Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Gotcha! Our lads sink flagship chairmanship

Well, it took the best part of nine months, but finally James Murdoch as relinquished the chairmanship of BSkyB. This is, needless to say, welcome but now probably not enough. There is little sense in him remaining as a non-executive of BSkyB where he will continue to be a reminder of all things hacking-related.

The speculation is that that, by dropping the chairmanship, Ofcom might not be as interested in his role. But why stay on the board at all if the News Corp/News Intl influence is seen as problematic? Critics (ahem) may argue that he and other News Corp reps will continue to act as backseat drivers. This is especially the case when you consider that Nick Ferguson has been resolute in his defence of James Murdoch. (In fact, I can't believe Ferguson is a long-term option as chair. He has a generally good reputation, but this debacle hasn't done him any favours. So start thinking about the next chair.)

Staying on as a NED also means a few more hurdles to clear. First up, the DCMS committee's report into phone-hacking. There is a political fight going on here, with the Tories wanting to keep the language about Murdoch less critical. But if, as seems likely, it concludes he didn't lie to parliament it will no doubt censure him for failing to spot the problem (or read the email). Could a non-Murdoch NED survive criticism by parliament? Why should shareholders tolerate a renewed round ogf negative headlines? And there's Leveson of course.

Also bear in mind that it isn't just the evidence of phone-hacking that he failed to spot. He also missed the cover-up, where the criminal charges are potentially pretty serious. Given that he was in the habit of barging into the offices of other papers with a certain flame-haired NI executive, he can hardly say he wasn't close to the action.

So, all in all, a big step forward but not enough. If he tries to make it through another AGM he deserves to get a major vote against his re-election. More broadly investors ought to be thinking about a wider board shake-up, with more distance from News Corp.

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