LAWFUEL – It was a sad week, perhaps, for the Bancroft family – that paternal clan of old-time warriors who fought valiantly to maintain the independent integrity of the Wall Street Journal. Or did they?
A less sympathetic observer might suggest that the Bancrofts spent three months indulging in navel-gazing dithering over Rupert Murdoch’s $5.6bn offer for their family media vehicle before indulging in a venal lunge for cash at the flimsiest hint of an extra incentive.
Whatever you think of the Dirty Digger’s politics, you’ve got to hand it to Murdoch – his handling of the Dow Jones battle has shown business brilliance and he has left the Bancrofts looking more dysfunctional than the House of Windsor.
When his $60-a-share offer was initially rebuffed in April, the Aussie newspaperman played a long, calm game of charm. He met the Bancrofts, wooed them, dangled vague promises of independent editorial safeguards – but he refused to open his cheque book any wider.
There has been no shortage of emotional drama. According to a report in the Journal one influential family member, Jane Cox MacElree, made a tearful appeal to her relatives not to sell, citing the dedication of reporters such as Daniel Pearl – the journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan four years ago. Mrs MacElree’s daughter, Leslie Hill, brandished sheaves of letters from Journal staffers appealing to the family not to sell out.
Another relative, Christopher Bancroft, chose to turn up to a crucial meeting on the offer in a fishing cap bearing the legend “Bite me”. Meanwhile, a Denver-based branch of the family made no pretence of the moral high ground and simply demanded more money, asking for a heady price of $66 to $72 a share.
It never amounted to a very convincing collective bargaining position – and like a parent waiting for a baby to cry itself to sleep, Murdoch simply waited for the Bancrofts to exhaust themselves with in-fighting. This week, opposition duly crumbled.
Joseph Astrachan, an expert in family business at Kennesaw State University’s family enterprise centre in Georgia says the Bancrofts are a classic example of laissez-faire family owners who pay too little attention to the source of their millions.
“What they needed was to have done a lot more work before the offer even came along,” he says. “Family owners need to be meeting several times a year in order to build unity.”