Murdoch Gets a Vote of Confidence From News Corp. Shareholder Alwaleed

Saudi Prince Commends 'Friends and Partners' as Others Stakeholders Voice Opposition

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Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch Credit: AP

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, facing the fallout from alleged phone-hacking at a London newspaper, got a vote of confidence from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, one of the company's largest shareholders.

Mr. Alwaleed remains "both supportive and confident in the leadership of Rupert and James Murdoch," he said in an email yesterday. The statement came after Rupert Murdoch and his son James, who is deputy chief operating officer, were questioned by U.K. lawmakers Tuesday during a three-hour hearing on alleged phone-hacking at News Corp.'s News of the World tabloid.

The Murdochs answered "all questions" at the hearing with "full honesty and integrity," said Mr. Alwaleed, whose Kingdom Holding holds 7% of the voting stock in News Corp., the second-largest after the Murdoch family. He also said he supports the inquiry as "part of a necessary process to address the unacceptable practices that developed at the now closed News of the World."

Last week Mr. Alwaleed told the BBC that if Rebekah Brooks, then the CEO of the British newspaper unit News International, "has to go" if she knew about hacking at News of the World when she was editor. "Ethics to me are very important," he said then. "I will not deal with a lady or a man that has any sliver of doubt on her or his integrity." Ms. Brooks resigned last Friday and also appeared in Parliament Tuesday.

Mr. Alwaleed's support comes after governance experts who heard Rupert Murdoch's performance said he may not have done enough to acknowledge his accountability. Jay Lorsch, a Harvard Business School professor, said the company's board may have to replace him as CEO after the appearance.

News Corp., owner of the Fox TV networks and the Wall Street Journal, has fallen since allegations surfaced July 4 that Mr. Murdoch's tabloid hacked into the voice mail of a murdered schoolgirl.

During the questioning in Parliament, Mr. Murdoch, 80, denied any knowledge of phone-hacking and payments to police at News of the World. Both Murdochs said they didn't know about employees intercepting voicemails or paying police for stories.

"The News of the World is less than 1% of our company," Mr. Murdoch told the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee. He said he may have "lost sight" of the paper because it was "so small in the general frame of the company."

"If he didn't know what was going on, he's doing a lousy job as CEO and the board should replace him," said Harvard's Mr. Lorsch. "The board should be asking, 'Where were you?'"

News Corp. yesterday also said it will immediately terminate "any arrangement" to pay legal fees for Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who went to jail for intercepting phone messages left for supermodel Elle Macpherson and members of the British royal family. The Murdochs had told U.K. lawmakers during their testimony that they didn't know if News Corp. was still paying his legal fees.

News Corp. also authorized Harbottle & Lewis, the law firm it hired to review documents for evidence of phone hacking, to answer questions from police and U.K. lawmakers.

Mr. Alwaleed's support is significant as other shareholders voice opposition to Mr. Murdoch. Christian Brothers Investment Services in New York filed a petition with News Corp. on July 15 that seeks to permanently split the CEO and chairman positions, said Julie Tanner, assistant director of socially responsible investing at the organization, which holds 30,755 Class B voting shares on behalf of Catholic institutions.

Murdoch's testimony that he isn't responsible for the scandal isn't acceptable, Ms. Tanner said. "He needs better policies in place and to have a better grasp of what people in the company are doing," she said.

News Corp.'s dual-share structure also was criticized by Calpers, according to reports in the Financial Times and the Guardian.

"The situation is very serious and we're considering our options," Anne Simpson, a senior portfolio manager at the pension fund for state workers, told the Financial Times in an interview. "We don't intend to be spectators -- we're owners."

Calpers owns 4.87 million non-voting News Corp. shares and 1.49 million voting shares, according to Bloomberg data.

Mr. Alwaleed, in his statement, said that News Corp. is a "valuable and long-term investment."

"I commend my friends and partners Rupert and James for addressing these serious issues head on, cooperating fully with the official inquiries and taking the appropriate steps to bring ethical reform to News Corp," he said.

Mario Gabelli, CEO of Gamco Investors, also voiced support for News Corp. "These are great assets with great cash flow and not much debt," said Mr. Gabelli, whose firm held 6.7 million non-voting shares as of March 31. "Nothing that 's happening right now changes that ."

-- Bloomberg News --

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