City & Business: Let's see the small print

The devil, as they say, is in the detail, and that is palpably true of the current stand-off at WH Smith, where management wishes to remain independent and Tim Waterstone, the founder of Waterstone Books, wants to organise a takeover. Whatever the merits of Mr Waterstone's proposals, his scheme merits a full and proper airing. That, after all, is only the duty of the Smith's board. It is unclear whether the board has given it the attention it merits, or whether its dismissal was no more than a knee-jerk reaction, prompted by the desire to maintain the status quo.

The timing of the bid is bad luck for Smith's chief executive, Richard Handover (the name takes on a peculiar irony in the light of these recent developments), since he has only been in his job a few days. Even so, any pressure from institutional shareholders means he has little choice but to engage in some formal dialogue with the opposing camp.

Mr Waterstone, too, and his advisers will soon have to make up their minds as to whether they have the stomach for a full bid; whether they will put up, or shut up. But until a proper picture emerges of what is really on offer, shareholders will remain in the dark: the current phoney war, with a drip feed of morsels into the market, cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely. Shareholders have a right to know the full picture. At present, they do not.

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