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Stephen Mayne

After struggling through his final AGMs, Rupert Murdoch faces more courtroom grief

There aren’t many people in the world over 90 years old who are still wielding power, especially after the departure of Warren Buffett’s long-term offsider Charlie Munger at the age of 99 on Tuesday and yesterday’s death of Henry Kissinger at the age of 100.

Even Rupert Murdoch, 92, finally gave a nod to the passing of time when he retired as executive chairman of both Fox Corp and News Corp last month, leaving 93-year-old Berkshire Hathaway leader Warren Buffett as the oldest major public company chair remaining. 

With Rupert exiting, the oldest remaining chairs of major ASX-listed companies are billionaires Gerry Harvey (84) and Kerry Stokes (83), who still lead and control Harvey Norman and Seven West Media respectively.

However, Rupert’s public appearances may not be done just yet.

After a 19-minute farewell at the News Corp AGM on November 16 and a final Fox Corp AGM on November 18 that lasted only 30 minutes, Rupert will reportedly be facing a far more arduous two-day assignment in Los Angeles next week when he’ll be cross-examined as part of Smartmatic’s $US2.7 billion defamation case over the stolen election lies told on Fox News after the 2020 US election.

As was explained in this Crikey piece on November 10, Rupert pulls out all stops to avoid being seriously or extensively questioned at his AGMs, so the idea of a two-day cross-examination by aggressive lawyers won’t be filling him with joy.

Fox Corp’s decision to settle an earlier case by voting machine company Dominion for $US787.5 million was reportedly in part influenced by Rupert’s poor performance in private depositions, which contributed to him being scheduled to be called as a witness in the opening days of the Dominion trial.

With literally hundreds of media outlets lining up to cover the trial and logistics being worked through on how to get Rupert in and out of the courtroom, Fox Corp folded and wrote out the biggest defamation settlement cheque the world has ever seen.

Rupert sounded old and frail at his farewell News Corp AGM, not someone who could sustain a detailed cross-examination. He was prepared to chair News Corp’s fully virtual AGM but it was an audio-only affair. And when shareholders were invited to the Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles two days later for the Fox Corp meeting, Rupert sat in the front row without saying a word. There was no shuffling up to the stage in front of mum and dad shareholders.

Surprisingly, Murdoch media outlets did not produce a festival of post-AGM farewell tributes for 92-year-old Rupert, with the most substantial coverage of his final AGMs coming from Lachlan Murdoch’s biographer Paddy Manning in The Saturday Paper, backed up by this edition of the 7am podcast.

Unlike at his AGMs, Rupert won’t be able to get away with dismissive brief answers when facing the Smartmatic lawyers and he won’t have a management flunkey who can intervene and blatantly censor questions.

That’s precisely what happened at the News Corp AGM. This first written question that I submitted through the online platform was completely ignored:

Why was Tony Abbott appointed to the Fox Corp board rather than the News Corp board given that Fox has no operating assets in Australia, the market he knows best?

The second question rolled out as follows:

Congratulations to Rupert on his amazing 70-year journey. What are your favourite News Corp memories and do you have any regrets?

“Ah, thank you. I have very few regrets, thank you,” was the best Rupert could come up with. Listen to audio of the exchange via Twitter.

The final question was very simple: “Will Rupert be paid as chairman emeritus?”

Rupert said “A simple no”, and then CEO Robert Thomson piped up that he might have some expenses reimbursed. Listen to that exchange via Twitter.

Seeing as we’re dealing with defamation claims related to voting machines, we should cover the voting results at the two Murdoch-controlled AGMs.

The News Corp voting results showed that new executive chair Lachlan Murdoch suffered the second biggest protest vote of all the directors, albeit with a still healthy 86.7% in favour, more than half of which came from his own family’s gerrymandered 40%+ voting bloc.

It was a similar story at Fox Corp, where Lachlan suffered a 15.5% protest vote after 32.4 million shares were voted against him, the second highest protest after former Republican house speaker Paul Ryan, who was opposed by 53.4 million voting shares.

If Fox Corp ends up making another $1 billion-plus settlement with Smartmatic, those protest votes would be expected to rise again next year, although shareholders can no longer send a message to the man most responsible for the mess because Rupert Murdoch is no longer submitting himself to the annual election cycle.

As Joe Biden turned 81 on November 20, it is understandable that Rupert has bailed out. It would hardly be credible for Fox News to keep hammering the US president over his age if their own executive chairman was 93 going into next November’s election.

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