Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A crunch point

So, at the end of this month James Murdoch faces re-election as chair of BSkyB. I've been following the hacking stuff, and the shareholder reaction to it, since the summer. I think this month is the crunch point, in several ways.

First up, next week Murdoch is back in front of the DCMS committee. He will be quizzed, no doubt, both about what Tom Crone and Colin Myler have claimed about their meeting with him, about the separate meeting with Myler alone, about what Julian Pike said, and about the latest published evidence.

To be scrupulously fair, you can, just about, maintain an argument that James Murdoch didn't know in the summer of 2008 about the extent of hacking. He could have not understood the implications of the Taylor case, and why he was having to make a monster settlement over an unpublished story. Having got counsel's opinion (which clearly argued there was a culture of illegal hacking), he might not have asked Crone and Myler exactly what it said and/or they may not have told him. (Pike's phone notes get very close to this issue, but don't quite prove anything). He could have just missed the point of what was going on. I find that version of events very hard to believe, but I suspect it is the version that he will continue to propagate and which, unfortunately, I reckon the likes of Louise Mensch will buy.

Even if you accept that version of events though, you have to question at what point he became aware that something was up. Did he never return to the Taylor settlement mentally? Not even when The Guardian blew it open in July 2009? Again I find it very hard to accept. At least bythat point alarm bells should have been ringing, surely.

But even if you accept that what had happened didn't dawn on him till much later, you surely have to conclude that, if he wasn't covering up what was going on, his oversight was awful. If this had been dealt with much earlier it is quite possible, for example, that the BSkyB bid would have gone through. That was a major strategic ambition for News Corp, and it cost them millions in break fees, with about £15m in fees incurred by BSkyB (plus a few million in retention awards). If he had cleared up the mess in News International earlier all this might have been avoided. Instead he missed it (on a sympathetic reading of events) and did damage to both companies. That would be enough to lose your job if you had a different surname.

Non-Murdoch investors have made their feelings pretty clear at News Corp, by voting heavily against James Murdoch last month. I think they need to do the same at BSkyB. My own view is that he has misled parliament about his knowledge of hacking, but even if you don't share that view his failure to spot and deal with the issue shows extremely poor oversight. In addition, what does BSkyB derive from having such a compromised and non-independent chair? It's hard to see good arguments in favour.

Therefore I think this re-election is a crunch point for institutional investors too. Understandably there are already journos sniffing around trying to get a sense of how the vote will go, therefore there is likely to be significant scrutiny of voting decisions. I struggle to see how a vote in favour of his re-election, or an abstention, is justified by events, and there is no defence of being unaware of what the issues are. This is a real test of how seriously investors take their responsibilities - let's hope they don't flunk it.

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