Oct 24, 2011

News Corp AGM: no doddery old men, or foam pies

Rupert Murdoch was pretty fast and combative, much better than the doddery old man at the parliamentary committee.

Stephen Mayne — Journalist and Founder

Stephen Mayne

Journalist and Founder

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?

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15 thoughts on “News Corp AGM: no doddery old men, or foam pies

  1. Suzanne Blake

    According to Windsor, Murdoch is too busy dreaming up poor polls on him to have time for shareholders!!!

  2. John Donovan

    Amazing. Sometimes we forget that News and similar companies are publicly listed, and therefore have a responsibility to listen to their shareholders. I doubt you will ever see an open minded caring sharing News, but perhaps a subtle change may be expected when Rupert goes?

  3. Geoff Russell

    Funny … I would have thought the biggest story out of the News Corp AGM was
    Murdoch’s agreeing to condemn Australia’s live animal export industry:

    This will put him directly at odds with The Weekly Times which has editorialised in
    support of live export

    This WT editorial calls footage of animals being tortured “emotive”, but what is it when
    you point at threats to a multimillion dollar industry? I’d call that emotive. Appealing to
    people who care about the children of cattle farmers who might be put out of
    work … now that’s emotive. Footage of what happens to cattle in Indonesia
    is only emotive to people who give a damn … which clearly isn’t the author of the WT
    editorial. Murdoch made his position quite clear. He is opposed to animal cruelty. The WT clearly supports it, along with Meat and Livestock Australia and Julia Gillard.

  4. Arboy46

    You are a legend, Stephen Mayne!

    Rob Bickford

  5. zut alors

    I’ve been waiting all weekend for this, Stephen, an accurate eyewitness description of what went on at the AGM. As expected, an informative and revealing read.

    After decades of driving ambition, rat cunning, deals, general powerbroking and calling the shots, it appears Murdoch now approaches News Ltd AGMs with mounting trepidation. But security guards and an unctuous board of directors can only cushion him so much, the clock is ticking on his time in the sun.

    Murdoch has climbed to the top of the ladder of media prestige and power… now he’s descending it. Reminds me of that wonderful old line about the higher you climb a ladder the more is revealed up your skirt…

  6. Venise Alstergren

    Congratulations on a first class article Stephen.

    Didn’t Rupert hold the AGM in Adelaide at one stage?

  7. Bobalot

    SUZANNE BLAKE rushes in and posts a political attack which has nothing to do with the article. How embarrassing it must be to be as clueless as SUZANNE BLAKE.

    As for the article, I wonder what shareholders think about the various loss making newspapers that NewsCorp owns? Surely they can’t be impressed by the performance of The Australian over the last decade.

  8. michaelwholohan1

    Yes the clock is ticking for Rupert & maybe,just maybe the Dock is waiting. Will that be the public finale for our own Charles Foster Kane……. one can only hope

  9. interesting

    I hope you and Ben Sandilands will be asking some questions at the Qantas AGM

  10. Peter Ormonde

    Nice piece Stephen.

    But I think Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz somehow managed to knock up Rupert’s memoirs when the lad himself was only 10. Maybe Rupert’s just been following the Citizen Kane script as a plan for life. Who knows?

    But the one downside to Rupert getting in a ghost writer to write up his life – who would believe it? Not even him. Now if it was composed of phone taps and illegal surveillance … that might be interesting.

    A sinister presence that fella.

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