* Latest upheaval at Murdoch’s UK newspaper business
* Editor indicates decision was forced on him
* Harding was criticised by press enquiry
By Michael Holden
LONDON, Dec 12 (Reuters) - James Harding stepped down as editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Times daily on Wednesday in the latest upheaval at the mogul’s troubled British newspaper business.
No formal reason was given but Harding indicated the decision had been forced on him in his resignation speech to staff.
“It has been made clear to me that News Corporation would like to appoint a new editor of The Times,” said Harding, who was one of the youngest journalists to get the job when he took over in 2007.
“I have therefore agreed to stand down. I called Rupert this morning to offer my resignation and he accepted it,” he said in quotes reported by his own newspaper.
Harding, 43, will leave at the end of the month, according to a statement from News International, the British newspaper arm of Murdoch’s News Corp.
The resignation comes at a tumultuous time for News International after Tom Mockridge stepped down as chief executive last week and after the phone-hacking scandal at the now defunct the News of the World, part of Murdoch’s British newspaper stable.
Murdoch, who is splitting his empire into two companies, separating his newspaper and publishing businesses from the more profitable film and television interests, installed Mike Darcey, a former economist known for signing commercial deals and boosting subscription revenues, as Mockridge’s replacement.
Harding himself was criticised by a public inquiry which was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron to examine press ethics following the public furore over phone-hacking.
He was forced to apologise to the inquiry, headed by senior judge Brian Leveson, in February after admitting that one of the paper’s reporters had hacked the email of an anonymous police blogger in 2009 to expose his identity.
People familiar with the situation at News International have speculated that John Witherow, the editor of the Times’s sister paper, the Sunday Times, might replace Harding.
In its statement, News International merely said the national independent directors of The Times would be consulted on a replacement.
“James has been a distinguished editor for The Times, attracting talented staff to the paper and leading it through difficult times,” Murdoch said.
“I have great respect for him as a colleague and friend, and truly hope we can work together again.”
Britain’s national press, struggling with declining readership in recent years, has also been reeling from Leveson’s damning inquiry which called for a new legislation-backed watchdog to police the sometimes “outrageous” behaviour of newspapers.
Harding was playing a key role in the industry’s attempts to come up with an effective system of self-regulation and thereby avoid any press law which editors argue would amount to state control.
Also on Wednesday, accounts published by News International revealed that its former chief executive Rebekah Brooks, who quit in July following the phone-hacking scandal, had been given a 10.85 million pound ($17.49 million) pay-off.
The amount was recorded without names as being “in respect of compensation for loss of office” but a source with knowledge of the matter confirmed it related to Murdoch’s close ally Brooks.
Murdoch said Brooks had been his main priority at the height of public anger after revelations News of the World staff had hacked the voicemails of the mobile phone belonging to a schoolgirl who was later found dead.
Brooks, a one-time editor of the News of the World, is due to go on trial next year charged with offences relating to phone-hacking and illegal payments to public officials.