This month’s end-of-2017 results for Australia’s media companies look like being a financial version of Where’s Wally?.

News Corp kicks off the month with their figures to be released at 9am tomorrow (Friday) Australian east coast time. Seven West Media follow on February 15 and both Fairfax and Nine a week later on February 22.

News Corp CEO Robert Thomson and CFO Susan Panuccio are slated to brief analysts and media, as has been common since separation from 21st Century Fox. But, analysts will be keen to know the status of the executive co-chairman since his apparent accident on his son Lachlan’s yacht in the Caribbean in early January.

Despite Murdoch being such a public figure, all we really know about this accident comes from a Vanity Fair snippet by Gabriel Sherman, who in an earlier life was the biographer of Fox News boss, the late Roger Ailes.

Two weeks after the accident, in a January 17 post on the magazine’s Hive site, Sherman reported that the previous Friday Murdoch had emailed “his senior management” to say: “last week I had a sailing accident and suffered a painful back injury. While I am well on the road to recovery, I have to work from home for some weeks. In the meantime, you’ll be hearing from me by email, phone and text!”

“Sources” told Sherman that Murdoch had been helicoptered off the yacht and had been recovering in a Los Angeles hospital.

It’s not clear if Sherman had seen the email. The Bloomberg follow-up (and the basis of the rather anodyne Australian Financial Review report) claimed that its reporter had seen the email, while The Guardian quoted simply “a person with knowledge of the email who was not authorized to share the note”.

In The Australian’s reporting, the email became a more chummy “note to friends and colleagues” without direct quotes from the note itself.

Since then, nothing. Apart from a rather out of the blue statement from the 86-year-old Murdoch, calling on Facebook to pay carriage fees to responsible news companies (like, of course, News Corp). It was a bit like a long form tweet and Murdoch’s first since he abandoned actual Twitter on the occasion of his fourth marriage, to Jerry Hall, in March 2016.

In perhaps co-incidental timing, a couple of days before the Vanity Fair report, the family’s Wall Street Journal reported that US counter-intelligence officials had warned Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner that Murdoch’s third wife, Wendi Deng, “could be using her close friendship with Mr. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, to further the interests of the Chinese government”.

In case the subtlety was missed, Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff helpfully weighed in with a Tweet that has been retweeted over 3,000 times: “Since their divorce, Murdoch has been telling anybody who would listen that Wendi is a Chinese spy–and had been throughout the marriage.”

Then the story evaporated, although it gave Clive Palmer an opportunity to reprise one of his greatest hits, tweeting: “I said Wendy (sic) Deng was a Chinese spy in 2013. In 2018, The Australian confirmed it yet the Fake News all made fun of me. Wake up AUSTRALIA.”

In the meantime, through January, as US shares rode the post-tax bill cycle up and then down, News Corp shares trended sideways and then down. They now sit about 9% down on four weeks ago.

Partly this is market disappointment that, unlike 21st Century Fox, News Corp does not appear to be for sale. Partly, it’s uncertainty about the company’s future.

The family has a lot on its plate with both News Corp and the remnants of Fox that Disney isn’t buying — the US television network, Fox News and Fox Sports and related rights along with the Fox movie lot in Los Angeles.

Not least, who will be the CEO of the Fox remnant? During Rupert’s recuperation, Lachlan’s advocates have been out stressing it’s all but certain to be him, with James (the current CEO) either moving on to Disney or branching out on his own.

But like so many questions, we won’t know until we get the answer to the first question: “Where’s Rupert?”

Peter Fray

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