Last week the Australian Stock Exchange took exception to this comments from the chairman of Kingsgate Minerals, Ross Smyth-Kirk: “I have no hesitation in declaring this the most manipulated market I’ve experienced.”

Mr Smyth-Kirk may be on to something. For example, look at the news revealed this morning that media owner Kerry Stokes is thinking of taking his Seven Network private — this after the Seven share price has soared 17% in a month without a query.

The deal was laid out in minute detail in the AFR this morning. Seven has asked for its shares to be halted pending an announcement and says there are errors in the AFR report.

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The leaking of the Seven news came after a strong rise in the share price which, while partly accounted for by a significant profit update, didn’t justify the rise past $10 to a peak of $10.80. The shares closed at $10.58 on Friday. There were suggestions around that Seven was planning something but there was nothing from the company and nothing from the ASX.

So much for the Seven Network spokesman’s assurance to Crikey last week that “nothing was going on” with the company. We reported on the share price behaviour but met a solid denial on Wednesday.

The Seven machinations follow the partial leaking of the PBL deal with private equity group, CVC (but no share price rise); funny trading in Coles Myer ahead of the first proposal from KKR (now linked with Seven); rumours and a strong price rise in companies like healthcare group, DVC, and media groups PMP and Southern Cross.

In the cases of DVC (in bed with CVC), PMP (talking, advisers appointed but no action) and Southern Cross (no deal but raided) the ASX had to force the information about possible private equity approaches out of the company: in the case of both DVC and PMP it took two queries from the ASX to get all the information into the market.

Then there was the leaking in the AFR of a story that two big brewers were “eyeing” Fosters: no deal but it came out the day the company reported, so up went the shares.

So what to make of the Seven deal? KKR and Seven are obviously aware of something that we are not: the mooted value of the deal $3.5 billion including debt, is $1.2 billion more than the total market cap for Seven and the suggested debt burden of $2.5 billion is also above the market cap of $2.375 billion at Friday’s close of $10.58.

So what is Stokes up to? There are currently two schools of speculation:

1. He will take advantage of the billions being offered to privatise the thing, hastening the creep process he has used to cement control.

2. He is doing a PBL Media, keeping control but selling some assets into a fund to build a war chest for Helen Coonan’s coming media concentration.

Where the speculation should really be focussing is on what Stokes wants to buy. He already has the TV and the magazines, the Yahoo7 joint venture is motoring along, he wouldn’t want radio at anywhere near current prices and pay TV rests in the lap of the court. Which leaves newspapers.

Suddenly the 14.9% stake in West Australian Newspapers doesn’t look anything like a Murdoch-style “friendly” blocking stake. And what’s the point of just WAN? Fairfax and WAN could add up to something, especially on the web with some ruthless private investment not answering to nervous nelly minority shareholders. Fairfax and WAN shares are both up this morning while PBL and News Corp are off a bit.

It all points to Fairfax being the main prey. And with Murdoch sitting on 7.5%, boasting he can go to 10 any time he likes, a break-up of Australia’s old media company becomes more and more likely.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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