For those Australians who like to rise early, set the alarm for 4am on Saturday and then go here to register for the webcast of what should be a cracking 2011 News Corporation AGM.
While News Ltd was first listed in Adelaide in 1922, the phone-hacking scandal means this latest AGM should be the most dramatic since 1969, when that notorious crook Robert Maxwell turned up and caused an almighty storm in Adelaide.
Maxwell was quite a formidable rival and enemy of Rupert Murdoch for many years, but he was never as effective as Gordon Brown’s enforcer Tom Watson, who has bought some News Corp shares and is coming to the AGM. Rupert’s all-time favourite tabloid editor, Kelvin McKenzie, revealed the following extraordinary snippet during his recent appearance at the Leveson inquiry:
“Rupert … was in his New York office on the day that The Sun decided to endorse Cameron for the next election.
“That day was important to Gordon Brown as his speech to the party faithful at the Labour Party conference would have been heavily reported in the papers.
“Of course the endorsement blew Brown’s speech off the front page. That night a furious Brown called Murdoch and in Rupert’s words, ‘roared at me for 20 minutes’.
“At the end Brown said, ‘You are trying to destroy me and my party. I will destroy you and your company.’ That endorsement on that day was a terrible error.”
It is quite clear that the British Labor Party has resolved to try and either get News Corp out of Britain, or the Murdochs out of News Corp. The decision to send Tom Watson to the AGM is further evidence of that and it will be fascinating to recount the McKenzie claim in front of Watson and Murdoch tomorrow.
The past six AGMs in New York have attracted an average of about 40 shareholders, but it remains to be seen whether the shift to Fox Studios in Los Angeles or the phone-hacking scandal will swell the numbers.
While Bloomberg is setting up to broadcast live from out the front of the meeting, media numbers may not be that big as even the Los Angeles Times is planning to sit back and soak up the webcast from Down Town.
News Corp has certainly introduced the most unfriendly environment that I’ve ever seen at an AGM. Even if you are a bone fide shareholder, you won’t be allowed in unless you’ve registered four days before the meeting. And it is not as if you could just negotiate your way through the front door.
Shareholders have been advised to turn up at a parking lot 45 minutes before the AGM to collect their admission ticket and then take a ride on the company shuttle bus to the Zantuck Theatre at Fox Studios. All these signs are pretty ominous for those who are hoping for a smooth, well-attended event over three hours with plenty of wide-ranging discussion.
Indeed, I laid out some proposed ground rules for the AGM in an email to independent director Peter Barnes before he and lead independent director Sir Rod Eddington agreed to catch up for a two-hour lunch last month. It was all very convivial but no commitments were forthcoming.
Barnes is also chairman of Ansell and after he ran a very fair AGM in Melbourne on Monday, I suggested that News Corp follow suit by dealing with each item of business separately, displaying the proxies, conducting polls and allowing individual directors to be questioned. His response? “American AGMs are very different to Australian AGMs.” Not promising.
The best thing about the AGM is the webcast. News Corp doesn’t have to do this but it means the audio goes out globally and then usually sits on the company website for a few months. While a video webcast wouldn’t have been too hard for a broadcasting company, at least the scratchy audio will provide a proper record of proceedings.
The Australian Shareholders’ Association released its voting intentions for the AGM yesterday and surprised a few people by only recommending against five directors and supporting the re-election of Rupert Murdoch. Although, as was explained during this interview on Lateline Business last night, we are calling for Rupert to stand down as chairman and CEO, instead just serving as one of at least 10 non-executive directors.
Our most controversial decision was to include Viet Dinh, chair of the nominating and governance committee since 2005, on our hit list. The rationale will be explained when he is asked this question at the AGM: “How can you call yourself an independent director when you are godfather to one of Lachlan Murdoch’s children?”
*Stephen Mayne is a director of the Australian Shareholders’ Association and company monitor for News Corp