Will Rupert Murdoch really jettison James as NewsCorp’s heir?

October 19, 2011

It’s possible that Rupert Murdoch allowed himself the ghost of a smile on hearing that Michael Wolff – one of his most vociferous and tiresome tormentors – had been defenestrated from his fastness at AdWeek.

We might like to think of AdWeek as a trade magazine covering the US advertising, media and marketing scene. But for the past year it has been hijacked by Wolff’s anti-Murdoch agenda and shamelessly exploited by the former editorial director as a scandal-sheet covering every last detail of the so-called “Murdochcalypse”.

Murdoch will have been a good deal less pleased by what he read in the New York Times yesterday. Wolff is a gadfly, but the NYT is a seriously influential enemy which has taken it upon itself to drive a wedge between Murdoch and his presumed heir, younger son James.

It is not so much the content of the article as its timing that is so troubling. Murdoch and his brood are just days away from NewCorp’s annual general meeting that could theoretically see them unseated as directors. The last thing they need is another stinkbomb.

As it happens, the NYT article fails to come up with anything stunningly original. Provocatively titled ‘In Rift Between Murdochs, Heir Becomes Less Apparent‘ , it dwells on tensions – real and possibly imagined – between the two men in the hope of creating so much further bad blood that Murdoch père will eventually perform an Abrahamic sacrifice of his son’s career prospects in order to save his own skin.

Certainly Murdoch senior has been performing a skilful dance of the seven veils to protect his reputation. First he closed News of the World, and abandoned his cherished bid for BSkyB.  When that didn’t work, he sacrificed his faithful retainers Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks. The tide of effluent still failing to ebb, he contributed millions, individually and corporately, to the Milly Dowler Fund.

For a while, the NewsCorp share price appeared to bounce back. Then came the hammer blow: a major shareholders’ revolt, partly sustained by new evidence of malpractice in the NewsCorp empire, this time at The Wall Street Journal.

Something like 25% of investors are expected to vote against the re-election of the Murdoch board on Friday. In almost any other public company that would mean curtains. But not at NewsCorp, where – unluckily for the institutional rebels – nearly 40% of the voting shares are owned by the Murdoch family.

So not much is really going to happen in the short term. Except some searing humiliation, fanned by the NYT. The worse it is, the poorer James Murdoch’s chances of eventual survival.

And that’s before his return for further grilling by the House of Commons media select committee, over the porkie pies and half-truths uttered during his last appearance.


Bad news for Rebekah Brooks, but good news for BSkyB’s Jeremy Darroch

July 6, 2011

Jeremy Darroch, chief executive of BSkyB, now looks in an even more powerful position to inherit the News International mantle of power (should he wish to) than when I flagged up his significance to the Murdoch empire in my last Marketing Week column.

Rebekah Brooks, NI’s current chief executive, is terminally damaged goods, in the wake of ‘Millygate’. Not to mention ‘Jessica-and-Hollygate’ and ‘7/7-gate’.

For the moment, of course, it’s Andy Coulson, ex-News of the World editor and David Cameron’s former director of communications, who has been thrown to the lions. Thanks to some NI emails which have mysteriously surfaced just in time, Coulson is now a proven liar. He procured, or authorised procurement of, paid information from the police while he was News of the World editor – something he has previously strenuously denied. And for good reason: it is quite illegal.

It’s an astute, if cynical, sacrifice, and proves the Murdochs are still thinking on their feet. Coulson’s disgrace tarnishes both Cameron (by association – after all, he picked Coulson, despite his dodgy reputation, and then backed him to the hilt in his hour of need) and Knacker of the Yard (assistant commissioner John Yates, once the officer in charge of investigating the phone-hacking scandal at the epicentre of the Murdoch crisis, who is now looking woefully ‘under-informed’ and incompetent, after previously vociferously denying the merest scintilla of police complicity in the matter).

Even so the Coulson gambit is, at best, a delaying tactic. It will make our leading politicians and policemen tread a little more carefully, but it will not prevent them from taking decisive action. Public opinion is now too inflamed for them to do anything else.

