Meet Mr Malone, low-key cable channel king, with (apparent) designs on Murdoch's media empire

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The Independent Online

Friendship does not count for much in the world of big business. Or so Rupert Murdoch might say. The man who has built up perhaps the world's most powerful media empire probably didn't get where he is today worrying too much about sentiment.

But the question on the lips of journalists and executives from Sydney to Los Angeles yesterday was whether the "Dirty Digger" had himself become a victim of the hard-hearted rules of commerce.

Their excitement was prompted by the news that John Malone - a media player every bit as successful as Mr Murdoch, if rather less well-known - had secured 9.1 per cent of the crucial voting share of Mr Murdoch's company, News Corporation.

The pair go back a long way. Mr Malone's Liberty Media group even bailed out Mr Murdoch when he was on the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1990s. But that is not to say that his decision to increase his News Corporation shareholding is a friendly gesture. After all, according to reports, he didn't even give his old friend any advance warning of his plans.

An innocent explanation is possible for Mr Malone's $1.8bn deal. Liberty may simply be trying to impress Wall Street to increase the value of its own shares. Or is Mr Malone just making a judicious move to increase his influence a little in what happens at News Corp, without wishing to rock Mr Murdoch's ship?

Anyway, Mr Malone, whose company partially owns or controls a variety of cable television channels in America and much else besides, is not yet in a position to take control of News Corp, whose global assets include The Sun and The Times newspapers. The Murdoch clan still has 30 per cent of the voting shares - three times as many as Mr Malone.

But he could buy more. And overnight, if you combine voting and non-voting shares, Liberty has become the largest holder of equity in News Corp.

That will be enough to send chills through Mr Murdoch, who, at 72, has long nurtured the notion of handing the shop to his offspring. That means either Lachlan, deputy chief financial officer of the company, or James, who just last year took the helm at BSkyB in Britain. Not since 1990, when News Corp almost collapsed under debt and Mr Malone helped Mr Murdoch appease hungry bankers, has the dominance of the family on the board been cast under such a shadow. While Mr Murdoch has conceded that leadership of his creation may initially pass to someone else following his retirement, no one doubts his determination to see to it that one day one of his children will take the reins.

Does Mr Malone have other ideas? Certainly, his move to increase his stake in News Corp has the hallmarks of being hostile rather than friendly. Julie Ballantine, a spokeswoman for Liberty, based in Denver, confirmed that Mr Murdoch was not informed in advance. She even indicated that Mr Malone may want to buy even more. Presumably he won't give any early warning then either.

"We have always had a strong belief in the company and the management there," Ms Ballantine said on Wednesday. "We have made it well known that we like the assets of the company."

For their part, News Corp officials in New York were playing it casual. "This another sign of confidence in our company's health and future strategy," Andrew Butcher, a spokesman, said.

Mr Malone has been an important ally to Mr Murdoch over the years. His investment in News Corp has helped fuel the company's buying appetite. Most especially, his dollars assisted Mr Murdoch in finally achieving his long-fought goal of acquiring DirecTV last year for $6.6bn (£3.5bn). DirecTV is the last piece in the jigsaw of satellite broadcasting platforms that News Corps now has spanning the globe.

And Mr Murdoch has never made any secret of his respect for Mr Malone, who sold his cable television empire in Colorado, TCI, to AT&T five years ago for $46bn and is not a man of any great public profile.

Their characters are very different. Mr Malone is based in Denver, Colorado and is very American-centred. He rarely travels abroad - mostly because his wife is afraid of flying. He holidays every year at the same home in Maine. He is unpretentious and is not the hands-on businessman that Mr Murdoch is. Mr Malone, who has a science doctorate, does not have the same thirst for power and influence or owning international assets that has driven the much more charismatic Mr Murdoch throughout his career.

And Mr Malone is much less involved in the actual content produced by his media businesses. Importantly, though, both men share the pro-market right-wing Republican political views.

Among Liberty Media's prized holdings are Court TV and the shopping channel QVC. It owns half of the Discovery Channel. It also has large chunks of Viacom, Time Warner and Vivendi Universal. But perhaps the greatest holding of all is one he has secured in News Corp. By transforming his shares into voting shares, Mr Malone is ensuring himself a more powerful chair at the News Corp table.

Maybe he was motivated by more mundane concerns than disrupting the Murdoch succession. For one, he seems to have got a great deal on the voting shares, buying them at $29 each, when, at close of play on Wednesday, they were valued at $38 apiece. And there is another possible explanation. That by increasing his weight at News Corp, he will be able to ensure that DirecTV has little choice but to carry his various content-producing properties such as QVC and CourtTV.

But there is one enemy even Mr Murdoch cannot see off: mortality. When his mother, the nonagenarian Dame Elisabeth, dies a breaking-up of the family shareholding in News Corp could be triggered. It will certainly be triggered when Mr Murdoch, 72, dies, or perhaps when he retires. He has four children - Prudence MacLeod, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James - by his first two marriages and two young girls, Grace and Chloe, by his third.

Some analysts were speculating that Mr Malone might be positioning himself for the moment when the holding is split up among all these heirs - and control of the company really is up for grabs.

Scott Marshall, an analyst at Shaw Stockbroking in Sydney said: "Malone's influence over his investment in News Corp is via his personal relationship with Murdoch. But that's not sustainable in the long term."

Whatever the primary thinking behind Mr Malone's coup, Liberty was not in the mood to explain beyond releasing the blandest of statements.

"We have capitalised on an opportunity to exchange non-voting shares for voting shares at attractive prices to become the second largest voting block on one of the world's premier media companies," said Bob Bennett, the president of Liberty Media.

As long as their words remain as anodyne as that, Mr Murdoch will be left with the nagging fear that his children will be denied their inheritance.