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Who's robbing us now, Mr Montgomery?

So, Mecom boss David Montgomery has pulled it off again: another covenant extension, his fourth this year, and prospects of raising new equity to the tune of £140 million, despite presenting grim preliminary financial results for 2008 this morning.

Yet it seems the company is still treading water, and yesterday The Norwegian Journalist Union (NJ) was up in arms (in Norwegian) over news Montgomery would transfer roughly £80 m from the saving funds of his Norwegian papers to help appease the company's creditors. As NJ was holding its annual conference yesterday, it reminded me of Montgomery's visit to the same conference in 2007 (which I covered for Propaganda) and this exchange of words:

Moderator: "Many feel you are robbing Edda Media papers: you are emptying the coffers, aren't you?

Montgomery: "That is simply not the case. I don't own the company, the shareholders do, and the shareholders are the pension funds of Europe... Mecom is a conventionally listed company. Money goes back to pension funds, which means ultimately it goes back to you and me."

Moderator: "We are being robbed by pension funds then."

That's only one of many colourful anecdotes from following this company closely for years. Of course, the journalist union has campaigned against Mecom owning Norwegian papers since it first emerged as a potential buyer for Orkla Media in early 2006 - partly because of its high gearing. Some will see proof of "the folly of believing that newspapers can be successful on a sea of debt" in Mecom's recent woes, others will be cheered the company's steered clear of isolvency yet again - but I can see no cheers from the smalltime shareholders so far today...

Update 09:55 CET: news that Independent News & Media (INM) has failed to reach a deal with its bondholders and says there's a "strong likelihood" it will breach its covenants without a deal, brings me another flashback from that 2007 NJ conference.

I asked Montgomery if it really was his opinion, as The Telegraph had suggested the previous day, that there was no rationale for The Guardian or The Independent to exist: "I didn't say that. The Telegraph did. But in general I think companies should make money. I think it's demeaning for people to work for companies that don't," he said.

Update 11:14: CET: Actually, looking over my transcript just now (I always try to find time to type up my notes), that was the conference, and we're talking April 2007, when Montgomery also told the audience that Mecom was a very well-funded company and didn't have enough debt at the moment....


Montgomery reading one of his Norwegian newspapers, Drammens Tidende (original photo by Martin H. Jensen, edits by me).

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