The last corporate will and testament of Rupert Murdoch

06 Dec 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The last corporate will and testament of Rupert Murdoch

As intriguing details about the billionaire octogenarian's latest cunning plan emerge, Raymond Snoddy examines the plot twists

A month ago when word first leaked out - or was deliberately placed - that talks on a Disney takeover of most of the Murdoch entertainment empire had broken down there was understandable puzzlement.

Had Rupert Murdoch at the age of 86 finally run out of steam? Was he admitting defeat in the face of the giant, multi-billion technology groups whose rise he woefully under-estimated?

Sceptical Murdoch watchers thought such scenarios unlikely - that old Rupe was not going anywhere voluntarily and that there would be a Plan B and last minute twists in the plot could not be ruled out.

The leak was of course designed to put pressure on Disney, not just on price, but also to create a continuing role in what would be a $60 billion corporation for the Murdochs.

The leaks were also designed to alert others to the possibility of a mega-deal, the last corporate will and testament of Rupert Murdoch.

The cunning plan has worked of course and Comcast, the largest US cable operator and owner of NBC Universal and Verizon, - the largest US telecoms group - are also reported to be considering entering the fray.

But according to business network CNBC, the Disney-Fox deal for most of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment businesses is a long way down the road after high-level negotiations over the Thanksgiving weekend.

A deal could even be announced as early as next week.

Most intriguing is that James Murdoch is being tipped for a senior role in the merged company, which would perhaps leave him running the international operations of the merged company including Sky in Europe and Star in India. This could leave him well placed to succeed Walt Disney chief executive Bob Iger, who is due to retire in 2019, with Disney apparently failing to groom an internal candidate.

Such a scenario could also give the ringmaster of the Murdoch circus, at the age of 86, continuing influence, if not outright power, over a $60 billion corporation.

Of central importance the genes would have been inserted at the highest level.

For Rupert Murdoch tempus fugit and not only in the most obvious way - political time is flying too.

In the US Murdoch is in the place he most likes to be - having the ear of the most powerful man in the country: Donald J. Trump.

The time to act is now just in case the Trump world comes crashing down next year in the form of an impeachment.

Already the US Justice Department is suing to block AT&T proposed $85 billion takeover of Time Warner.

This is certainly being done for honest regulatory reasons, including the growing belief that the merger of content creators and those who own the means of reaching the consumer, could act against the public interest.

You can be certain though that Trump would not lift a finger to help Time Warner, owners of the hated purveyor of “fake news” CNN, to get a deal.

For regulatory reasons alone the merger of most of 21st Century Fox and Walt Disney now looks the likeliest outcome.

In parochial terms how would such a deal play out for Sky and the continuing investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority into Fox plans to buy the rest of Sky.

Depending on the timing of what happens next, the deal could help clear the acquisition, in that the main reason for the investigation is the fear that Fox News could have a toxic effect on Sky News.

Fox News will have gone into the new remnant company that will include the Fox sports channels to be run by Lachlan Murdoch together with New Corp where the Murdoch newspaper interests have been parked.

The remaining worry is what will happen to Sky News with the danger that the loss-making channel will become an inconvenient fatherless pawn in a $60 billion deal.

It could simply be left as it is within the Disney-owned Sky group and that would be the best outcome.

It would be a media tragedy if the channel were to become a corporate sacrifice, or end up bundled off to the remaining Murdoch companies which will largely specialise in news and sport in future.

The evolving story may not be actually where Rupert Murdoch planned to end up but he has always been a pragmatic player. James and Lachlan will have been set-up with significant business roles for the future and old Rupe is still very much in the game and the proceeds from the all-share deal will help soothe any loss of direct corporate clout.

If confirmed along the lines of the detailed CNBC leak Rupert Murdoch will be able to claim he has snatched a late if narrow victory in a three dimensional chess game.

Heading north?

Back home Channel 4 gave a rather splendid Christmas Party this week with dangerous rum and amaretto cocktails, complete with a charming, informal speech from new chief executive Alex Mahon.

Understandably it was not the place to discuss the fact that she has been summoned for talks with Culture Secretary Karen Bradley on the threat to move Channel 4 out of London.

According to The Times there could be legislation to force the channel to move if it does not agree to go voluntarily.

The danger with politicians is always the need to be seen to be doing something whether it is sensible or not.

Top Channel 4 executives and directors believe that uprooting the channel entirely from its London base in the middle of one of the leading media cities of the world would be seriously damaging.

Alex Mahon will have to offer a symbolic sacrifice - a TV version of Danegeld - and 100 heads will probably have to head north.

If, however, the Culture Secretary was really daft enough to try to impose by law a total move of the Channel to the Midlands then the bluff of a weak Government should be called.

At the very least such a measure could be seriously delayed in the House of Lords.

It would be truly extraordinary if a Government facing years of existential crisis over the Brexit mess would have the time or energy to go into battle with Channel 4.

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