The Thing Is: They came to scrap, but instead shareholders submitted

The Murdoch Show
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The Independent Online

With the father and son act rolling into town, BSkyB's annual general meeting on Friday was set to be raucous. After the installation of James Murdoch (pictured) as chief executive, bitter investors were finally getting a chance to show disapproval, first directly to the chairman, Rupert Murdoch, and then in the vote on Mr Murdoch Jnr and Lord St John of Fawsley, the senior independent director and head of the nominations committee.

Several shareholders, small and large, seized the opportunity. One congratulated the board on scoring a "monumental own goal"; another accused it of "sheer arrogance and almost complete contempt of shareholders". Meanwhile, Daniel Somerfield of the Universities Superannuation Scheme said the appointment "made a mockery" of the idea of the independence of the chairman from the chief executive.

But those hoping for a row were disappointed. Some investors gave the board their backing and Mr Murdoch Snr, looking irritated at having to deal with shareholders at all, simply batted away the negative observations. This was a man safe in the knowledge that at least 35 per cent of the shares, held by News Corp, backed the board. To one shareholder planning to vote against his son and senior independent director, his reply was: "Go ahead and vote", and to another: "If you don't wish to back us... you ought to sell your shares."

The media mogul had made his point clear before the question and answer session. "I can fully understand the suspicion of possible nepotism with my son as candidate," he said, "not to speak of the salivations of my newspaper competitors." But the selection process had been rigorous, taking in 280 names, he insisted, and James was the best man for the job. He also pointed to the company's strong performance and confirmed that dividend payments were likely to be reinstated this year.

Mr Murdoch Jnr, how-ever, obviously has a way to go before he can emulate his father's robust style. Looking disarmingly young (at 30 he was probably the youngest in the room), he sat on his father's right and did not contribute to the Q&A, although he did pledge beforehand to work "tirelessly" for all investors.

In a briefing for journalists afterwards, he was more vocal, interrupting his father - to sniggers from the press - and contradicting him on revenue targets. Mr Murdoch Snr visibly relaxed, but Jnr just wanted to be taken seriously. When asked if he was being groomed to take over News Corp, Jnr sought to hush more sniggers with a heartfelt "no, this is serious".

And so the damp squib AGM ended, with most observers wondering where the vitriol of the past few weeks, from independent directors and investors, had gone. Even Lord St John, the expected scapegoat, hung on, albeit with only 59 per cent support.

For Mr Murdoch Jnr, the hardest test is yet to come. He is stepping into the shoes of the highly rated Tony Ball and, shareholder barbs aside, now he has to live up to the hype.