It’s amazing what you come across when spending a few hours going through a decade’s worth of Media sections from The Australian throwing out most while salvaging a few gems.

That was my chore yesterday.

The Australian’s Media columnist Mark Day has certainly taken some strong positions over the years, such as this contribution in October 2003 celebrating Rupert Murdoch’s 50th year in charge of News Corp:

“There is one definition which I believe is beyond challenge: that Rupert Murdoch is the best businessman Australia has ever produced.”

Rupert himself was keen to put some numbers on this claim and told the 2003   News Corp AGM in Adelaide that an £85 investment in News Corp back in September 1953 was now worth $6 million.

The Australian attempted to put some detail to that claim and, under Amanda Meade’s byline in The Diary column but presumably written by Murdoch loyalist Day, it was subsequently explained as follows on October 23, 2003:

There’s a bit of rubberiness in the figures because of various rights issues in the early years, and there has been no accounting for inflation, but the numbers work like this: Shares when Rupert took over in 1953 were average 17/6 ($1.75); 100 shares were worth about 85 pounds, or $170. Assuming a shareholder participated in the rights issues, various splits and restructures over the years would mean the shareholder today held 332,000 ords and 166,000 prefs, which at last week’s prices would total $5,875,753. The compound rate of return over 50 years works out at 18%. Over the past 30 years it is 20%; over the past 20 years, 22 %, and over the past 10 years, 30%. Compare that to real estate.

When you consider that Rupert came from arguably Melbourne’s most privileged family, the share price performance hasn’t actually been that flash, especially in the latter years.

For instance, Day makes no reference to News Corp’s notoriously puny dividends.

The stock is wallowing at around $16 today — well shy of the record high of $56 reached in September 2000. And shareholders have received just $2.37 in dividends over the past 30 years, only 14c of which had any franking credits. That’s a dividend yield of 15% in three decades.

Compare that with Telstra stock, which may be drifting at $2.85, but shareholders have received $3.65 in largely fully franked dividends since it floated 14 years ago. That’s a dividend yield of 128% in half the time.

Depending on when you start the comparison, the brutal truth about News Corp’s recent history is that it has chronically under-performed.

Rupert should have been fired when he almost sent News Corp broke in 1990 and relied on a scandalous company-funded Yannon-style bailout of his family’s leveraged stake in the company.

That episode also created a wonderful buying opportunity for those who bought in January 1991 at what Commsec calculates was a low of $1.06 in today’s terms.

However, if you held the stock for much more a year after that point, you are underwater when compared with investing in the All Ords.

In other words, for the past 20 years, any News Corp shareholder who sold the stock and bought the All Ords is better off than if they’d stayed with Rupert’s roller-coaster.  Even Mark Day has been heard to moan about the share price in recent months.

Take the past 10 years when the All Ords rose 47% from 3225 to last night’s close of 4744. Over the past decade, News Corp shares have halved.

And if you start from the 50th anniversary of Rupert’s ascension at the point of Day’s hero gram in October 2003, News Corp shares have fallen from about $24.50 to $16 whilst the All Ords is up almost 50%.

With Rupert turning 80 in March, the independent directors led by Sir Rod Eddington will at some stage have to intervene.

You can only rest on your laurels for so long. Paying a ridiculous $6 billion for Dow Jones in 2007 should have been the last straw.

Long-serving Rupert deputy Peter Chernin opposed the Dow Jones deal and quit not long after, yet Sir Rod still apparently believes it was “visionary”, despite more than $2 billion in subsequent write-downs.

At the very least those egregious  salaries paid to Rupert and younger son James ought to be substantially cut, just like the share price has been in recent years.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW