Rupert Murdoch was clearly a very determined man when it came to his goal of ensuring he didn’t cop another foam pie attack at the News Corp AGM in Los Angeles on Friday.
After what must have been many hours of meticulous planning, Rupert can only have been disappointed by the unprecedented media attention and the events that unfolded inside the 476-seat Zanuck Theatre. For that, he can blame the Occupy Wall Street movement, some aggressive institutional advisers, the British Labor Party’s recently promoted deputy chairman, Tom Watson, and some media rivals who can smell the end of an empire.
I was contacted before the meeting by Bloomberg and CNBC and requested to drop by what turned out to be a very large press pack assembled outside the front gates of the enormous Fox Studios lot.
A scheduled landing at 7am was always going to be a close run thing for a 10am start, but after spending half an hour in the Customs queue with North Melbourne president and Footy Show host James Brayshaw, it was all smooth sailing through to the press pack by 8.30am.
On the way in the cab, we discovered this feature preview off the front of The New York Times business section which opened with the anecdote about presenting Rupert with a copy of Bruce Guthrie’s Man Bites Murdoch at last year’s AGM.
Bingo, the Bloomberg producer didn’t seem too interested in a chat so I asked where CNBC was and before you know it, I was in the chair talking to Bloomberg.
Tom Watson then turned up and after exchanging some earlier tweets we briefly caught up in between what was wall-to-wall interviews for the pocket dynamo.
A Bloomberg reporter then gave me a lift to the designated car park, which was almost a kilometre away and then we went through the initial registration stage before jumping on the shuttle bus, which was a mixture of journalists and shareholders.
We arrived about 40 minutes early and were subjected to a second bag search and screening process, again ordered to sign our names and were presented with the rather restrictive rules for the meeting.
By this stage, it felt like winning Survivor and but there was still plenty of time to chat to journalists. I then got ticked off by security for taking a photo of Watson doing a quick press conference with about 10 reporters. This was only with reporters as no recording devices, cameras or camera crews were allowed onto the lot.
Word was spreading that Rupert was going to impose a one-minute limit on speakers so I proposed to Watson that we keep going back and forth, only to be told he had a relatively limited list of points to make about phone hacking.
When proceedings commenced there were about 50 shareholders, 40 journalists and more than 60 staff, including the 15 directors. All up, the theatre was barely one third full but this was still the biggest AGM since News Corp’s 2004 move to America.
One of the weirdest AGMs I’ve ever attended then kicked off with some security guy standing next to Rupert introducing the board and laying down some rules for the meeting (audio here). He seemed pretty nervous and with a brief that included even shutting Rupert up, it was no wonder.
Rupert then delivered his prepared speech and only deviated a couple of times to display some short terms graphs to demonstrate recent share price out-performance. He also ad libbed to somehow claim the only thing most News of the World reporters had broken was great stories. This sort of contrasted with the contrition and sorrow in the prepared text.
After doing his usual trick of declaring questions would only be taken after the official 20 items of business had been dealt with, the first opening emerged when he was obliged to then offer the floor to Julie Tanner Durkin from the Christian Association, who had tabled a motion to be presented from the floor calling for the appointment of an independent chairman.
Rupert tried to impose a one-minute limit but she went over and, having concluded, I was straight to the alternative microphone and discovered that the Fox technicians were kindly leaving both of them live for the entire meeting. (Audio here).
It was then straight into debate about this motion and I was a keen supporter but broadened into poor share price performance, lack of accountability for the Myspace and Dow Jones disasters, Viet Dinh’s compromising godfather role for Lachlan Murdoch, phone hacking, Rupert’s ridiculously long tenure, the voting gerrymander and the way us minority shareholders were all treated like mushrooms. Game on. (Have a listen here.)
Watson was up next and spotted a beauty — in the backdrop behind Rupert was a picture of Kate and William under the masthead of The Times. We all know that William was hacked by Glenn Mulcaire, but Watson claimed Jonathan Rees had targeted Kate Middleton. Oh dear.
Most of the coverage ignored this snippet — except for the Financial Times, which devoted a good chunk of its front-page story to it under the headline: “Murdoch hit by allegations that newspaper targeted Kate Middleton”.
The security guard handling the microphone near me was really annoying. At first he stood less than a foot from my face and then next time he gave a gentle tap on the shoulder to say last question.
Every time the goon standing next to Rupert tried to cut down a speaker, I would interject with something like: “Who is this guy? Is he chairing the meeting?” Over the seven visits to the microphone, it felt like hardly any of them were an uninterrupted opportunity to ask questions.
At one point Rupert called me a liar (audio here) and then he mentioned my “lady friend” (audio here) a reference to that crazy former hooker Evelyn Y Davis, who thankfully didn’t make the trip across from Washington this year. Good riddance to her.
The highlight of the meeting was the straw poll of directors, which only Jane Cowan picked up for Saturday AM.
The plan was to highlight the undemocratic nature of News Corp, lack of accountability and the subservience of directors to the Murdoch family. It took a few seconds but directors were asked to raise their hands if they thought the voting gerrymander was a good thing — eventually, up they all went.
The next poll was whether the directors believed those executives responsible for the MySpace and Dow Jones disasters had been held responsible.
Before any hands went up, lead independent director Sir Rod Eddington interjected. Isn’t it great to see our supposedly lead independent director volunteering to be Rupert’s Praetarian Guard. The security goons had lost confidence by this point and we were getting closer to the long-awaited open season on Rupert.
Alas, two Fox employees leapt up to sing Rupert’s praise and we even had billionaire Saim Habam doing likewise. Unlike us shareholders and media slumming it at the parking lot registration marque, Sam just strolled over from his nearby office to see if the promised feeding frenzy would eventuate.
It sure did with about seven different speakers from various church, union and investment groups getting stuck into Rupert, primarily over phone hacking, but also touching on executive pay and governance issues.
With the questions largely exhausted after less than 90 minutes of action, I leapt up and requested one last go, but Rupert brazenly declared the meeting closed before being corrected by acting general counsel Janet Nova and re-opening the meeting to then close the polls.
I valiantly asked that it be noted in the minutes that questions were out-standing (audio here) but that went nowhere and, before you knew it, the board had quickly fled out the back, declining the usual opportunity for a coffee and chat with shareholders.
All up, it was an extraordinary display by an ageing and somewhat paranoid leader who clearly feels under siege. However, Rupert was pretty fast and combative, much better than the doddery old man at the parliamentary committee.
The aura of invincibility has gone and what is left is a man with dwindling power, bunkered in to preserve what he’s got.
Meanwhile, poor Chase Carey is meant to be getting elevated as chief operating officer but the deputy chairman of the board didn’t say boo for the entire meeting. Says it all really. News Corp is still a one-man band, it just needs the independent directors and Rupert’s family to step up and ease him.
Bizarrely, the remuneration report reveals that Rupert only gets a $1.7 million lump sum if fired, but there’s an extra $9.3 million worth of shares if he “retires”. Why wouldn’t you take it and sit back and write a bestselling memoir on an incredible life?