Chase Carey

The trembling at News Corp has only begun

July 19, 2011: 10:26 AM ET

The scandal's potential damage to News Corp. has already gone beyond News of the World. But will the company's directors remember their duty to represent the interests of shareholders not named Murdoch?

By Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large

FORTUNE -- Some people aren't at all surprised by the unending scandal at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. They are the investors, insurers, lawyers, and others who had read the "Governance Analysis" report on the company from The Corporate Library, a research firm. The firm grades companies' governance from A to F, and for the past six years News Corp. has received an F -- "only because there is no lower grade," says Nell Minow, who co-founded The Corporate Library in 1999 on the premise that governance "can be rated like bonds, from triple-A to junk." News Corp.'s overall risk, says the prophetic report: "very high." Risk of class-action securities litigation: "very high." Scandal-related lawsuits are already piling up.

For those who think corporate governance is the concern of prissy do-gooders who don't understand real-world business, News Corp. (NWS) is the latest example that the truth is just the opposite: Governance is the foundation of real-world business. If it isn't solid, trouble is inevitable. For News Corp., it's the reason the trouble is far from over.

See also: News Corp.: Murdoch still in charge

News Corp.'s variety of lousy governance is simple -- one man exerts control wildly out of proportion to his stake in the business. As at many companies with bad governance, the mechanism is dual-class stock. News Corp.'s class A shares account for about 70% of the company's market cap (recently $41 billion total) but have no voting power. Only class B shares, which account for the other 30% of the market cap, get to vote, and Rupert Murdoch has almost 40% of the class B shares. Economically he owns just 12% of the company, but he wields total control because he can elect all the directors. While the other class B shareholders (about 1,300 of them) could in theory gang up on him and vote against his wishes, in practice that doesn't happen. It's especially unlikely since long-time Murdoch supporter Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia owns 7% of the class B shares.

Ultimate responsibility for protecting News Corp.'s 48,000 total shareholders thus rests with a board comprising three directors named Murdoch (Rupert plus sons James and Lachlan; daughter Elisabeth is scheduled to  join next year), four additional News Corp. employees (COO Chase Carey, CFO David DeVoe, executive VP Joel Klein, and senior adviser Arthur Siskind), two former News Corp. employees, and seven other directors, including a 31-year-old opera singer, Natalie Bancroft, from the family that owned Dow Jones, which News Corp. bought in 2007. News Corp. says her "youth" and "female perspective" bring value to the board. Under such guardianship, it's unsurprising the stock has disappointed investors; it has underperformed the S&P 500 over the past five and 10 years.

This board meets the independence requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Nasdaq, where the stock trades, but if it doesn't seem very independent to you, that's understandable. In any case, it doesn't matter. While legally the board can fire Rupert Murdoch, practically he can fire the board, and the board knows it. Truly the company has earned its F in governance.

The effects are insidious and more far reaching than you might imagine. "It creates a culture with no accountability," says Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware's John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance. In companies where directors are genuinely subject to the shareholders' will, CEOs get fired; BP's (BP) board fired Tony Hayward last year, for example, and Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) board fired Mark Hurd. The message cascades down through the organization: Bad behavior gets you fired here. But at companies where the CEO can fire the board, a different message cascades down: We don't answer to the shareholders, we answer to just one person. It's the rule of man, not the rule of law.

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