Inescapably, the smoking gun is pointing at Brooks, née Wade, and editor of News of the World when – it now emerges – NI’s private investigator of choice Glen Mulcaire was hacking into the phones of Milly Dowler’s distressed relatives. She says she knows nothing about it. Do we believe her, any more than we believed Coulson’s protestations of ignorance? I’ll leave that one hanging in the air.

Ordinarily, implicated NI and former NI executives have been able to take refuge in prevarication, in the sure and certain knowledge that rapidly abating public interest will soon allow them to emerge from their burrows relatively unscathed. This crisis is different.

It has an unprecedented commercial dimension to it. Top advertisers, led by Ford, are boycotting News of the World, and that really will hit the Murdochs where it hurts. Ford is the single biggest advertiser, contributing about £4.5m annually to NoW’s £40m display advertising revenue. Halifax (owned by Lloyds Banking Group) has now joined Ford. Other major advertisers believed to be considering their options are T-Mobile/Orange, Vodafone and nPower. The danger, from the Murdochs’ point of view, is that this commercial contagion spreads to other NI newspapers, such as the Sun – which Brooks also edited. It could easily do so, given a swelling social media campaign goading consumers to boycott advertisers who refuse to align themselves behind Ford. (There’s a useful live update on the brands boycott at Marketing Week.)

All of which may well rapidly result in Brooks becoming surplus to NI requirements.

OK, you say, but what has this got to do with Jeremy Darroch? I’m coming to that. Whatever the backwash from the phone-hacking scandal, it will not prevent culture secretary Jeremy Hunt from giving his blessing to Murdoch-vehicle NewsCorp’s acquisition of the 61% of BSkyB it does not already own. Legally, a challenge to that assent is now well-nigh impossible. Indeed, Hunt and the Government would probably be on the receiving end of a writ it they were obstructive.

Let’s assume for a moment that the deal is done, that the Murdochs have pacified BSkyB shareholders with an eye-watering amount of money and are now the proud possessors of the rest of the organisation. What are the repercussions for NewsCorp and in particular its UK-centric arm, NI, in the wake of a full takeover?

BSkyB is one of the UK’s most powerful companies with, just to give the flavour, a marketing communications budget of £1.2bn a year. It is phenomenally cash rich. One estimate reckons that, once acquired, it would contribute 30% of NewsCorp’s cashflow. Like the Murdochs’ newspapers, it is UK-centric. Unlike the newspapers, it is highly profitable. Unlike the newspapers again, it is still a dynamic growth business, which has made good use of product innovation.

In short, it would be the jewel in NI’s crown. Who better to manage that jewel in the new, enlarged organisation – a man of untarnished reputation who intimately understands subscription TV; or Brooks, with her yesterday’s tabloids background?

Of course, I have no idea whether Darroch would actually be interested in such a proposition. He may well take his money and run. But it’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

UPDATE 17.30 – 7/7/11: So, The News of the World is no more. The Sunday edition, shorn of advertising, will be the last in the newspaper’s 168-year history. Nothing could more graphically illustrate the gravity of the crisis engulfing NewsCorp than that its chairman and chief executive Rupert Murdoch should take the drastic step of closing his most profitable newspaper and the one – to boot – he started out with back in 1969. The suspicion lingers that a skeleton NoW staff will be retained to flesh out a 7-day version of The Sun. “The Sun on Sunday” has long been rumoured as a cost-cutting project. How typical of Murdoch that he should turn a disaster into a publishing opportunity.

UPDATE 7/7/11: Determination not to be the last advertiser at the News of the World has now reached frenzied proportions, as Vauxhall, Virgin Holidays, O2 (£1m), Boots (£800,000) and  Sainsbury’s stampede to the exit with Ford, nPower and Lloyds Banking Group. Morrisons next, I suspect. Will anyone be buying the paper anyway? Newsagents expect a boycott on Sunday.


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