(Image: AAP/Jason Reed)

Rupert Murdoch continued his long and shameless record of suppressing shareholder participation and debate at this morning’s News Corp AGM when his company secretary abruptly terminated the virtual meeting after just 26 minutes when there were still numerous unanswered written questions.

At its first ever virtual meeting held in New York, the News Corp board served up meeting rules on the day which limited shareholders to just two questions each and the overall question time to a maximum of 30 minutes.

After emailing the company as a shareholder and requesting a 16 digit “control number” to access the virtual meeting (ASX listed companies don’t provide this obstacle), I’d prepared nine written questions to lodge once the online portal opened just 15 minutes before the AGM started at 7am.

However, the Murdochs never miss an opportunity to suppress participation, so their online question system didn’t allow you to cut and paste. Every question had to be typed out directly into the system.

Rather than listening carefully to the deliberately rushed eight minutes of formal presentations by Rupert and CEO Robert Thomson, this time was spent tapping out questions into the online system.

The operator declared that where a shareholder lodged more than two questions, they would be read out in order of being lodged. But even that rule wasn’t followed as my first question, written as follows, was ignored:

News Corp and Fox Corp have provided stronger support to Donald Trump than any other major media companies. Could Rupert comment on whether it is time for Donald Trump to concede defeat and support a smooth transition to President Biden?

Instead, this was the first question read out, although there no disclosure on who had submitted it:

James Murdoch resigned from the News Corp board earlier this year over ‘disagreements with certain editorial content’. Could Rupert and Lachlan comment on why we did not accommodate some of James’ views on climate change and Donald Trump such that he didn’t feel the need to completely walk away from the company?

Lachlan Murdoch didn’t say a word for the whole meeting and Rupert’s response, unlike his formal address, was barely audible. He did however say “we do not deny climate change, we are not deniers”, in a similar move to last year’s AGM when he said “there are no change climate change deniers around, I can assure you”.

Having censored question one on Trump, the operators also censored question three, which read as follows:

Could Rupert and Lachlan please provide a summary of their connections to and associations with the Trump administration over the past four years, including with the president himself. In hindsight were we too close to the Trump administration preferring pro-Trump propaganda over traditional, balanced journalism and are we worried Mr Trump will launch a media outlet to compete with the Murdoch interests in 2021?

Question four on when Rupert will retire was also skipped, while question five, related to James Murdoch’s resignation, was censored. Instead they opted to read out question six, which was submitted as follows (but with the reference to the Murdoch family being worth more than US$20 billion omitted):

News Corp stopped printing more than 100 regional and suburban titles earlier this year, costing the company an estimated US$111 million in revenue on an annualised basis. The Murdoch family are worth an estimated US$20 billion, surely the family can afford to bring back the print editions of some of these titles, ending the news deserts that have been created across Australia.

CEO Robert Thomson denied News Corp has created news deserts and claimed the move was designed to “provide Australians with the best of journalism” — which is rubbish, of course, given the hundreds of journalist who were retrenched as part of the process.

Companies often dangle a distracting news hook for the media to latch onto at AGMs. In News Corp’s case it was Thomson’s strong attack on the idea that German giant Bertelsmann, owner of Penguin Random House, would win the current auction for publisher Simon & Schuster.

Thomson called for competition regulators to block such a move, saying it would create a dominant global book publisher.

All up, it was a predictably undemocratic AGM season from the Murdochs. The Fox Corp AGM in Los Angeles last week was a physical meeting at the Fox Studios lot. It appeared that no independent shareholders turned up, no questions were asked and even online questions were banned at the 19 minute meeting.

And, of course, the thousands of Murdoch journalists across the world will not report a word of this, even as they regularly flog elected politicians for not being accessible or accountable.

If News Corp journalists were ever told they were limited to just two questions in any public setting or faced such determined scrutiny-avoiding tactics by politicians, they would be outraged. Sadly, they turn a blind eye when the boss does it year after year — probably because any Murdoch journalist who publicly pointed out this hypocrisy would be instantly sacked.

At 89, Rupert Murdoch is an unaccountable dictator who retains control through an undemocratic gerrymander and doesn’t really believe in free speech — certainly not when it comes to scrutiny of his own actions.

Maybe it really is time to bring on that Rudd royal commission.

Stephen Mayne is a News Corp shareholder.

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