If it takes leather balls to play rugby — as News Corp. president, COO and deputy chairman Chase Carey did for a club team at Harvard Business School — then being the top outsider in a family business probably requires titanium.
The book on Carey is that he qualifies on both counts.
He’s become Wall Streets' fair-haired, handlebar-mustachioed boy as the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal tears at the company flanks.
Even the mere rumors that Carey was to succeed Murdoch rather quickly gave the stock an overnight 3.7 percent boost on the eve of the News Corp.'s CEO appearance before a Parliamentary committee last week.
Stock analysts give him credit for many of the massive media conglomerate's smarter decisions since he returned in 2009 for his second go-round. (Even as they seem to doubt that Rupert Murdoch, even at 80 and hamstrung by the scandal, is going to willingly step aside any time soon.)
In fact, Carey’s expertise is on the forward-looking side of the News Corp. equation.
He was the architect, along with Peter Chernin, of the corporate surge that came when Fox Sports Network and Fox News Network stomped onto the North American cable television landscape in the 1990s.
He’s the guy credited with shoving the losing MySpace division to the curb. And he's said to be unsentimental about the newspaper and publishing side of the company at a time when cold-blooded decision-making is at hand.
And as News Corp. has descended into turbulent waters in recent weeks, Carey seems to be deftly working behind the scenes to steady the ship.
Sensing the incendiary public temperature, it was reportedly Carey who convinced Murdoch — at least for the moment — to abandon his attempt to purchase the 61 percent of British Sky Broadcasting he doesn't already own.
Another damage-control measure that top analysts have attributed to Carey was the decision to buy back $5 billion in New Corp. stock in the wake of the inflammatory hacking headlines.
Had Murdoch's Parliamentary interrogation last week been rougher than it was, a more immediate turning point might have come in regard to the News Corp. board of directors. That would not have been pretty, because the Murdoch family’s control of the voting stock would have given them the means to stage a bloody fight with a board that seems to lack the independent will to bring their leader to terms.
When Murdoch hastened to London as the scandal deepened, and was seen heading grim-faced into the New Corp. crisis bunker, Carey was also spotted entering.
And when Murdoch emerged smiling some hours later, some of the credit for his change in mood went to Carey. If you’re going to go to the mattresses, it helps to be mobbed up with a worthy who’s survived, and even thrived, on the figurative tough streets of the ever-mutating media business.
But does any of this mean that Carey will soon take over for Rupert Murdoch?
Murdoch has done virtually nothing in recent days (or years, for that matter) to defuse the speculative tension over whether his successor will be his much-battered son James, daughter Elisabeth, or the redoubtable Carey.
Certainly, Carey’s relationship with James Murdoch must, at some level, be marked by an unspoken rivalry.
It was James, after all, who had been the leading proponent of the now-scrapped BSkyB acquisition.
But more painful had to be the fact that his father and Carey (who had been director of BSkyB from 2003-2008) made the decision to shelve the takeover with James out of the room.
It was a rather unseemly exclusion for James, nominally the chairman of BSkyB, but his pain must have been alleviated somewhat Wednesday when the company’s deputy chairman and leading independent director, Nicholas Ferguson, was reported to have given James his blessing to remain at the helm.
Surviving this test probably gives James some optimism that the many top shareholders in both BSkyB and News Corp. will leave him in place in the hierarchy of the overarching company.
Late Wednesday, it was also announced that longtime independent board member and Murdoch family loyalist Viet Dinh has been appointed to lead the company’s internal investigation into the accusations of widespread phone-hacking at News Corp. outlets beyond just the shuttered News of the World.
As godfather to one of Murdoch's grandchildren (Lachlan's son), Dinh, 43, didn’t exactly thunder in saying, “We are united in support of the senior management team to address these issues.”
And, of course, the elder Murdoch himself declared to Parliament, “Frankly, I’m the best person to clean this up.”
But most observers with a dog in the fight think Carey’s that man.
The very bulldog tendencies that led him to pull the 2010 World Series off the air from Cablevision’s New York-area cable TV systems in a payment dispute might also make him a remorseless infighter.
Much of what unfolds, like the nose-breaking and shoulder-wrenching action in a rugby scrum, will probably be hidden from view. But one man nobody is betting against is Carey. He’s always shown considerable sang-froid, not to say cold-bloodedness. For now, he’s keeping mum, as is his habit.
Word is that Carey was a bit of a party man while a member of the not-exactly-staid Delta Upsilon fraternity at Colgate.
His fondness for a social Budweiser is well documented. One can only guess that as he weaves his way through the crisis, he’s relying on the kind of wisdom he shared with some students in one of his appearances as an engaged alumnus:
"Always pursue your goals with passion and energy," he said, "And if things get really tough, call a Colgate friend for a beer."