LOS ANGELES, (Reuters) – Using contentious barbs and comedic relief, Rupert Murdoch deflected attempts by angry investors to remove him as chairman of his News Corp empire at the company’s annual meeting today.
The 80-year-old media baron survived what was effectively a no-confidence vote and also managed to get his sons James and Lachlan reelected as directors.
The octogenarian began the meeting with perfunctory comments about being personally determined to right News Corp’s wrongs, saying it must be an ethical company and that it had been subject to fair criticism and unfair attack. But that was as conciliatory as he got.
Unlike his sons Lachlan and James, who sat quietly during the 75-minute meeting, Murdoch stood defiant in the face of tough questioning about News Corp’s corporate governance, a proposal to strip him of the long-held chairman role that goes along with his CEO title, and fresh allegations of computer hacking that piggyback off the phone hacking charges responsible for putting Murdoch in his precarious position.
In addition to the roughly 150 people inside the Zanuck Theatre on the Fox Studios lot in Hollywood, about 100 others stood outside, voicing opposition to the company and carrying signs that read, “Murdoch isn’t above the law” and “Big Media, Big Money, Get Out.”
Murdoch was feistier than he had been during questioning by a special committee of Parliament in July.
British member of parliament Tom Watson, Australian pension fund representative Stephen Mayne and Julie Tanner of the Christian Brothers Investment Service were among those who sparred with Murdoch. Mayne, a longtime News Corp antagonist, and Murdoch, who employed his familiar tactic of pounding the table to stress a point, circled each other like familiar opponents.
“It is time to get on the governance high road. You’ve been treating us like mushrooms,” said Mayne, who has attended more than a decade’s worth of these meetings.
Later, in response to Mayne’s comment that he was not sure how he planned to vote his shares, Murdoch shot back, “I hate to call you a liar, but I don’t believe you. I know how you’re going to vote.”
The real fireworks were supplied by Watson, who flew to Los Angeles to attend the meeting as the representative of 1,669 shares of nonvoting stock held by labor group AFL-CIO. At his first opportunity to speak, Watson noted the “deep irony” of News Corp using images of Prince William and Kate Middleton during its presentation since both were alleged phone hacking victims.
He said News Corp could face new investigations in the UK by the country’s Serious Organised Crime Agency, stemming from the actions of at least three private investigators employed by News International, News Corp’s UK newspaper publishing unit. Murdoch has failed to warn shareholders of the possibility of new civil lawsuits, Watson said.
“I promise you absolutely that we will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of this,” Murdoch said in response to Watson.
Despite the animosity between the two, Murdoch jokingly defended News Corp’s democratic voting process by pointing out that its Fox Business channel had featured Watson earlier in the day.
“We’re fair and balanced,” he said, referencing to the company’s familiar slogan.
After the meeting, Watson told reporters that he was pleased to have had the opportunity to bring the issues to the attention of investors, even if board members “didn’t choose to acknowledge the points I made.”
“I made my serious points … the board can choose to ignore me if they like,” he said.
Watson said he was sure the issues brought up during the meeting would be put to James Murdoch when he returns to Parliament for more questioning next month.