The Murdoch family has recruited David Rhodes, a US television news veteran, for a push into video news in the UK, where its longstanding appetite for taking on the BBC and other incumbents is growing again 18 months after selling Sky to Comcast.
Mr Rhodes has joined News UK, according to four people familiar with the matter, where he is reporting to chief executive Rebekah Brooks.
The London-based publisher of The Sun and The Times newspapers has been stepping up its video and audio output with offerings such as TalkRadio on YouTube, but it is understood that Mr Rhodes has been hired for a more ambitious expansion. News UK declined to comment.
The company’s video plans remain fluid, however, as the coronavirus crisis has knocked advertising revenues across the media. Enders Analysis expects the pandemic to slash £1bn from UK news companies’ revenues this year.
In spite of the economic disruption, the Murdochs are pressing ahead with Times Radio, a station that will be launched this summer in an attempt to challenge the dominance of BBC Radio 4.
Some rivals have long suspected Rupert Murdoch also has plans to move back into broadcast news in the UK, with a slant that will either sidestep impartiality rules or test them to the limit. One senior broadcaster said a Fox News-style outlet in Britain was “a long-held dream”.
News UK made a concerted push into commercial radio in 2016 with the £220m acquisition of Wireless, which owned three main radio brands: Talksport, TalkRadio and Virgin.
Even with the addition of some high-profile presenters, the stations have struggled to break through in ratings. The 433,000 weekly audience of TalkRadio compares to about 2.7m for LBC, a fast-expanding London-based station that caught the mood of Brexit Britain.
Mr Rhodes, who was president of CBS News until January last year, began his career at Fox News, the Murdochs’ conservative US cable TV news channel, where he won the trust of Rupert Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James. Lachlan, the co-chairman of News Corp, News UK’s parent company, is understood to have strongly supported the appointment.
Several insiders had seen Mr Rhodes as a potential successor to the late Roger Ailes when the Fox News network’s founding chairman resigned in 2016 in the face of sexual harassment allegations, but he remained at CBS, which was shaken by similar allegations against Charlie Rose, a former anchor on its morning show.
After the departure of Ailes the Murdochs in 2018 promoted Suzanne Scott, a longtime Fox News executive, as its chief executive, making her the first woman to head the cable network.
The overall Fox empire was further shaken up when Rupert Murdoch decided to sell most of its entertainment assets, including the motion picture business, to Disney in a $71bn deal that closed last year. James, the younger son of Rupert Murdoch, stepped down as chief of 21st Century Fox, while Lachlan, his older brother, became chief executive of the new Fox Corporation, which included its broadcast TV assets.
Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have come under fire for their coverage of the coronavirus crisis. A group of journalism professors wrote an open letter to Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch last month, arguing that “misinformation” from Fox News personalities was a “danger to public health”.
Last week Lachlan Murdoch told Fox Corp employees that they would continue working from home until May 15 and encouraged staff to do volunteer work to help frontline responders to the health crisis, according to an internal email viewed by the Financial Times. His comments came in contrast with some Fox News personalities such as Ms Ingraham, who has called for a reopening of the economy.
James Murdoch, who recently invested millions of dollars to combat disinformation, is staying out of it. “James has absolutely no visibility into what’s happening at Fox News,” said a person close to the situation. “Everybody there already knows how he feels about the network.”