The MT Interview: James Murdoch

Management Today, May 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

The MT Interview: James Murdoch


Is he his father's son or his own man? The boss of BSkyB seems a bit of both, actually. The cries of nepotism have died down and the buzz is he may take over News Corp itself. In the meantime, there are the little matters of Ofcom, Virgin and BSkyB expansion to take care of ...

After a three-year siege outside the Sky walls, MT is finally in. It's a bright, sunny morning at New Horizon Court 1 over in Osterley on Brentford's Golden Mile and we're mooching around in the foyer waiting for our meeting with James Murdoch, the BSkyB boss. He is unquestionably the man of the moment and a white-hot interview subject. His multi-fronted battles with the telecommunications industry, the regulator Ofcom and the EU, and, most visibly, his running brawl with Richard Branson's Virgin organisation have left us all wondering what kind of stuff this guy is made of and who he might engage in a dust-up next.

We're ushered up to the executive floor and past the office of the very absorbed CFO Jeremy Darroch, who looks up from sifting through his morning's e-mails and then looks down again. Plenty on his mind. He's the guy who rustled up pounds 940 million in three days flat for the raid on ITV shares back in December - a haymaker punch that came from nowhere, thwarting Virgin Media in its TV empire-building ambitions. The counter-punch - Virgin's refusal to pay Sky's increased fee for such popular shows as The Simpsons, Lost and 24 and the subsequent pulling of Sky channels from the Virgin cable operation - will probably hit Sky for pounds 50 million in lost fees and advertising revenue annually. Virgin sued, so this high-stakes bare-knuckle fight is now being played out in the High Court.

Sky PR man Robert - tough and laconic - makes us coffee. Then suddenly James whizzes past, deeply focused on an e-mail printout, and disappears out onto the sun-deck. 'Gone for a cigarette, probably,' shrugs Robert. Then James re-enters, still rapt, and is off down the corridor.

Murdoch has taken a lot of persuading to do this interview. His people want him to do it and are confident he'll do well. There's a sense his talent is under-appreciated and under-exposed. Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton - among whose collection of hats is one labelled 'non-exec director, BSkyB' - told us: 'James is very focused and very smart and very personable. He doesn't have the ego you get with some people - good leaders don't need to show how good they are, you just get it. That's how it is with James.'

But the man himself clearly hates the interview idea, especially the private bits. We've been warned by all and sundry that he will not do personal, and most certainly does not do family. So, no personal. Or else things might get personal.

News Corp may be one of the world's most personal large companies - it has the essence of its founder running in every cell and sinew - but James prefers things kept to business. No reminiscences about Christmas in Aspen with 'Pop' when the family played charades, some in Latin (according to Andrew Neil). He doesn't like the myths, such as the erroneous claim that during his 'wayward' youth, he dyed his hair blond and had his eyebrow pierced. Not true.

This is, of course, a crying shame, because a large chunk of the business world is fascinated to know what this young man of 34, scion of the world's most famous media family, is actually like. The kid once portrayed as the black sheep of the Murdoch clan: dozing off in press conferences as a 12-year-old intern in Sydney; dropping out of Harvard - where he drew a cartoon strip for the Harvard Lampoon entitled Albrecht The Hun - to launch a hip-hop record label called Rawkus; studying in Rome and contemplating a career as an archaeologist or an academic.

But he joined the family firm 10 years ago, and here he is, in a dark, single-breasted suit with a plain white shirt and trendy black pointed shoes. His eyesight is quite poor and the powerful lenses of his titanium specs make his brown eyes seem huge.

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