The emperor might be jaded after the phone hacking scandal that resulted in the closure of the News of the World, but he remains as immoveable as a Bourbon monarch. Rupert Murdoch did battle with shareholders at the annual News Corp. meeting in Los Angeles on Friday, and while there were a few shots fired across the bow, the magnate, and his hideous impedimenta, still remain in control of what has been a rather rickety ship of late.
Murdoch’s removal from the board of News Corp., let alone a separation of roles, had been mooted but few at the gathering seriously believed that the board would get its marching orders. 40 percent ownership of voting shares via a family trust is a formidable obstacle. Added to this were votes that would surely have favoured him – those held by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal alone amounting to 7 percent. The voter base overall will shrink by a small margin, though any victory by anti-Murdoch factions will be minimal.
The unhappy shareholders, and there were many, are often far from powerful. A News Corp. small shareholder is the mushroom of destiny – fed on manure and moisture, and kept permanently in the dark. Murdoch runs his News Corp. like an imperial concern but selectively disclaims responsibility for unsavoury practices when needed. Process is simply there for the books. Hence, the apology to the investors by Murdoch for the practices of News of the World that saw, most infamously, the voicemail of a murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler hacked by a private investigator on the paper’s payroll.
When it came to prodding by shareholders on how extensive the hacking had been, the board members went on the offensive. ‘It’s not thousands,’ came Murdoch’s reply to a question on the number of people whose phones had accessed. ‘I’ve not heard that figure before.’ Joel Klein, the News Corp. executive member charged with the internal investigation into the hacking, claimed there was ‘no official count’. Given that the scandal took the jobs of two of London’s top police officers, not to mention British Prime Minister David Cameron’s former advisor Andy Coulson, to name a few, the Klein’s findings are bound to be extensive.
Like an emperor doing justice to his subjects, Murdoch also fielded some curious requests from far flung parts of his dominion. Chris DeRose, an advocate for animal rights, took the floor and asked what the company would do to curb instances where animals were taken out of Australia into places such as ‘the Middle East and other areas’ to quote from a live blog report from Brooks Barns in the New York Times (Oct 21). Acknowledging Murdoch’s reach, and paying respect to his power, DeRose claimed that he was ‘the one single individual who can make a difference on the issue.’ Murdoch said he would look into it.
The emperor was also in full bully mode. ‘Your investments hadn’t been that great, but go on,’ he retorted to observations by Edward Mason, secretary of the Ethical Investment Advisory Group, which gives advice to the Church of England’s investments. Mason’s sin was to speak up in favour of a resolution separating the roles of chairman and chief executive. Naturally, such a measure would never work at News Corp., given that its hegemons are not devotees of a separation of powers doctrine.
The Christian Brothers Investment services attempted push a resolution that the company’s chairman be made an independent director. Stephen Mayne, ever anxious for a fight on investor issues, spoke up for that resolution. ‘Its time to get on the governance high road,’ argued Mayne, also throwing in his view that the company’s returns had been poor. ‘You’ve treated us like mushrooms for a long time.’ The measure failed.
After 90 minutes, the meeting was closed. In the end, a News Corp. meeting is much like a Fox News report (the meeting itself being held at Fox Studios) – fanfare, bluster, and a performance of empty fury. Substance is its enemy. ‘It was a nice meeting,’ claimed Rev. Seamus Finn, who attended on behalf of Christian Brothers Investment Services, ‘but it didn’t offer much in terms of how they’re going to put this behind them’ (AP, Oct 21). Murdoch had again triumphed over those testy mushrooms, who will be wishing for a richer stash of manure in the near future.