The Old Fox

On Ru­pert Mur­doch and his decades of in­flu­ence

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Richard Cooke

“Those who say they give the public what it wants be­gin by un­der­es­ti­mat­ing public taste, and end by de­bauch­ing it.” – T.S. Eliot (at­trib), The Pilk­ing­ton Re­port on Broad­cast­ing, 1962 “Pri­vacy is for pae­dos.” – Paul McMul­lan, for­mer News of the World jour­nal­ist, in ev­i­dence to the Leve­son In­quiry into the cul­ture, prac­tices and ethics of the press, 2011

The fall

A man fall­ing down, es­pe­cially an im­por­tant man, has been con­sid­ered an ill omen since an­cient times. It is some­how in­tu­itive – no spe­cial ex­pla­na­tion is needed for the ori­gin of fallen an­gels, or the ex­pres­sion “pride goeth be­fore a fall”. It is not mere su­per­sti­tion ei­ther. In older adults, falls re­ally are a har­bin­ger of senes­cence and death, and geri­atric pa­tients will of­ten hide these events from their doc­tors and their fam­i­lies, recog­nis­ing what they rep­re­sent in terms of fad­ing life force. The most dan­ger­ous type of ground-level fall in­volves white males over the age of 85, es­pe­cially those who break a bone. When Ru­pert Mur­doch slipped and se­verely in­jured his back on the deck of a yacht some­where in the Caribbean, he was 86. Those who watch Mur­doch, many of whom wish him ill, noted the sig­nif­i­cances. The yacht was owned by Lach­lan Mur­doch, one of sev­eral prospec­tive dy­nas­tic heirs to the fam­ily com­pa­nies, and Mur­doch se­nior stum­bled in the fresh hours of 2018, not long after New Year’s Eve. “I hope you all are hav­ing a great start to 2018,” he wrote to his staff later. “I sus­pect it has been bet­ter than mine. I am writ­ing to tell you that last week I had a sail­ing ac­ci­dent and suf­fered a painful back in­jury. While I am well on the road to re­cov­ery, I have to work from home for some weeks.” The some weeks be­came some months, and ru­mours cir­cu­lated that the in­juries were more se­ri­ous than a bad back. The ty­coon, it was said, had hit his head. In public, he had been ram­bly and vague for a while. Some thought this was an act: at the Leve­son In­quiry into press mal­prac­tice in 2012, his dotty de­meanour was com­pared to the pseudo-de­men­tia of the ar­raigned Ju­nior So­prano in The So­pra­nos. Now ap­par­ently it was for real. Few ex­ec­u­tives are as syn­ony­mous with their com­pa­nies as Ru­pert Mur­doch is with his. News Corp, he had said in the past, “for bet­ter or worse, is a re­flec­tion of my think­ing, my char­ac­ter, my val­ues”. Not only does he gov­ern them by fiat, stack­ing boards with lack­eys, con­sult­ing lit­tle fur­ther than his gut, he also has not much life out­side the of­fice. He has few friends and vir­tu­ally no hob­bies. (His biographer Michael Wolff noted that “he may be the only Aus­tralian man not in­ter­ested in sports” – he is said to have pur­chased the Los An­ge­les Dodgers fran­chise with­out ever hav­ing seen a live game of base­ball.) He has struck the bal­ance be­tween work and fam­ily life by bring­ing his chil­dren to work. It seemed nat­u­ral, then, that as Ru­pert Mur­doch lay in bed his com­pany was in the bal­ance as well, not bankrupted but in the process of be­ing bro­ken up. It had al­ready been split into two in 2013, and in De­cem­ber 2017, Dis­ney an­nounced it was seek­ing to buy the en­ter­tain­ment as­sets of 21st Cen­tury Fox, leav­ing the news con­cerns to the Mur­dochs. Some tried to paint this di­vest­ment as a fail­ure, just as in the past Mur­doch has been ac­cused of fail­ures that reap him tens of mil­lions of dol­lars. This time it was an over­all deal worth more than $US50 bil­lion. The ar­rival of another pos­si­ble buyer in Com­cast seemed to con­firm the ir­re­sistible prospect that Mur­doch and Mur­doch Inc. were reach­ing the end of the line, even if it did also mean a big­ger pay­day for the old fox. Pun­dits be­gan the dan­ger­ous busi­ness of peer­ing into the fu­ture. Pos­si­bil­i­ties were war-gamed: the sons, James and Lach­lan, would take over, or at least Lach­lan would. (By April, he was al­ready tak­ing Ru­pert’s empty chair at meet­ings.) These changes would sup­pos­edly stem the de­struc­tive rage at the US ca­ble network Fox

