News Corp polls shareholders amid hacking crisis on Murdoch family control, other issues

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – News Corp. has begun surveying its largest investors in an attempt to address their concerns amid the phone-hacking and alleged police bribery crisis at the company’s now shuttered British tabloid, according to a person familiar with the matter.

A letter went out to the company’s largest shareholders recently and is being followed up by phone calls to discuss investors’ biggest concerns. The topics of discussion include plans for succession and Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch’s grip on the company through a dual-class stock ownership structure that has recently come under scrutiny, the person said. The findings will eventually be presented to the company’s board.

The person was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Story continues below


The polling follows weeks of scandalous revelations that have cut more than $5 billion from News Corp.’s market value since July 4 when the Guardian first broke the story that journalists at News Corp.’s News of the World hacked into the phone of a murdered 13-year-old girl after she disappeared in 2002. The investor survey is the latest effort by News Corp. to repair damage from the scandal. In recent weeks, the company has shut down its tainted tabloid, dropped its bid to take over British Sky Broadcasting, accepted resignations from top executives and issued full-page apologies in newspapers.

Still, unpleasant disclosures continue to emerge, including Thursday’s news that the mother of an 8-year-old girl murdered by a pedophile in 2000 was also targeted by a private detective who worked for the News of the World, which covered the crime extensively.

The scandal has called into question News Corp.’s oversight of the British paper and raised concern about whether Murdoch, 80, is an effective manager. There are also renewed doubts about whether his son James Murdoch will succeed his father as CEO. The younger Murdoch, who took over News Corp.’s European and Asian operations in 2007, continues to face questions over the company’s response to allegations of widespread phone hacking. James Murdoch got a boost Thursday when the board of British Sky Broadcasting unanimously backed him to remain chairman of the broadcaster, in which News Corp. holds a 39per centstake.

The hacking scandal has provoked new criticism of the dual-share structure that allows the Murdochs to maintain control of nearly 40per centof News Corp.’s voting shares through a family trust, even though their economic stake is less than 13per cent.

Anne Simpson, the corporate governance chief at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), said last week “the situation is very serious and we’re considering our options.” CalPERS owns 5.5 million nonvoting Class A shares and 1.4 million voting Class B shares, or less than aper centof each class.

“News Corp. does not have one-share/one-vote. This is a corruption of the governance system,” she said in a statement. “We believe that the control of a company should reflect its ownership. That’s capitalism.”

Many top shareholders, including The Baupost Group, which had 19 million shares as of March, Eagle Capital Management, which had 17.4 million, and Conatus Capital Management, which had 5.7 million, have declined to comment to The Associated Press on the recent scandal. They also declined to share their opinions of News Corp.’s corporate governance.

The survey was earlier reported by Bloomberg News.

Donald Yacktman, president of Yacktman Asset Management Co., which had 20.6 million nonvoting Class A shares as of the end of June, said his firm invested in News Corp. knowing it had a structure that kept the Murdochs in control, but would prefer a single class of shares if it was an option.

“All else being equal, sure, I would rather have one class of shares than two,” he said in an interview Thursday. “But I’m not hung up on it.”

Yacktman said News Corp. recently called his firm asking if they wanted to meet Chase Carey, News Corp.’s chief operating officer. Carey is believed to be in line to become CEO if the elder Murdoch steps down and a family member’s succession becomes a problem.

Yacktman said he’s satisfied with the Murdochs’ ownership and management, and as a value investor he said the current dip in the share price is a buying opportunity because the company’s value hasn’t changed. Class A shares closed Thursday at $16.11, down 11per centfrom $18.13 on July 5.

He said he was resigned to the share structure in which the Murdochs’ control is dominant.

“Realistically, there aren’t that many people that willingly give up power,” he said. “Do you know any?”