What a difference three weeks make.
Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch met Wall Street analysts and the media via conference call Wednesday for the first time since appearing before a committee of the British Parliament on July 19 to answer questions about the phone hacking scandal hatched by his company's British tabloid paper, News of the World.
Then: Murdoch, 80, looked doddering and abashed and sounded foggy when asked for details about what went on at News of the World and what his company, News Corp., did about it. When he wasn't mumbling or offering monosyllabic answers to lawmakers' questions, he was deferring to his son, James, to explain how the newspaper's reporters and investigators broke into the phone accounts of hundreds of British citizens. Murdoch's most memorable sound bite that day: "This is the most humble day of my life."
Wednesday: Murdoch sounded something like his old self, the swashbuckling empire builder and chief executive of a $33 billion-a-year company. His answers to arcane financial questions on the quarterly conference call were crisp and assured. His most memorable sound bite: "Our [TV] ratings are improving just about everywhere you look!"
And so the man who three weeks ago couldn't remember much about illegal behavior that stretched over four years, sent two employees to jail and led to the arrest of nearly a dozen others, involved police bribes and cratered News Corp.'s $12 billion attempt to buy a British satellite company on Wednesday detailed many things about his sprawling business empire.
Murdoch held forth about stock buybacks, his British printing operations and the depressed environment for Australian retailers. He said that "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," released by News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox studio, was the box-office champ last week and that the animated "Rio" (also Fox) will be out on DVD next week.
When one analyst on the call suggested that News Corp.'s Fox Business Channel was something of a laggard, Murdoch was quick to its defense."Its ratings are, in fact, improving," he said. "At certain times of the day, where we are head-to-head with CNBC, we are beating them. We do need more distribution, it's true. But on a cash basis, it's break-even."
He had little to say about the hacking scandal. "We're trying very hard," he said. "First, we have to get to the bottom of what happened. . . . We're cooperating 100 percent, totally, with police in their investigations. We expect that to pay off in some time."