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Shining example – Elisabeth Murdoch sets up a mirror to James

In Outcasts, a Shine Television production currently airing on BBC1, the mysterious comeback-kid Julius Berger has managed to weasel his way onto the governing board of the Carpathian colony, armed with a silver tongue and a bulging power agenda. What will he do next – overthrow president Tate?

It’s hard to believe that James Murdoch isn’t – like Carpathia’s president – feeling the teensiest bit paranoid. Having his sister Elisabeth back on board (literally) after a decade’s absence from News Corporation is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, the £415m acquisition of Shine makes News Corporation that much more a creative content and entertainment company, and that bit less a TV platform with a legacy newspaper business tied in. Then again, Liz is clearly an asset. She has won her spurs as a talented entrepreneur and manager during her near 11 years of independence from NewsCorp. Even if £415m is a tad generous (but hey, what’s wrong with a bit of nepotism if you can afford it?), no one seriously doubts that Shine is a good business, operating in the right place. How different her standing from the year 2000 when she quit as managing director of Sky Networks, apparently in mounting frustration over her father’s reluctance to give her full executive responsibility for BSkyB.

On the other, that’s just the problem for James. As someone with credible executive experience gained outside the family business, she must now pose a subtle threat to his role as heir presumptive to the Murdoch empire. Not an overt threat, of course. Merely a reminder that Rupert Murdoch, now nearing 80, has other options when it comes to handing over the reins of power.

Significantly Liz, 42, will not report to younger bro James, 38, but to Chase Carey, NewsCorp’ US-based deputy chairman, even though her business is centred in London.

Every time James makes a club-footed move from now on, it will be contrasted (fairly or not) with the more circumspect and reserved behaviour of his sister. And James has made a few club-footed moves, hasn’t he? The dawn raid on ITV shares, so audacious at the time, now looks less well-conceived. Then there was that intemperate raid of another kind – on the offices of The Independent’s editor-in-chief Simon Kelner, driven by blind but misguided rage. And finally, we have the ongoing News of the World bugging scandal, in which James’ handling of the situation has been called into question.

I mention this because the issue of James’ character and leadership qualities has just been raised (at some length) by an authority more eminent, and certainly more informed, than me: Tim Arango in The New York Times. Arango concludes: “James Murdoch is trying to succeed at the company his father built, but he is a very different character: more blunt, more bureaucratic and less able to smooth ruffled feathers. He has his father’s aggressiveness but not his tactical sense or temperance.” Just in passing, I suggest that his sister, though arguably less aggressive, is also less blunt, less bureaucratic and a lot more able to smooth ruffled feathers. I’m not sure about her “tactical sense”, but more so about her “temperance”.

All this would matter less if James’ leadership qualities were not about to undergo their supreme test. If the current chief executive of  NewsCorp Europe and Asia can shepherd the other 61% of BSkyB’s equity into NewsCorp’s stable, his future looks assured. He will then be in charge of roughly half the media empire’s revenues.

But what if he doesn’t? Suppose, for example, that the takeover is referred to the Competition Commission after all, and that Murdoch père decides the matter is no longer worth pursuing. How would that leave James’s leadership credentials looking? Impaired to say the least.

Which leads me to one last thing. The timing of the Shine deal seems very odd. Why was it concluded shortly before culture secretary Jeremy Hunt reached his decision on whether to invoke the CC, rather than afterwards? Having Shine – a considerable presence in British TV programme production – on board can only heighten anti-Murdoch paranoia, and put more pressure on Hunt to refer.

UPDATE 25/2/11: Silly me. Jeremy Hunt had already reached his decision, and it’s not to refer. That’s the gist of a report in today’s Financial Times. The FT suggests that Hunt and Rupert Murdoch have agreed to remove Sky News from a fully Murdoch-owned BSkyB, while at the same time guaranteeing its financial security. Strictly in the interest of ‘media plurality’, you understand. Mind you, the Murdochs still have to launch a successful takeover bid.

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