Murdoch scents liberty from News Corp stakeholder

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The Independent Online

Liberty Media, the entertainment industry empire controlled by John Malone, is edging closer to a deal to sell its 18 per cent stake in Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

Insiders believe an uneasy stand-off between the two men could be resolved by this autumn, with Liberty swapping the stake for a mixture of News Corp cash and television assets.

Mr Murdoch is keen to avoid a shareholder vote in October on a "poison pill" introduced without consultation to stop Mr Malone increasing his stake. That measure made many institutional investors furious and they went to court to force a vote. Mr Malone's company is increasingly keen to cash in on a rise in News Corp shares, which hit a five-year high last month.

Talks between the two sides - which Mr Murdoch has described as "continuing and friendly" - could enter a new phase next month, when News Corp formally takes control of 35 local television stations in the US, most of which currently fall into News Corp's Fox or UPN networks. The station licences are in Mr Murdoch's name, but News Corp, formerly an Australian company, is able to take them over now it has moved its domicile to the US. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates cable television, is set to approve the change of control in July.

Meanwhile, Mr Malone has floated the idea of taking over some of these assets in return for ceding his News Corp stake, and Greg Maffei, Liberty's chief executive, said over the weekend that a "confluence of events" made a deal more likely than ever.

Mr Murdoch controls 30 per cent of News Corp, but Mr Malone's presence on the share register has fomented uncertainty about the family's long-term influence on a business empire that Mr Murdoch wants to pass to his children. In April, Mr Murdoch conceded a shareholder vote on his poison pill defence to settle a lawsuit brought by US, Australian and British pension funds.