As the world’s largest employer of journalists, Rupert Murdoch sure doesn’t like to answer their questions. Despite a record number of journalists registering for this morning’s conference call to talk about the full-year results, only six journalists got to speak over six minutes with none from Australia and none from News Corporation.

Why wasn’t The Wall Street Journal, Fox Business (which has finally reached break even after four years) or The Australian allowed to ask a question?

The obvious answer is that Rupert got caned by the first six questions from journalists and decided to shut it down before it got any uglier.

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While not quite as aggressive as British Labor MP Tom Watson, the financial hacks showed the docile analysts a thing or two about asking questions, grilling the mogul on succession, board independence and his inability to get on top of misdeeds at the News of the World.

One Australian journalist who got up early but missed out on a question was Sarah Ferguson from Four Corners, who is working to produce a 45-minute investigative piece on News Corp, which is scheduled to air on August 29.

It has been more 16 years since Four Corners has taken a look at the Murdoch empire, largely because of embarrassment over Ali Cromie’s 1995 effort, which saw her fired shortly after it went to air.

Cromie was strongly criticised for her shouted question to Rupert about what would happen to News Corp after he died as he got on a boat to head to the famous management conference at Hayman Island where he met privately with Tony Blair and cemented a long-term relationship of mutual support.

Unlike the analysts, the journalists weren’t very interested in the impressive financial numbers this morning with News Corp’s net profit jumping by $US200 million to $US2.74 billion for 2010-11.

I emailed these suggested questions to the 28 analysts promoted on the News Corp website but as a group they chose instead to focus on operational issues such as US advertising rates, digital platforms, leverage, the $US5 billion buyback and currency assumptions.

The best they could do was draw Rupert into a discussion about the newspaper division, which clearly has his full support.

However, it is clear that Australian newspaper profits are tumbling despite what Rupert claimed were heavy cost cuts. He also said there was limited scope to rationalise printing operations with Fairfax, which doesn’t sound encouraging for Greg Hywood’s plans. Go here to listen to the full one hour conference call.

Rupert got a big laugh when asked about succession planning but did seem to give ground on the question of a non-Murdoch eventually taking over as CEO:

“I hope the job won’t be open in the near future. Chase is my partner, if I went under a bus, I’m sure he’d get the job. Chase and I have full confidence in James. I think that is all I need to say about it.”

As for his hand-picked sycophantic board, Rupert was sounding as credible as Fox News declaring itself  “fair and balanced” when he claimed: “It’s a very strong board, very often very critical, and we have a lot of free-ranging discussions. I just assure you that we continually evaluate our corporate governance practices and have engaged outside counsel to confirm that we are in compliance with standards of good corporate governance.”

So why hasn’t a News Corp director ever criticised the company publicly? This will be an interesting issue at the Metcash AGM in Sydney on September 1 when chairman and independent News Corp director Peter Barnes seeks re-election.

It will also be interesting to see how the News Ltd business commentators cover the results tomorrow after investors reacted positively, lifting News Corp shares 2% this morning in a modestly lower market.

The Australian’s John Durie, the highest-paid business commentator in Australia, has yet to say anything meaningful on the News Corp governance scandal when he has written more about corporate governance than anyone in the mainstream media over the past five years.

A better-than-expected result is the perfect opportunity for the likes of  Terry McCrann, Durie, Matthew Stevens and Bryan Frith to belatedly enter the fray on the governance and business side of News Corp, as opposed to McCrann’s cheap shots at Bob Brown and Julia Gillard on questions of privacy and media inquiries.

*Stephen Mayne is a director of the Australian Shareholders’ Association and “company monitor” for News Corp. He is attempting to raise enough funds for a fourth trip to New York for the News Corp AGM in October. Click here for details on how to make a donation.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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