‘Tell me, Mr Murdoch, when did your father discover his perfect successor?’

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James Murdoch is now believed to have been identified as the heir to his father’s media empire, following his appointment as head of News Corp’s European and Asian businesses. What sense can be made of the appointment?

The most powerful man in Britain. The headline from the Daily Telegraph hints at the political as well as the commercial implication of the ascent of James Murdoch to his new post. My own headline is a tribute to the talents of Caroline Aherne in her role as Mrs Merton, a chat-show host with innocently barbed questions to her celebrity guests.

In her discussion with Debbie MacGee, the young wife of the TV magician Paul Daniels, Aherne produced one of the funniest of one-liners.

‘So, what attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?’

It would take a Mrs Merton to ask the same sort of question of James Murdoch ‘Tell me, Mr Murdoch, when did your father discover his perfect successor?’ Or maybe: ‘What did he see in his youngest son, now that his older children have rejected any involvement in the family business?’ [OK. I’ve just proved how hard it is to write a good gag, or a good headline].

The Telegraph provided one of the best resumes of the spectacular rise of James Murdoch, and notes the political implications of his coronation.

James Murdoch is stepping down as chief executive of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB to head News Corp’s European and Asian businesses. He will take control of News International, publisher of The Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World newspapers, as well as Sky Italia and the Star television business in Asia. He will not sever his ties with BSkyB, however. He replaces his father as non-executive chairman.

That could turn out to be very bad news for Gordon Brown. James Murdoch is an instinctive free-marketeer Tory. Friends say he “talks as if he thinks he is a latter-day Adam Smith”. Thanks to friendships with Al Gore and Bill Clinton, he has developed deep green instincts, which have made him a close confidant of the Tory leader, David Cameron.

The prodigal son?

The younger James showed all the dedication to following his father’s footsteps as did the younger George W Bush. He dropped out of a Harvard visual entertainment course, to found Rawkus, a hip-hop record label. But like Bush, he eventually returned to the fold.

In an earlier post on the Murdoch dynasty I noted

James is the youngest of three Murdoch offspring to a previous marriage. His sister Elisabeth seems the sparkiest of the three, but both she and brother Lachlan seem to have sought more independence, and have broken with promising roles within Murdoch’s media empire. But there may be other candidates to succeed father Rupert, who also has potential heirs from a more recent marriage.

Young James seems to have had a somewhat rumbustious time in his formative years (hardly surprising). His roles in the family firm have been conducted with inevitable publicity. Progress has been swift (hardly surprising). Results have been not totally convincing, but public skepticism has been somewhat weakened through his sure touch in leading the BSkyB business.

The formative years

The Telegraph provides a sketch of a near-stereotype of an over-achiever, shaped through early family influences.

He is fiercely competitive – the result of all those Murdoch family meals when, by his own admission, his father often pits sibling against sibling in a competition for his affection.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more competitive,” says one former colleague. “He’s like a coiled spring. If he thinks he’s being challenged unfairly, he literally stands up at the table in a meeting or even at lunch and wags his finger in his challenger’s face and says: ‘No, no, no. You’re wrong!’ ”

The governance issue

The BBC raises the governance issue as follows:

British investment institutions dislike chief executives becoming chairmen of their respective companies. So Sky’s British shareholders are bound to complain about James Murdoch’s elevation to the chairmanship. However, Sky non-executives have sounded out the group’s leading US shareholders – including Templeton, Capital and Janus – and believe they are supportive of the management re-organization.

But the younger Murdoch comes with good references. Father Rupert is quoted in the Telegraph as saying:

“James is a talented and proven executive with a rare blend of international perspective and deep, hands-on experience in improving operational results,”

Maybe his father would have given such a reply he had been a guest of Mrs. Merton, and had been asked one of those innocent questions on his son’s spectacular rise to business success.

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