Rupert Murdoch spars with critics at News Corp. annual meeting
At the company's annual shareholders' meeting in Los Angeles Friday, Murdoch argued with — and at time ridiculed — some of the speakers, who called for greater board oversight in the wake of the phone hacking scandal engulfing his company.
The media mogul then abruptly ended the gathering after about 90 minutes, and in a surprising move did not disclose the results of a vote to see whether he and his sons would remain on the board.
"I think we've had enough questions," Murdoch told the crowd of 100 people. "I declare the meeting finished."
Murdoch said the results of the vote would be submitted later Friday to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Two prominent investor advisory firms recommended shareholders vote against returning Murdoch and his two sons, James and Lachlan, to the board of directors. Others wanted News Corp. to separate the roles of chairman and chief executive, which currently are held by the 80-year-old Murdoch.
Murdoch opened the meeting at the Zanuck Theater on the 20th Century Fox movie studio lot in West Los Angeles by striking a contrite tone, acknowledging the gravity of the phone hacking scandal in Britain that has consumed his company for the last four months.
"If we hold others to account, we must hold ourselves to account," Murdoch said. "We cannot just be a profitable company, we need to be a principled company."
But as soon as investors went to the microphone to challenge his control and advocate changes to the board that would provide better oversight, Murdoch attempted to rebuff them. He opened the floor to voting after just four speakers had the opportunity to voice their concerns.
"I'm not stopping you," Murdoch said, amid protests from the room. "I'm declaring the polling open."
After initially saying investors would be limited to one minute to make their remarks, the company relaxed that restriction and allowed critics to return time and again to the microphone.
Two of Murdoch's harshest critics struggled to make their case — Tom Watson, a member of the British Parliament who is leading the hacking investigation, and Stephen Mayne, an Australian activist shareholder who formerly worked for one of Murdoch's papers. Mayne said he never criticized Murdoch while working at News Corp.
"You have made up for it since," Murdoch said, eliciting hoots of laughter from those in the room. Indeed, Mayne and Murdoch's frequent exchanges provided comic relief for those at the meeting.
When one representative of church commissioners of England addressed the News Corp. board, Murdoch quipped, "Your investments haven't been that great, but go ahead."
Not all the investors came to level criticism. Murdoch visibly brightened at the sight of Los Angeles billionaire Haim Saban, an ally who described himself as a longtime shareholder. Nearly a decade ago, Saban and News Corp. profited handsomely after unloading the Fox Family Channel to Walt Disney Co. for $5.2 billion.
"My money's on you," Saban said. "I've heard so many questions, but not one question about the operations of this great company. ... [the focus has been on] all kinds of mishegas, governance, I don't know what."
— Dawn C. Chmielewski and Meg James
Photo: Rupert Murdoch participates in a panel discussion during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in Jan. 26, 2007. Credit: Suzanne Plunkett / Bloomberg News.