooter for Murdoch in London and had steered News International through a storm of outrage: “Many thought he would probably get something in return,” the former colleague said.
He resigned abruptly in December when he was not offered the chief executive role at the new publishing division that will emerge from a forthcoming split of News Corp. Mockridge made little secret of the disappointment that prompted his departure.
A newspaper reporter in his youth, he had made his name as a key executive and loyal lieutenant to the Australian-born Murdoch in a series of jobs around the world, most notably in Europe where Malone is now expanding his Liberty Global group.
From newspapers in New Zealand and Australia he worked on pay-TV channels in Australia, Germany and most notably in Italy, where he was chief executive of Sky Italia from 2003 to 2011.
“We wanted to strengthen the pool of talent and Tom’s experience throughout multiple markets, whether it’s Italy or Germany or other markets where we operate, will be valuable,” Mike Fries, chief executive of Liberty Global, told Reuters.
Malone has been called simply “The Cable Guy” by Americans, though Vice President Al Gore likened him to Darth Vader for his ruthless consolidation of the industry. He notably clashed with Murdoch a decade ago, building a stake in News Corp for a time during a tussle for control of a U.S. satellite broadcaster.
Mockridge was known by staff at News International as an unemotional straight-talker who avoided media attention courted by his predecessor Brooks, a former star editor of Murdoch’s tabloid titles. He was also the chief executive of European Television at News Corp and sat on the board of the satellite group BSkyB, which dominates the British pay-TV market with 10.7 million homes and is 39-percent owned by News Corp.
“Tom Mockridge is somebody with immense background experience in pay-TV, and European pay-TV through Sky Italia, and he obviously knows News Corp extremely well,” industry analyst Toby Syfret of Enders said. “He has a reputation for being very direct and he has a clear vision.”
Mockridge’s first challenge will be to get his head around the changing dynamics of the British television market as it is shaken up by telecoms group BT and its acquisition of the rights to show Premier League soccer from next season.
After engaging in a costly row with BSkyB over the right to show certain content in 2007, New York-listed Virgin Media has withdrawn from that part of the business and now focuses on providing superfast broadband Internet and a programme discovery system to help consumers find television content.
BT is using its BT Vision television product to sign up more customers to its faster broadband offering, putting it in direct competition with Virgin Media, which licenses its brand from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, a 3-percent shareholder.
Virgin Media’s approach has paid off, helping it restructure debt and steadily increase customer numbers and the average amount they pay. It had 4.3 million broadband customers by the end of March, and 3.8 million television customers.