x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Murdoch faces his darkest hour yet

Rupert Murdoch may have faced a grilling from parliamentarians yesterday, but that is nothing compared to the roasting he has received on global stock markets - with slideshow.

If the public disgust in Britain surrounding Rupert Murdoch's business practices is matched in the US then it could not only affect the earnings of his huge empire, but also perhaps see it dismantled. Reuters
If the public disgust in Britain surrounding Rupert Murdoch's business practices is matched in the US then it could not only affect the earnings of his huge empire, but also perhaps see it dismantled. Reuters

Rupert Murdoch may have faced a grilling from a committee of British parliamentarians yesterday, but that is nothing compared to the roasting he has received on global stock markets.

The Byzantine company, stretching across four continents, he has built over the past 50 years from a single newspaper inherited from his father has been rocked by allegations of phone tapping and illegal payments to policemen that prompted the resignation of two of his key lieutenants.

He will now be hoping the drastic measures he has already taken, including closing the News of the World, his hugely profitable weekly UK tabloid newspaper, abandoning a bid for the shares in BSkyB he does not already own, and apologising to the public in a series of newspaper advertisements, will stop the bleeding.

The fall in the value of BSkyB shares alone has been costly for Mr Murdoch. At about £7 now, compared with £8.50 a few months ago, the fall has wiped £2.3 billion (Dh13.62bn) off BSkyB's value, with Mr Murdoch's News Corp holding 39 per cent - a cost to him of £900 million.

But that is not the half of it. If the public disgust in Britain surrounding his business practices is matched in the US then it could not only affect the earnings of his huge empire, but also perhaps see it dismantled.

News Corp makes the vast majority of its money in the US, from Fox cable TV channels including the blockbuster show American Idol, 20th Century Fox, The Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones and the New York Post.

Many analysts believe Mr Murdoch might sell his remaining newspaper titles in the UK, run by News International and including The Times and The Sun, which together made pre-tax profits of £86m in the year to June last year, and his problems would be over.

But other media insiders fear it has gone beyond that. Such is the scope of US legislation Mr Murdoch could even be held accountable there for the alleged shenanigans in Britain.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 "was enacted for the purpose of making it unlawful for certain classes of persons and entities to make payments to foreign government officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business".

On July 6 Sir Paul Stephenson, the UK's Metropolitan Police Commissioner who has since resigned, confirmed documents supplied to the police contained evidence some journalists working for the News of the World allegedly made "inappropriate payments" to police officers in exchange for information.

If proven, that could fall within the scope of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. For a man who once owned the news, to be making it on a daily basis must be extremely galling. Hardly surprising he told The Wall Street Journal last Thursday, a newspaper he owns, he was feeling "tired" and "angry". A week on, and he must be feeling exhausted.

To add insult to injury, this week the LulzSec hacker group broke into The Sun's website to direct visitors to a fake article claiming the media mogul had died and releasing information on journalists.

The group announced on Twitter "The Sun's home page now redirects to the Murdoch death story on the recently-owned New Times website. Can you spell success, gentlemen?"

Rather irritating for a man whose business career has been one brilliant coup after another, beating the competition by producing newspapers, film and television shows that were smart and accessible.

Mr Murdoch's career began in London, so there would be a certain irony if it were to end there. After graduating from Oxford University, he joined the Daily Express, at the time the most successful and aggressive paper on Fleet Street with a circulation hovering around the 5 million mark.

In 1953, having returned to Australia following his father's death, he became the managing director of News Limited, then a one-paper company in Adelaide.

Expansion became his buzz word and he started building his media empire by buying newspapers in Perth, Queensland and Sydney. Fifteen years later, in 1969, he swooped on Fleet Street, picking up the News of the World, followed a year later by The Sun, then a rather dreary broadsheet. He turned it into Britain's biggest-selling paper with a circulation of about 4.2 million during the 1980s.

The Sun became so influential it even boasted it was able to turn the general election of 1993 in favour of the Conservative John Major, who narrowly defeated the Labour challenger Neil Kinnock.

The acquisition of The Times and The Sunday Times followed, and the newspapers' combined profits were used to help set up Sky Broadcasting, which at the beginning was costing him £1m a week to run. Investment in sports programmes, in particular the English Premier League, have turned the digital broadcaster into a cash cow.

Sky pays the English Premier League more than US$1bn (Dh3.67bn) for the rights to broadcast the football matches every season, but analysts say the combination of making people pay to watch the games as well as selling advertising means it makes its money back many times over.

Once these British companies were established, Mr Murdoch turned his attentions to the US, becoming an American citizen to help him acquire his businesses.

For all the successes, it has not been plain sailing. He has never really understood the internet and his one major foray into it, buying MySpace for $580m in 2005 when it was the leading social media site, has been a disaster. News Corp has just sold it for $35m. In addition, he has never managed to get a toehold in China, despite fostering close links with Beijing. He is also married to a Chinese woman.

For Mr Murdoch, the past few years have been spent trying to strengthen the empire's grip on the media industry and appoint one of his children to run it. His eldest son Lachlan has left the company, while his daughter Elisabeth has been involved in a number of roles.

His youngest son James is now deputy chief operating officer of News Corp and the anointed heir, but with other trusty lieutenants falling by the wayside, his position also looks questionable.

Last week, reports surfaced that a group of News Corp shareholders, suing over the purchase of a business run by Mr Murdoch's daughter, filed a revised complaint, saying the phone-hacking scandal reflected how the company's board had failed to do its job.

Shareholders called it "inconceivable" directors were not aware sooner of the questionable news practices that led to the closure of the News of the World.

"[This reflects a board] that provides no effective review or oversight, in a corporate culture run amuck," according to the amended complaint filed in Delaware Chancery Court and reported by Reuters.

In March, the group had sued News Corp's board over the agreement to buy Shine, a television and film production company run by Elisabeth, for an estimated $480m in equity plus $135m of debt.

But the furore over the purchase now appears a minor hiccup for the man who built the largest media empire of the 20th century.

"What it boils down to is this," said Bruce Guthrie, a former editor who worked for Rupert Murdoch's company in Melbourne, Australia. "What is more important for Rupert, the survival of the company or the survival of the family's control of the company?"