James Murdoch shouldn’t be kicked out of BSkyB

July 18, 2011

By Hugo Dixon
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

James Murdoch shouldn’t be kicked out of BSkyB. Some observers want to use the Murdoch clan’s troubles at News International, their UK newspapers company, to run them out of town completely. But BSkyB, the pay-television group, is a separate business. And Murdoch Jr has done a good job first as its chief executive and now as its chairman.

Admittedly, Murdoch Jr hasn’t covered himself in glory in handling the alleged phone hacking and police bribery scandal. As well as being chairman of BSkyB, he has indirect responsibility at News Corp for the UK newspaper arm. He was slow to grip the problems — not least by allowing Rebekah Brooks, who ran the papers and reported to him, to stay in her position for too long. There are now multiple probes into the saga which could embroil him further. But nothing has yet come out which should disqualify him from his BSkyB role.

It is also true that Murdoch Jr’s original appointment as BSkyB chief executive was nepotistic. But he then proved himself in the role. The business is now generating piles of cash –- in part because of the strategy he pursued. His track record isn’t perfect. But even the main cloud in his tenure -– his swoop on ITV –- had a silver lining. Although BSkyB wasn’t allowed to buy the TV group and lost a huge amount of money in the process, the raid did stymie a rival plan by Virgin Media to create a stronger anti-BSkyB front.

It might further be argued that BSkyB should have a chairman who isn’t also an employee of News Corp, which holds a 39 percent stake. But this needs to be weighed against the benefit in having that shareholder fully engaged in driving performance. What’s more, BSkyB’s eight independent directors, who constitute a majority of the board, have been robust in defending shareholders in the one case where there was a conflict of interest: News Corp’s attempt to acquire the remaining 61 percent. That bid has now been pulled. But there’s every reason to suppose that the independent directors would be equally robust if the furor over the hacking scandal dies down and the Murdochs return with a new bid.

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