US Outlook: John Malone, that other great media tycoon, once said that for half of News Corp's shareholders, their biggest fear is that Rupert Murdoch is going to die. For the other half, their biggest fear is that he never will.
On both sides of the Atlantic this week we have debated the mortality as well as the morality of Mr Murdoch. His initially doddery performance in front of the UK parliamentary select committee revealed to the world what many shareholders already knew, namely that Mr Murdoch has been slowing down, and handing more responsibilities down to Chase Carey and to James Murdoch.
The almost indecently speedy promotion of James, including his pending relocation to News Corp headquarters in New York, is the result of the mogul's desperation to see one of his children succeed him – and it has hinted at a narrowing window for getting James ready to do so.
The view from this side of the Atlantic is that Rupert Murdoch's position is more secure than it might look from London. James will be in knots in the UK for longer than thought, and may even be brought down by the events of the last 24 hours, while the elder Mr Murdoch's performance prompted at least one major US shareholder to suggest News Corp elevate Mr Carey to the chief executive job, under Mr Murdoch as chairman. That seems a likely change, because it would formalise what is already happening inside the company, and not least because Mr Murdoch himself contemplated it before the hacking scandal erupted.
But the parliamentary appearance did not prove Mr Murdoch is too old to exercise power at the company he has built, and it did not provide a smoking gun revelation, either. And while the "rogue reporter" defence is long buried, but the "rogue division" defence looks a lot more robust. Given the different journalistic ethics here, I would be surprised if illegal activity is ever discovered in a Murdoch newsroom in the US.
As long as that remains the case, News Corp's growth prospects, predicated on strong cable TV operations, do not seem likely to be affected by the scandal. Even if the US decides to dramatically extend the scope of its Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and punish the company for paying police officers for information in the UK, the financial fallout is small, and more than priced in by the share price fall this month. The Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal – after the Murdochs, News Corp's biggest shareholder, and a good barometer of investor feeling – says both Rupert and James Murdoch have his support.
The prince also said, in an interview with Piers Morgan this week, that corporate governance changes are coming at News Corp. When the company's independent non-executives hired an outside law firm this week to advise them on their responsibilities, changes became inevitable. A law firm has to justify its fee, so you can expect it to recommend some reforms, probably a company-wide ethics policy revamp and a shake-up of the board.
Bigger changes seem unlikely. The Murdochs are still the biggest voting block, and corporate governance campaigners are whistling in the wind if they think will voluntarily give up the dual voting structure that gives them outsize power. Nor can they be forced to do so. It is still a common structure in the media world, and all the hot technology companies that are floating this year are using it, too.
The one thing that the spotlight on News Corp has shown, though, is that Mr Murdoch has packed the board with cronies, many of them pretty ancient ones at that. The board has the bare minimum number of independent non-execs, but given several of those were former employees, their independence looks questionable. This is where boardroom blood will be spilled, I suspect. Probably not at the top.Reuse content