SYDNEY (AFP) - Prime Minister Kevin Rudd escalated a bitter war of words with Rupert Murdoch on Friday as the head of the media mogul's Australia arm quit in a shock move during a national election campaign.
Mr Rudd, facing an uphill battle to win September 7 polls against the Tony Abbott-led conservative opposition, has become a target of the Murdoch media and he accused the powerful tycoon of an orchestrated plan to get rid of him.
"Fact number one is Mr Murdoch has said in black and white that he wants Mr Abbott to be prime minister of Australia, (and) no one disputes he controls 70 per cent of newspapers,"
Mr Rudd told reporters in reaction to the surprise announcement that News Corp Australia chief Mr Kim Williams had quit.
"We also know as a fact that Mr Murdoch sent out his right hand man to Australia, Mr Col Allan, (and) we know as fact a large number of his editors were called to a meeting in Sydney last week."
"What we know from that meeting, because those editors have spoken to various people, is the message that was given to them was go hard on Rudd, start from Sunday and don't back off," he added.
The mogul jetted in his trusted Australian lieutenant, New York Post editor-in-chief Mr Allan, last week to shake up his titles.
Days later Mr Williams, who took the role only in December 2011, resigned.
Mr Rudd said he knew Mr Williams well and looked forward to hearing what commentators had to say about the coincidence.
One media analyst, who did not want to be named, said Mr Williams' departure was more likely to do with having finished the job he was employed for - to introduce paid content and oversee some brutal cost-cutting and staff reductions.
"He was brought in to transition to digital and oversee the new publishing systems and I suspect he has done that and the company now wants to focus on the product, and that is the copy," said the analyst.
Mr Williams has been replaced by Julian Clarke, a long-time company man who was most recently chairman of Murdoch's Melbourne-based Herald and Weekly Times group in Australia, whose titles include the Herald Sun.
"Kim has been a steady and courageous leader at a time when our businesses have faced unprecedented pressure and economic challenges," said Mr Murdoch, who began his global empire in Australia.
"I want to thank him for his unwavering commitment, and the blood, sweat and tears he has put into News Corp Australia."
Mr Williams took the job 20 months ago, moving from his role as head of Foxtel, a News Corp joint venture that is Australia's largest pay television company.
"I am confident that I leave the company in a strong position and with good foundations for the future," said Mr Williams in a statement.
"It has been a privilege to work for News Corp across almost 20 years, and I have no doubt it will remain the most memorable element in my professional commercial life." Mr Murdoch said he was "so pleased" to have Mr Clarke take the helm at News Corp Australia.
"He is an experienced executive with a unique understanding of our company's culture, and the immense energy and clarity of vision necessary to drive our properties forward at this challenging time for all media in all countries," he said.
Mr Murdoch controls two-thirds of Australia's newspapers and has a stake in broadcasters Sky News and Fox Sports.
His newspapers are an influential voice and they have made clear whose side they are on in the national elections with his Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph this week running a front-page headline, Kick This Mob Out, under a picture of Mr Rudd.
Mr Murdoch has been a critic of Labour's plan for a multi-billion-dollar National Broadband Network and is also fiercely against proposed media reforms, which were set to include a new public interest test for major mergers and stronger self-regulation requirements.