Is the Murdoch family's suzerainty over News Corporation set to evaporate like a wisp of rain cloud over Ayers Rock?

Or is the canny clan planning to cement its grip on the media empire by increasing its holding - in contravention of a deal it struck last month to pacify institutional shareholders over its reincorporation in Delaware?

It depends on how you read the runes.

Central to this speculation is a move by US cable entrepreneur John C Malone who late last week revealed that his acquisition vehicle Liberty Media had struck an intriguing deal with Merrill Lynch.This sees the investment bank buying 8% of NewsCorp voting shares - with an obligation to offer that stock to Liberty next year.

Perhaps, some say, Malone sees himself as NewsCorp top dog, out-gunning the Murdochs' voting muscle (the clan owns 12.6% of the stock but commands 29.5% of the voting rights). Malone already holds a voting stake of 9.2%

Others believe it's not quite that simple.

Setting aside the maxim that big business and friendship are mutually exclusive, Malone and Rupert Murdoch are bosom pals (it was the former's Byzantine manoeuvrings in 2002 that effectively delivered DirecTV into the latter's hands).

If next year Malone decides to add to his existing NewsCorp portfolio the entire 8% of stock held for him in escrow by Merrill, he'll command 17.2% of the company - thereby absolving clan Murdoch of the undertaking given in October to NewsCorp shareholders.

This promised that the family would not significantly increase or decrease its stake without an offer being made to all shareholders.

There was, however, one proviso. That commitment would become void if any other investor acquired more than 15% of NewsCorp stock.

Michael O'Sullivan, president of the Australian Council of Super Investors, was not best pleased at the news: "This is an example of the very thing we were trying to protect shareholders against," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

The facial muscles of patriarch Murdoch betrayed not the slightest flicker as he told journalists in a conference call about the Malone deal: "It's an endorsement of the company."

Data sourced from; additional content by WARC staff