It has been a good week for the media industry’s conspiracy
theorists - few of whom had any time whatsoever for the official line on
Mark Booth’s shock resignation from BSkyB. Should you have missed it,
the Murdoch orthodoxy went something like this: Booth, BSkyB’s chief
executive and a man on a career high having just completed phase one of
the launch of Sky’s digital service, was about to be poached by
Bill Gates’ outfit, which wanted Booth to mastermind its continued
expansion in internet services, was tempting him with a dollars 25
million golden handshake.
Murdoch didn’t want to let him go. So how does he keep him? He offers
him the position of chief executive and a stake in a new Murdoch company
called e-partners, which will buy minority stakes in internet and
interactive television companies.
In other words, Booth was indispensable not to BSkyB, but to the Murdoch
empire. And for his part, Booth rejected Micro-serfdom combined with
guaranteed riches in favour of slightly more freedom and far riskier
odds of getting his hands on the serious money. Certainly, he will have
a lot of cash to play with at e-partners - reportedly upwards of dollars
300 million - but he’s basically still playing roulette on Rupert’s
Quicker than you could say JFK or Oliver Stone, alternative explanations
began circulating. Theory number one was that Booth had been singled out
for punishment for BSkyB’s failure to secure the Manchester United
Number two (the grassy knoll theory) was that this was all to do with
Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth - who, in her current position as managing
director of Sky Networks, supposedly stands on rung number two of the
Analysts have long accepted that, if Murdoch has a weakness or a blind
spot, it’s the unremitting promotion of the interests of his offspring
within the company.
But theory number three is perhaps the best of them all. This concerns
the on-off merger talks with Canal+, continental Europe’s dominant
satellite pay-TV company which, like BSkyB, is currently pushing digital
in a big way. The two have parallel strengths and complementary
weaknesses - BSkyB is desperate to get into Europe; Canal+ wants
Anglo-Saxon credentials and a link with a Hollywood film and television
Previously, the main barrier to a deal is thought to have been Booth,
who would have been sidelined by a merger. Canal+ has made it clear they
want their man in charge of a merged company.
You take your pick. What is not in doubt, though, is the success of
Booth’s brief tenure. He has not only driven SkyDigital take-up at a
rate that has surprised everyone, but he has managed with aplomb.
Commentators familiar with the internal workings of the company praise
his talent for strong leadership while still being liked by a high
percentage of Sky staffers.
But David Cuff, the broadcast director of Initiative Media, says it’s
almost unbelievable that a man like Booth would leave a job less than
half done. ’Stage one is persuading existing analogue subscribers to
upgrade to digital. Booth has built some momentum. But the ultimate test
is whether digital can really work as a new interactive hybrid medium.
Many will be surprised that he hasn’t felt able to see the job
But perhaps that’s all academic - what matters now is the future. As one
analyst put it: ’Now that the Manchester United thing is off, Murdoch
will be looking for another direction to go in. And now that Booth is
gone, the likelihood of a Canal+ deal has to increase. I’m not saying
his departure is directly motivated by those reasons - but now that he
has gone, certain options can be revisited. I’m willing to bet that his
ultimate successor is French and doesn’t come from within the current