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Murdoch parries Malone

Liberty topper asked to sign standstill agreement

NEW YORK — The suspense-fueled standstill between Rupert Murdoch and John Malone literally became just that Tuesday — a standstill.

Addressing reporters in Gotham, Murdoch said he’d have no problem with Malone’s Liberty Media being a large shareholder in News Corp. as long as Malone signed a piece of paper saying he wouldn’t buy more stock, a so-called “standstill” pact.

Malone has said recently his intentions are friendly and that he plans to buy a large chunk of News Corp. stock as a good investment, as opposed to mounting a hostile takeover or forcing News Corp. to purchase Liberty assets.

Murdoch’s camp suggested if that’s the case, Malone should be more than happy to sign such a standstill agreement.

“We’ve had very friendly conversations, but I would say they are too vague to report,” said Murdoch, who goes back years with Malone. “We’ll probably have a meeting in the next month or two to discuss all the possibilities.”

Thousands of miles away, Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal seemed to come to the rescue Tuesday, saying he would purchase more voting shares in News Corp. as a show of support for Murdoch, according to wire reports.

The prince’s holding company, which owns more than 3% of News Corp. non-voting shares, said it would swap the stock for voting shares if needed to fortify Murdoch’s standing.

“I have the utmost confidence in Mr. Murdoch, his management team and his succession plan,” the prince said in a statement.

Uncomfortably close

Choosing his words extremely carefully, Murdoch conceded Liberty’s deal to increase its voting stake in News Corp. from 9% to 17% took him by surprise. At that level of interest, Malone would be uncomfortably close to the Murdoch family’s 30% voting stake.

Malone inked the stock deal earlier this month as News Corp. transferred its incorporation and primary stock listing from Australia to New York.

Murdoch said he hadn’t anticipated Australian stockholders selling so many shares at the outset, providing Malone his opportunity to move in.

News Corp. calculated that Aussie investors would sell their shares over the next nine months, since selling now is likely to minimize profits enjoyed as News Corp. trades over time in the U.S.

Caught unawares

Considered one of the world’s smartest media moguls, it’s unusual to see Murdoch caught off-guard.

“We certainly didn’t think they’d come on the market so fast,” Murdoch told reporters following a Fox Entertainment Group shareholders’ meeting in New York.

To ward off Malone, News Corp.’s board quickly adopted a so-called poison pill, which could prevent Malone — or anyone else — from acquiring News Corp. simply by buying up enough shares to take control.

Murdoch said “shock is too strong of a word” to describe what he felt when learning of Malone’s action, but that Malone never came to him first.

“That’s just John,” Murdoch said.

Wall Streeters and industry insiders have been abuzz over the sudden battle of wills between Malone and Murdoch. Few believe Malone would actually undertake a hostile takeover, and say it’s much more likely he would try to leverage his voting power in forcing News Corp. to buy Liberty assets, which include Discovery Communications and Starz Encore.

Murdoch said Liberty only has a 49% stake in Discovery, making it a less attractive property than it otherwise would be.

Murdoch said he hasn’t considered whether to take Fox Entertainment Group private now that News Corp. is a U.S. company. Only a few shareholders attended Tuesday’s annual meeting, during which Murdoch extolled the strength of Fox Entertainment’s various film, broadcast and cable properties.

Later questioned by reporters about plans for new cable channels, Murdoch said he expected Fox’s reality network to bow in the spring. He said a Fox News spinoff financial cable news net could launch as early as summer, although the project hasn’t yet been greenlighted.

Murdoch said the financial news landscape is “wide open to competition.” He said the Fox News spinoff would surely siphon viewers away from CNBC, which is “a pretty disappointing channel at the moment.” He also noted News biz anchor Neil Cavuto has the top-rated financial show on cable.

Sporting chance

Turning to sports, Murdoch said he was pleased by the recent NFL deal. Asked about whether he might be interested in making a bid on the “Monday Night Football” package, he said it would be unlikely and that it’s been “an embarrassing loss” for ABC.

Murdoch did say his company is more intrigued by the NFL’s new eight-game Thursday-Saturday package, but that the games would only run for the final five weeks of the season. He said it could help along a new nationally distributed cable sports network.

On the subject of DirecTV, Murdoch predicted strong growth for the recently acquired satcaster, even estimating subscribers could grow from just shy of 13 million to 20 million. Later, Murdoch amended his remark to say the prediction was a personal comment and not a company statement.

News Corp. shares closed down 18¢ Tuesday at $18.

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