Raymond Snoddy on Media: Logic says WSJ is safe with Murdoch

It's not as much of a racing cert as Frankie Dettori, but Rupert Murdoch becoming owner of The Wall Street Journal before the summer is out is a decent punt.

It is possible that the publication's controlling Bancroft family will meet the irrepressible media tycoon only to tell him to clear off. Such a thing happened once before when Murdoch's target was the Financial Times. The then-Pearson chairman Lord Blakenham made it very clear to him over a very English afternoon tea that the attentions of such colonials were unwelcome. And that was that - apart from Murdoch's lingering sense of grievance.

The current circumstances are entirely different. The Wall Street Journal does not seem to have the money needed to invest in the next bloody round of the media battle. The Bancroft family is divided and while they may be hoping for a white knight to emerge with a counter-offer, the reality is that no one else can possibly offer a 65% premium on the pre-offer share price.

So it remains only for Murdoch to charm the pants off them and for elaborate structures to be put in place to guarantee The WSJ's editorial independence. There will also be a $5 a share sweetener to the $60 offer just to show he's really serious and help see off anyone lurking in the undergrowth.

The Bancrofts, or at least some of them, already have dollar signs dancing in their eyes. Can the others who really care about The WSJ trust any promises made by Murdoch about editorial independence? There are a few unfortunate precedents. His dumping of BBC World from a Far East satellite, for example. Didn't the silly old Beeb realise that showing documentaries about Tiananmen Square was insensitive when Murdoch was cuddling up to the Chinese?

Then there was the sacking of Harold Evans as editor of The Times. That nasty little episode was complicated because Sir Harold decided against appealing to the committee set up to prevent such a thing, and anyway, it was not clear whether he was a very good editor of a national daily, as opposed to a Sunday.

More recently, it is clear that Murdoch calls the current editor of The Times Robert Thomson from time to time with tip-offs and stories. It is less clear whether he is merely playing at journalism and being mischievous or manipulative and Machiavellian.

On balance there are several reasons why Murdoch can probably be trusted with ownership of The Wall Street Journal. First, its right-wing views mirror his own, so no need for any change there.

Second, he still believes in newspapers and is prepared to invest in them for the long term; not many are ready to do that at the moment and Murdoch ownership could secure its future.

Third, Murdoch can extract value from the flow of The Wall Street Journal's financial and business reporting to his other newspapers around the world, particularly through his new business TV channel.

But the main reason Murdoch canbe trusted on this one, albeit with caution, is pure self-interest. If he is caught polluting the integrity of The Journal's coverage, there would be no surer way of undermining the value of his $5bn. Above all else, Murdoch likes to win financially, and the only politics he really cares about is the institutional survival of his creation, News Corporation.

Assume the Bancrofts cave in maybe after two or three rounds of negotiation; a Murdoch-owned WSJ would be bad news for the Financial Times. Once he got his feet under the table, the FT would come under attack in the US, Europe and the Far East.

And just for old times' sake, Murdoch, who rarely forgets a slight, might just pay special attention to the FT's home base in the UK.


- The Wall Street Journal is published by Dow Jones & Co in New York. It had a worldwide daily circulation of more than 2m in 2006, and 931,000 paying subscribers to its website.

- It was first published in 1889; its online version launched in 1996.

- On 2 May Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation made an unsolicited takeover bid for Dow Jones, offering $60 a share for stock that had been selling for $33. The Bancroft family, which controls 60% of the voting power, rejected the offer.

- The journal has won 33 Pulitzer Prizes.

- It claims to have sent the first news report, on the Dow Jones wire, of a plane colliding into the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Its own office across the street was demolished minutes after.

- Top editors immediately relocated to a makeshift office at an editor's home, and the paper was on the stands the next day.


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