The boardroom power battle at Johnston Press, which owns the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post, has taken another twist. A demand from the company’s biggest investor for a shareholder vote on a boardroom shake-up has been rejected on the grounds that the paperwork submitted was “invalid”.
Christen Ager-Hanssen – whose Custos group owns a 20% stake in Johnston – earlier this week formally called for a general meeting of shareholders to vote on proposals to appoint former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond to the board and for two directors to be ousted.
Ager-Hanssen wants to remove chairman Camilla Rhodes and non-executive director Michael Butterworth and replace them with former first minister Salmond and Steve Auckland, who previously ran regional newspaper group Local World, to spearhead an overhaul at the publisher.
But Edinburgh-based Johnston, which also owns the i newspaper and some 200 local titles, said the request for an extraordinary general meeting was invalid, claiming the wrong person signed the paperwork.
“In the event that the board receives a valid requisition request, the board will put the proposed resolution(s) to shareholders,” a company statement said.
Ager-Hanssen, who owns the Swedish version of the Metro free newspaper, has led an increasingly vocal hostile campaign for a leadership change at Johnston in recent weeks.
Director appointments blocked
The Norwegian activist investor had already attempted to appoint four directors to Johnston’s board last month, but the move was blocked by debt agreements stipulating that only existing board members can approve new director appointments.
Shares in Johnston surged 9% on Tuesday after Johnston confirmed Mr Ager-Hanssen’s formal request for a shareholder meeting, but were down 3% after the latest twist in the saga.
Johnston has struggled under a debt burden and plunging print advertising revenues. But the i newspaper – which it bought from the owners of the Independent for £24m in April last year – has been helping offset ongoing tough conditions for its traditional titles.
In September, it reported sharply narrowed half-year losses, to £10.2m from £184m a year earlier.
However, total revenue still fell 3.1% to £102.9m, amid a drop in classified sales.
A source close to Johnston was dismissive of Ager-Hanssen’s plans telling PA: “The company is in the midst of a complex and important refinancing and we have the momentum with the established team to ensure further progress with the strategic review and ensure a good outcome.
The source added: “Despite dozens of tweets and interviews, Custos has not yet produced a coherent strategy or plan, which would be good to see.”