Many observers were dismayed a while back to see Rupert Murdoch, under questioning by a U.K. parliamentary panel, cup his hand over his ear in the same gesture Grandpa used to make. Yet it's one thing for an 80-year-old chairman and CEO, even one in charge of a media empire as pervasive and powerful as News Corp., to be a little hard of hearing. It's quite another for that same executive to be completely tone deaf.
That Murdoch has lost all sense of how his actions play to the public wasn't entirely evident during the July 19 parliamentary hearing. He did, after all, rather convincingly lay claim to being "the best person" to clean up his company's so-called hacking mess. But on Sept. 2, with the filing of News Corp.'s most recent proxy, the gig was up.
Therein, under executive compensation, News Corp. revealed Murdoch's total take for the fiscal year ended June 30 was $33.3 million. And the highest component of his compensation -- higher, even, than his salary of $8.1 million -- was a bonus of $12.5 million. (Murdoch's son James, to his credit, declined a $6 million bonus for his services as News Corp.'s deputy chief operating officer, calling it "the right thing to do" in light of the company's continuing scandal.)
The same proxy also put the pay of News Corp.'s capo di tutti capi in context: Murdoch's $33.3 million for fiscal 2011 was $10.6 million more than he received for fiscal 2010 and $11.1 million more than he was awarded for fiscal 2009. Also worth noting was that the $12.5 million for fiscal 2011, as a look at previous proxies attests, qualifies as Murdoch's first bonus since fiscal 2006.
This leads, naturally enough, to News Corp.'s recent annual report. At the end of the substantial document, on a final page that shares space with insomnia-inducing updates on the company's diversity and global-energy initiatives, there's a legally required but easy-to-miss section entitled "Stock Performance."
There stockholders can learn about the cumulative total return, to quote the report, "of a $100 investment in News Corporation's Class A Common Stock and Class B Common Stock for the five-year period from June 30, 2006, through June 30, 2011." Turns out that $100 invested in News Corp.'s Class A would have lost $3 over those five years, whereas the same $100 in News Corp.'s Class B would have lost $7.
Now those performances hardly seem worthy of rewarding the chairman and CEO responsible for them with his first bonus in five years. But they become even less worthy on being paired, as is also legally required, with the performances of a broad-based market index and a peer-group index.
The same $100, the report discloses, would have returned $116 had it been invested in the Standard & Poor's 500 index over the relevant period. And it would have yielded $131 had it been invested in a peer group defined as "media and entertainment companies that represent News Corporation's competitors." None of these comparisons -- whether based on the equity performance of News Corp. alone or of the company relative to the market and its competitors -- can justify Murdoch's compensation. The performance of News Corp. stock fell short, simply, even before consideration of widely held concerns about nepotism and corporate governance. It fell short, too, before a July 4 report in the U.K.'s Guardian triggered the hacking scandal's most recent and fiercest round.
Murdoch's public response to the scandal, that he was let down by people he trusted, furthers the argument that he's overpaid. It's a plea for innocence by virtue of managerial incompetence, a defense completely at odds with outsized paydays.
It doesn't even matter that others in the media and entertainment stratosphere also took out more last year than they put in. (Here's looking at you, CBS Corp. president and CEO Les Moonves, for that part of your $57.7 million paycheck attributable to overseeing the train wreck that was Charlie Sheen and "Two and a Half Men.") But at least those moguls didn't mire their shareholders in equity-diminishing controversies that render them vulnerable to this day.
Indeed, on examining Murdoch's compensation package against a backdrop of all the variables News Corp. has in play, it seems less of a ride-out-the-storm maneuver and more of an old-fashioned money grab. Something else Grandpa might have done, had he also the opportunity, back in the day.
Richard Morgan covers media for The Deal magazine.