Wednesday 29 March 2017

The sun also rises

News Corp's latest takeover bid could ensure Rupert Murdoch's son is heir to the empire

This week's £7.8bn (€9.3bn) bid by News Corporation for the 61pc of BSkyB it doesn't already own represents the final step on the path to James Murdoch inheriting control of his father's vast media empire.

On Tuesday, BSkyB announced that it had received a takeover approach from News Corporation, its largest shareholder with a 39pc stake. News Corp is offering 700p per share, valuing the 61pc of BSkyB it doesn't already own at £7.8bn.

The offer was immediately rejected by the independent BSkyB directors. They are holding out for at least 800p per share. This would increase the cost to News Corp of buying out the other BskyB shareholders to £8.9bn.

BSkyB has long been the jewel in the News Corp crown. News Corp first entered the satellite broadcasting market in 1989 with Sky Television. It was very much the Johnny-come-lately of satellite TV and very few people expected Sky to prevail over its much better-funded rival British Satellite broadcasting.

Unfortunately, not alone were both satellite broadcasters plagued by technical difficulties, the launch of Sky and British Satellite Broadcasting coincided with the advertising recession triggered by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. By late 1990 the two satellite broadcasters were losing prodigious sums of money.

Marriage

With both Sky and British Satellite Broadcasting only weeks away from going bust, drastic action was required. The result was a shotgun marriage between Sky and British Satellite Broadcasting to form BSkyB in November 1990.

Although strictly speaking it was a 50:50 merger, the reality was a Sky takeover.

BSkyB struggled until it won the exclusive rights to broadcast the new FA Premier League in 1992. By 1993 BSkyB had turned its first profit.

It has since gone from strength to strength with almost 10 million subscribers.

Analysts are now predicting pre-tax profits of £915m for the year to the end of June 2011 and with the company now generating enormous amounts of cash, News Corp wants all of the company and not just part of it.

Ever since it was established in 1952 News Corp has been totally dominated by one man, its founder Rupert Murdoch.

Over the past 58 years Rupert Murdoch has dispensed with a seemingly endless stream of deputies and heirs apparent, the most recent being long-time News Corp chief operating officer Peter Chernin who quit a year ago.

However, no one, not even a force of nature such as Rupert Murdoch, is immortal. With the media mogul due to celebrate his 80th birthday next March, attention has inevitably focused on the succession at News Corp.

This is despite the fact that longevity is clearly something which runs in the Murdoch clan, his mother Dame Elisabeth is still going strong at 101.

Having inherited the assets which formed the original News Corp from his own father, Rupert Murdoch has never made any secret of his desire that he in turn would like to be succeeded by one of his own children.

Battle

Of Rupert Murdoch's four adult children, the eldest, Prue, his daughter by his first wife Patricia Booker, has never had any involvement with the family business, preferring to live quietly with her husband, a senior News Corp employee, and children in Sydney.

That left the battle for the News Corp succession to be fought out between the three children, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James, that Rupert Murdoch had with his second wife Anna Torv. And a bloody affair it was too.

One of the most visible casualties of the succession battle was Rupert and Anna's marriage. She, not unreasonably, objected to the manner in which Rupert Murdoch was pitting her three children against each other. The couple divorced in 1999 after 32 years of marriage.

The early favourite in the succession battle was Elisabeth Murdoch. She was fast-tracked through a series of jobs at News Corp, including a spell in charge of BSkyB, but left News Corp in 2001. Lachlan too quit News Corp, although he remains a non-executive director, returning to Australia with his family in 2005.

That left James. Unlike his two elder siblings, whose early careers had been strongly conformist, James preferred to sow some wild oats before joining the family firm. After dropping out of Harvard after less than a year he founded an independent record label, Rawkus.

He eventually joined News Corp in 1996 and was put in charge of its internet operations. Without, it must be said, much conspicuous success.

When the internet bubble burst in 2000 he was appointed chairman and chief executive of News Corp's ailing Asian satellite TV operation, Star.

Three years later he was controversially appointed chief executive of BSkyB. There was widespread opposition in UK financial circles to the appointment, which made James Murdoch, then aged just 30, by far the youngest chief executive of a FTSE 100 company.

Despite his appointment as chief executive of BSkyB, James Murdoch was still reckoned to be trailing behind Lachlan in the News Corp succession stakes. His big chance came when Lachlan suddenly quit two years later, leaving James as the sole Murdoch heir working full time in the family business.

In 2007 James Murdoch switched jobs once again, becoming non-executive chairman of BSkyB and head of News Corp's operations in Europe, Asia and Middle East.

His new job gave him overall responsibility not just for BSkyB but also News Corp's UK newspapers including the 'Sun', the 'News of the World', the 'Times' and the 'Sunday Times'.

So far, so apparently nepotistic. However, his appointment as a director of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline in February 2009 demonstrated that his business talents were appreciated well beyond the confines of the Murdoch family.

In the mid-1990s, Rupert Murdoch broke the political habits of a lifetime and swung his UK newspapers behind Tony Blair's New Labour. By 2009, after more than 12 years in power, it was clear that New Labour's star was waning.

Despite this, Rupert Murdoch, who never seems to have taken to Conservative Party leader David Cameron, was reluctant to ditch New Labour.

It was James Murdoch who insisted that News Corp switch back to the Conservatives with the 'Sun' announcing its change of allegiance on the very day of former Prime Minister Gordon Browne's speech to the Labour Party conference last September.

Given News Corp's last-minute defection to the Conservatives, questions are inevitably being asked about the timing of its bid for the remainder of BSkyB.

While a successful bid wouldn't alter the underlying reality of Murdoch control at BSkyB, it would still be hugely controversial.

With the Labour Party now owing Rupert Murdoch no favours, it will strongly argue that a full News Corp takeover of BSkyB be blocked.

News Corp will be hoping that last September's decision to throw in its lot with the Tories will be rewarded.

James Murdoch will play a key role in the battle for BSkyB. Not alone must he persuade and cajole his fellow directors to accept the News Corp offer, he must also successfully navigate the treacherous political waters that lie ahead. This will require skill and tact of the highest order.

If he succeeds then his position as Rupert Murdoch's heir apparent will be unassailable. If he fails don't be surprised if either Elisabeth or Lachlan re-enter the succession stakes.

Irish Independent

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