David Prosser: James Murdoch will win, but the protest matters

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The Independent Online

Let's not pretend otherwise: there is almost no chance of James Murdoch losing the vote when he stands for re-election as chairman of BSkyB today. The arguments over his role at the company have been raging for months now, but a single inescapable fact remains: NewsCorporation's 39 per cent stake in the company makes Mr Murdoch'sre-election as chairman almost inevitable.

That is deeply regrettable. The list of reasons why Mr Murdoch should not go on chairing this company is a long one – and it is not confined to the phone-hacking scandal. He should not have been appointed in the first place – the City's corporate governance code expressly warns against moving a company's chief executive into the chairman's office – and once News Corp made a bid for Sky, the resulting conflicts of interest should have seen him step down.

Now there is the additional question of integrity. There is no escaping the conclusion that Mr Murdoch must shoulder his share of the blame for the scandal at News Corporation's British newspaper business – certainly enough to undermine his position at Sky. If one accepts Mr Murdoch's testimony to MPs – his claims that he was not properly briefed about what went on at the News of the World – it still represents a failure to exercise proper oversight. If not, of course, the implications are more sinister.

Nor has this been the finest hour of Sky itself. The unanimous and unbending support Mr Murdoch has received from the rest of the board ill behoves a company that is admirable in many other ways.

Nicholas Ferguson, Sky's deputy chairman, says the shareholders he has spoken to have been supportive of Mr Murdoch – or at least indicated they believed the question of his continued chairmanship is a matter for the board (which is a miserable dereliction of their responsibilities).

We will learn today just how representative those shareholders are of the general mood among investors in the company – and Mr Murdoch may have to consider his position once more, even after winning the day.

The key is the size of the rebellion against Mr Murdoch. Taking into account the 39 per cent News Corp stake, a 20 per cent vote against his re-election, say, would actually be the equivalent of a third of shareholders suggesting he steps down.

A rebellion of 31 per cent or more would mean more than half the company's investors, excluding News Corp, want to see him go. Even if the numbers against re-election are not that high, we should take into account abstentions too. Given the tumult of Mr Murdoch's business life in recent months, only a huge yes vote in favour of re-election should be seen as a vote of confidence.