The Thing Is: His lordship is left in the firing line

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The Independent Online

BSkyB shareholders may be gearing up to show their disapproval, board members may privately welcome his departure, but the man in question is not going quietly. This is not James Murdoch, however, or even Daddy Rupert. It is Lord St John of Fawsley, BSkyB's senior independent non-executive director.

After two weeks of dismay over the appointment of Mr Murdoch Jnr as chief executive, investor ire has settled on Lord St John, the former cabinet minister who has been with the company for 12 years. As head of the nominations committee, he is shouldering a large part of the blame: for not standing up to Mr Murdoch Snr, for not ensuring the selection procedure was robust (only one candidate, Mr Murdoch Jnr, was put forward to the board) for endorsing a father and son as chairman and chief executive, and for not being independent enough. He is up for re-election at Friday's annual general meeting and a number of shareholders are expected to vote against the resolution. There have even been private murmurs among his fellow directors that he may wish to resign beforehand.

His response? "What, me? Certainly not. I intend to be re-elected."

Yet investors, unhappy about the state of BSkyB's boardroom, are, in the end, left with very little they can do other than vote against his re-election. Says one: "There is always the danger, with News Corp owning 35 per cent and the chairman being Rupert Murdoch, that shareholders are going to get ridden roughshod over."

BSkyB spent last week trying to get investors back on side. Two independent directors, Allan Leighton, who chairs the Post Office, and Gail Rebuck, who runs the book publisher Random House, met the Association of British Insurers, the National Association of Pension Funds and institutional investors. Mr Murdoch Jnr visited "one or two" shareholders, while broker Credit Suisse First Boston was busy phoning investors to find out how they would vote at the AGM.

"Investors now understand the [selection] process was very rigorous," says one director, "they now see they don't have a problem with the candidature." To appease concerns over the board's independence - and put some distance between father and son - the group has brought in Lord Rothschild as deputy chairman, although there has been little word on the processes involved in this nomination.

Certainly the NAPF is now advising members to vote in favour of Mr Murdoch Jnr, and the ABI says it supports BSkyB (although its director of investment affairs, Peter Montagnon, has said there remain "serious concerns").

And so the spotlight falls on Lord St John. He believes he is ideally placed to help his 30-year-old chief executive. He has quizzed Mr Murdoch Jnr on his ability to stand up to his father and thinks he will.

Lord St John says it would be "a shame" to leave but the 74-year-old is bullish. "I'm quietly confident," he says. "No I'm not - I'm noisily confident." And, as he should know, a week is a long time - in either politics or, so it would appear, the BSkyB boardroom.

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