Tom Watson: There is little doubt that Murdoch's Rosebud moment is approaching


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Charles Foster Kane in that Orson Welles epic says: “I don't think there's one word that can describe a man’s life.”

When he appeared before the Media Select Committee earlier in the summer, Rupert Murdoch wanted you to believe that his defining word was “humble”.

Mr Murdoch Snr failed to display the absent-minded humility of a kindly octagenarian when he addressed the shareholders of News Corp Annual General Meeting, in the Zanuck Theatre of the Fox Studios campus, just off the Avenue of the Stars in Los Angeles, yesterday morning.

Instead, he was ebullient; even a little chippy. There was chatter about “coming out fighting," which at times he did. But whatever you think of his performance at the 90-minute meeting, there can be little doubt that Rupert Murdoch’s Rosebud moment approaches.

Instead of being known as one of the twentieth century’s great media innovators, Murdoch’s personal reputation and the media brands he’s lovingly nurtured over a lifetime of being professionally-curious are now in tatters. If you don’t believe me, just look at the reaction on Twitter to the front page of yesterday’s Sun newspaper.

The disruptive power of the Internet is chipping away at the credibility of the sensationalist and over-editorialised news reporting style that characterises his brand. And when, a few years ago, he saw the damage the Internet was causing his company, he did what he knows best – he tried to buy it (with disastrous consequences). Investors know that to their cost: News Corp recently had to offload MySpace for a firesale price. He apologised to investors for that yesterday, admitting “we made a huge mistake.”

I’m sure the army of communications experts now advising Mr Murdoch would like these same investors to believe that the hacking scandal is about a little local difficulty relating to mobile phone messages at the News of the World.

They would no doubt like us to forget about the scale of the investigation into criminality at the company. It now encompasses nearly 200 police, and (as I revealed when speaking at yesterday's AGM) the handiwork of at least three other private investigators, in addition to Glen Mulcaire. The scale of alleged potential wrongdoing at News Corp includes perjury, computer hacking, commercial espionage and bribing the police.

That’s why the corporate governance of News Corp needs urgent attention. The board has let investors down. The company is returning healthy profits. But they mask a Murdoch "deficit" that will hurt their bottom line for years to come. News Corp is a complex trams-global media company which is being run like a dysfunctional family firm. Yet because of the two-tier division of shareholding that leaves Murdoch control of 40% of the votes, he is confident of being able to resist the modernising resolutions of independent and activist shareholders.

In flying out to Los Angeles to attend the AGM, I hoped to do something to change that. I hoped to make him explain to investors why he allowed a culture to exist that lead to poor Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked. If those investors heard what I had to say and were are still happy to vote for the status quo, then so be it. We will at least know they are complicit in defending anachronistic corporate governance arrangements.

But I wouldn’t want to be the fund manager with that on my CV.

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