Murdoch backs down over plan for bonus issue

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The Independent Online
RUPERT MURDOCH has backed down in the face of stiff shareholder opposition and modified proposals for a bonus issue of preference shares in News Corporation, his Australian holding company.

But the shares will still carry lesser voting rights than ordinary shares, enabling Mr Murdoch, who owns 32.3 per cent of the media group, to raise funds for expansion without diluting his control.

News has proposed three changes to the terms of the bonus issue in an attempt to halt the wave of opposition to the proposal, which has pushed News's shares down 10 per cent to a 14-month low.

It has promised that the dividend on the shares will always be at least 20 per cent higher than on the ordinary shares; that in the event of a takeover a comparable price will have to be issued for the ordinary and preference shares; and that an existing issue of convertible shares will also have rights to the preference shares.

News proposes to issue the shares - one preference share for every two ordinary shares - on 11 November. The shares will initially carry a preferred dividend of 7.5 cents, twice that currently offered by News's ordinary shares.

The preference shares will still be entitled to vote only in certain instances - if it is proposed to reduce the company's capital, to dissolve the company, sell all of its assets and businesses, or on any matters directly affecting the rights of the preference shares.

Analysts said the proposed changes would probably satisfy shareholders. Terry Povey, of the brokers James Capel, said: 'Fundamentally the market would prefer this wasn't happening. But the changes do address the specific objections that were raised to the proposal.'

One reason the market is nervous is that the shares are seen as a precursor to a spending spree by News. Although no funds will be raised by the bonus issue, the shares will be quoted and the exercise is widely seen as testing the water for a future issue of the shares to finance expansion. That has raised the spectre of a repeat of the debt-induced fiasco that almost sank News at the beginning of the decade.

There are rumours that Mr Murdoch has his eyes on a US acquisition, possibly Ted Turner's dollars 5bn Turner Broadcasting. Together with the pounds 750m- pounds 1bn cash News will raise from the flotation of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, in which it has a half-stake, later this year, a new issue of preference shares could raise up to Adollars 5.4bn ( pounds 2.5bn) to fund such an acquisition.

(Photograph omitted)

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