Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. is back to his swashbuckling self

August 10, 2011

What a difference three weeks make.

Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch met Wall Street analysts and the press via conference call Wednesday for the first time since appearing before a committee of the British Parliament on July 19 to answer questions about the phone hacking scandal hatched by his company’s British tabloid paper, News of the World.

Then: Murdoch, 80, looked doddering and abashed and sounded foggy when asked for details about what went on at News of the World and what his company, News Corp., did about it. When he wasn’t mumbling or offering monosyllabic answers to lawmakers’ questions, he was deferring to his son, James, to explain how the newspaper’s reporters and investigators broke into the phone accounts of hundreds of British citizens. Murdoch’s most memorable sound bite that day: “This is the most humble day of my life.”

Wednesday: Murdoch sounded something like his old self, the swashbuckling empire builder and chief executive of a $33 billion-a-year company. His answers to arcane financial questions on the quarterly conference call were crisp and assured. His most memorable sound bite: “Our [TV] ratings are improving just about everywhere you look!”

And so the man who three weeks ago couldn’t remember much about illegal behavior that stretched over four years, sent two employees to jail and led to the arrest of nearly a dozen others, involved police bribes and cratered News Corp.’s $12 billion attempt to buy a British satellite company on Wednesday detailed many things about his sprawling business empire.

Murdoch held forth about stock buybacks, his British printing operations and the depressed environment for Australian retailers. He said that “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” released by News Corp.’s 20th Century Fox studio, was the box-office champ last week and that the animated “Rio” (also Fox) will be out on DVD next week.

When one analyst on the call suggested that News Corp.’s Fox Business Channel was something of a laggard, Murdoch was quick to its defense.“Its ratings are, in fact, improving,” he said. “At certain times of the day, where we are head-to-head with CNBC, we are beating them. We do need more distribution, it’s true. But on a cash basis, it’s break even.”

He had little to say about the hacking scandal. “We’re trying very hard,” he said. “First, we have to get to the bottom of what happened. . . . We’re cooperating 100 percent, totally, with police in their investigations. We expect that to pay off in some time.”

Murdoch expressed full confidence in James Murdoch, who runs News Corp.’s British operations. James Murdoch has until Thursday to submit written replies to Parliament to follow up on his testimony last month. A parliamentary committee is looking into claims by two former News Corp. executives that they had told the younger Murdoch about the extent of the hacking back in 2008, despite James Murdoch’s testimony that he was unaware of how far it had spread when he approved a million-dollar settlement with one of the victims that year.

As for himself, Rupert Murdoch said firmly, “The board and I believe I should continue in my current role as chairman and CEO.”

News Corp. allotted just seven minutes for press questions, sparing Murdoch the kind of grilling he got in London.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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