Several of the people in my life are upset about the deal, announced on September 10, 2015, that 21st Century Fox now owns a 73% stake in National Geographic. National Geographic has gone on the record as saying that this is an attempt to raise money. They now have nearly a billion dollars to spend funding science and exploration (which, from what I can tell, triples the money available). And that’s a good thing.
The reason people are upset is because of the stake that Rupert Murdoch has in 21st Century Fox. They have termed the 21st Century Fox deal as “Rupert Murdoch just bought National Geographic.” I’ll admit that I don’t like Murdoch. I don’t like what he stands for. I don’t like his politics.
However, he did not “buy National Geographic.” I spent six years as a corporate paralegal, so I know something about how corporations work. As I said before, National Geographic Partners is a partnership with 21st Century Fox having a 73% stake. And from what I’ve seen, Murdoch has a 40% stake in 21st Century Fox (40% of 73% is around 29%, so that’s the amount of control that Murdoch, in particular, would have over National Geographic if he chose to exercise it). This makes him the largest shareholder, I think, and as such, so long as his decisions continue to make money for the shareholders, they aren’t likely to fight him. But 40% doesn’t make him “owner” of the company; if the shareholders who hold the other 60% decided they don’t like the way things are going, they can override him. By the way, for $27.02 as of the close of trading on September 10, you can become a shareholder in 21st Century Fox and have a say, however small, in National Geographic Partners.
Additionally, as of June, 2015, Murdoch is no longer Chief Executive Officer of 21st Century Fox. His son James is now running the company and James’s politics seem to be very different from his father’s. In fact, while researching the “Murdoch now owns National Geographic” question, I found a piece in which James says, of his new position as CEO of 21st Century Fox “I don’t let my politics get involved in my business.” He doesn’t come right out and say that he disagrees with the politics of Fox News, but that sure sounds to me like the disagrees with the politics of Fox News.
One of the things that has my friends upset is that Murdoch is a climate change denier, and one of the focuses of National Geographic is charting the development of climate change. However, James is not a climate change denier. In an interview from 2009 with The Guardian newspaper, James says, “All of the climate prediction models suggest we’re on the worst-case trajectory, and some cases worse than the worst case. That’s my depressing take on it.” He also, by the way, points out that science may be able to fix climate change if we listen to the scientists and give them a chance to do so.
Most of the executive positions at National Geographic will stay with people from National Geographic. The position of Chairman of the Board of Directors will change annually. This first year, the position will be held from someone from National Geographic and if I’m reading the reports correctly, someone from 21st Century Fox will be Chairman next year, then it will revert to someone from National Geographic.
The biggest reason I think that there is no reason to panic right now, however, is that this partnership between National Geographic and 21st Century Fox has actually been an evolving process over nearly 20 years now. National Geographic and 21st Century Fox have been in a partnership producing television shows together since 1997. If Murdoch merely wanted to use National Geographic as a soapbox for climate change denial, we would have seen it already.
Perhaps I’m wrong. If I’ve ever said that I was perfect, then I was wrong (though I do try really hard never to make the same mistake twice). But I don’t believe that this is the end, and that Murdoch is going to have some kind of pernicious influence on the magazine. From where I sit, Murdoch is not even going to really be a part of this at all. He did two things relating to this project. 1. He gave some money to 21st Century Fox 30 years ago (when it was still 20th Century Fox), which 21st Century Fox turned into more money, and then 21st Century Fox gave that money to National Geographic, and 2. he fathered and raised a non-climate-change-denying son whose level of input into the partnership is, at this moment, undefined.