Concern grows over Murdoch succession at Sky

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Another leading shareholder group waded into the furore over BSkyB's succession plans for its outgoing chief executive yesterday, demanding a meeting with the company's directors.

The National Association of Pension Funds, which manages around £700bn of institutional funds, plans to take the satellite broadcaster to task over the nature of its search process to replace Tony Ball, in an attempt to avoid a "conflict of interests". Although the company has appointed an independent nomination committee, speculation is rife that James Murdoch, the 30-year-old son of Sky's chairman Rupert Murdoch, will be appointed to the post.

The powerful NAPF is to hold meetings with BSkyB "in the next week or so" to seek "clarification" from the company that it will conduct an extensive hunt for a new chief executive. A spokesman said the shareholder body was likely to demand assurances from the company that the process is fair, although he added it was "too early" to comment on the nature of the assurances.

Meanwhile, Lord St John of Fawsley, BSkyB's senior non-executive director who is heading the search process, insisted that the post was no "shoo-in" for the chairman's son.

"If James Murdoch wants to apply he must take his chances with the others," he was quoted as saying yesterday. Sources close to the process said Mr Murdoch junior had yet to apply for the job. Headhunters have been appointed to draw up a shortlist - expected to include Sky's chief operating officer Richard Freudenstein and its finance director Martin Stewart.

One top 10 shareholder said: "If the independent non-executives are not seen to be absolutely scrupulous then you have to question whether they can be scrupulous about other decisions such as the use of the company's cash flow.

"Our concern is that BSkyB's cash flow is not diverted to other parts of the News Corporation empire."

Investors suggested Sky might have to disclose more details about its eventual shortlist than was normal practice - although a company spokesman dismissed this as a possibility.

The NAPF, which joins the Association of British Insurers in facing up to Sky, said it had taken the unusual decision to reveal its intention to meet the company because of the extent of shareholder concern over the succession issue. It was put under pressure to seek a meeting by its members.