Murdoch and the markets

A security guard stands at the entrance to News International offices in Wapping Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The UK newspapers now look expendable

The Murdoch empire is getting more attention that it probably wants, from police, courts, regulators and politicians - but what about the markets' reaction to the News of the World scandal?

In the first four hours of trading in New York, News Corporation shares were down 4%. That's at a time when the exchange's index took a 1% hit on the back of bad US jobs news.

Since Tuesday, when the scandal began to gather pace, the company's shares have fallen 7%, wiping $3bn off its market capitalisation.

One analyst said the scandal engulfing the Murdoch papers in Britain looked "bad, strange, but limited", and that a dip in price should be short-lived, so a good time to buy the stock.

In London, BSkyB took a bigger hit on Friday, down by 8%.

That's explained by the steam going out of the prospects of a sale of 61% of its stock to Murdoch's News Corporation.

A letter from media regulator Ofcom caused particular harm to the stock, as it seemed that even the 39% the Murdoch empire already controls could be called into question.

Fit and proper

That's if Ofcom judges James Murdoch, the media mogul's son, is not a "fit and proper person" to chair a media organisation with a stake of 39% or of 100%.

One perverse result is that - if this blows over - News Corporation could eventually get hold of the 61% stake at a lower price, without the paying a premium.

It was also being argued by analysts that the News International division of News Corp (that's the UK newspapers bit of the empire) could benefit if the expansion of the Sun to a seven-day operation could sustain the News of the World's market share but at lower cost.

I wouldn't be so sure it can do that. News of the World has had a loyal readership quite distinct from the Sun, with a (perhaps surprisingly) large share of it from the lucrative ABC1 demographic.

It's not clear these people will shift their loyalty to the Sun on Sunday (there's already a Sunday Sun published in Newcastle) - especially as the Sun brand is far from being in the clear, and could now become more of a lightning rod for anger at the Murdoch brand of tabloid journalism.

They could shift their loyalty elsewhere. That would help explain why shares were up 4% in Trinity Mirror, publisher of some of Murdoch's main rivals - including the Sunday Mirror and The People, and the Scottish market leader, the Sunday Mail.

The owner of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, the Daily Mail and General Trust, was up only 0.1%.

Bond baddie

Those who like to see Rupert Murdoch as some kind of Bond baddie or Voldemort figure are wondering if there's some world-domination scheme behind his closure of the News of the World - asking "what ulterior motive does he have?"

That stuff can be overdone. He's facing a full-on and serious case of brand damage, reaching beyond the News of the World to the Murdoch brand itself.

The drastic measures taken should write a new chapter in the crisis management textbook - getting ahead of the problem by going beyond what anyone expects.

It was assumed that chief executive Rebekah Brooks would have to go - and it still is. But hardly anyone saw the title itself would take the fall first.

Out-foxed

Can News Corporation do without the News of the World? Easily.

It's still a clear UK market leader on a Sunday, representing one in every four papers sold that day.

But as with the whole market, it's in decline. At 2.6m average sales, it's close to half the levels it sustained as recently as the 1990s.

Revenue for the News International papers in the most recent figures, to the middle of last year, were only £650m. Between the Sun and the News of the World, profits bounced back from the previous recessionary year to £88m. The Times and Sunday Times were still making losses.

But having delivered the giant profits that fuelled the Murdoch empire's growth over the past four decades, the UK newspapers now look expendable, as profits are being generated elsewhere.

Amid revenue of nearly £20 billion, there's much more to be earned from the film division, including 20th Century Fox, and in cable and terrestrial TV, including Fox News and the Fox Network.

Risk and reward

BSkyB represents a big prize for News Corporation, as its revenues are nearing £6bn, and profits last year reached £855m.

The company has spent more than two decades investing very heavily in building up broadcast capacity, and vast sums have been ploughed into building the customer base.

With customers in 10m British households - with an offer across cable, satellite, broadband and phone lines - it's now reached a new stage at which the company can generate seriously big profits.

Sluggish economic growth more widely may bring the company's growth off the boil, but BSkyB can still be expected to sustain formidable cash generation.

The Murdoch clan want to be sure they get that as their reward for having taken the risks and driven the growth of the company to a position where it dominates commercial broadcasting in Britain.