News, long ru­moured to be an em­bar­rass­ment to the young scions, and pos­si­bly Mur­doch him­self. The Aus­tralian and The Times news­pa­pers, re­liant on sub­sidy, would be wound up and sold off. There was spec­u­la­tion about res­ig­na­tion, suc­ces­sion and even death. (A year be­fore, for­mer ABC pre­sen­ter Quentin Demp­ster had called on Mur­doch to re­sign for the good of jour­nal­ism.) In­stead, Ru­pert Mur­doch did what he al­ways does, and re­cov­ered and went back to work. His first real public ap­pear­ance was at the Trump White House’s in­au­gu­ral state din­ner in April, where he was one of the only civil­ian at­ten­dees. (Don­ald Trump speaks to Mur­doch reg­u­larly, and calls him “Rupie”; ac­cord­ing to Wolff, in re­turn Mur­doch thinks Trump is a “fuck­ing id­iot”.) Mur­doch is close to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and re­port­edly pressed him for an in­vi­ta­tion. The same month Mur­doch hosted a din­ner for Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, who was vis­it­ing the United States. Bin Sal­man is one of the world’s rich­est men – he be­gan his tour by book­ing all 285 rooms at the Four Sea­sons in Beverly Hills – and to­gether he and Mur­doch have

There is no happy end­ing, and hardly even any char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment. In­stead, Mur­doch seems to ex­ist in his own time, an era rather than a char­ac­ter.

a net worth roughly equiv­a­lent to the gross do­mes­tic prod­uct of Mon­go­lia. They sparred lightly in a gen­teel Q&A ses­sion, where the sharia-ma­nia of Mur­doch’s me­dia prop­er­ties seemed a long way away, as did pre­mo­ni­tions of demise. In late June, it was an­nounced that Dis­ney had of­fered $US71.3 bil­lion to buy most of Fox’s en­ter­tain­ment as­sets – beat­ing Com­cast’s pre­vi­ous bid of $US65 bil­lion. In the months of Mur­doch’s recuperation, his price had risen by $20 bil­lion, and the bid­ding wouldn’t stop there.


It is not too soon to start coun­te­nanc­ing legacy, though. Mur­doch is a legacy unto him­self, at least in the sense of some­thing left over from a pre­vi­ous era, but still in ac­tive ex­is­tence. Within the Mur­doch com­pa­nies, plans for his suc­ces­sion are made on the as­sump­tions of some­thing like im­mor­tal­ity. “Don’t you know my dad’s never go­ing to die?” his son Lach­lan said once. When a Wall Street Jour­nal ed­i­tor asked his boss, Robert Thom­son, about pre-pre­par­ing an obit­u­ary for Mur­doch (a stan­dard news­pa­per prac­tice), he was told, “Ru­pert is not go­ing to die.” “In the event he does?” the ed­i­tor asked. “Ru­pert is not go­ing to die,” he was told again. Mur­doch once re­jected 10-year and 20-year con­tin­gen­cies for his re­place­ment, fi­nally set­tling on a 30-year plan he was com­fort­able with. He was then 76. He likes to point out that his mother, Dame Elisabeth Mur­doch, lived un­til 104. She did not, though, run a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional com­pany as a cen­te­nar­ian. Mur­doch had al­ready sur­vived prostate can­cer 18 years ago, and a fall from a horse be­fore that. Busi­ness­wise, he had shrugged off the UK phone-hack­ing scan­dal, the ad­vent of the in­ter­net, at­tempts at reg­u­la­tion, pri­vate debt crises, de­layed satel­lite launches. After five decades of writ­ing him off, Mur­doch watch­ers should have been more care­ful. Tom Shales, the TV critic at The Wash­ing­ton Post, once told PBS’s Front­line that “Mur­doch is some­one who seems to have been al­lowed to grow unchecked, like – you know, like some sort of mon­ster in a science fic­tion movie, The Blob or some­thing. And you keep wait­ing for some­body to sort of shape him up and push him back in, but it doesn’t hap­pen.” Shales said that in 1995, and nei­ther age nor cir­cum­stance have changed its per­ti­nence. There is some­thing deeply un­sat­is­fac­tory about the Ru­pert Mur­doch story – the lack of con­se­quences, the tri­umph of cyn­i­cism – and it trips those who tell it into mak­ing the same mis­takes over and over again. He has at­tracted a co­terie of chron­i­clers, many of very high qual­ity, who are tempted to con­trive come­up­pances for him. “You have to write some­thing at the end,” one biographer told me, so they sug­gest that his jour­nal­ists might stand up to their boss (this has hap­pened a cou­ple of times, but not for decades), that he might be spayed by reg­u­la­tors (never hap­pened), that he might be over­come by sec­ond thoughts. All wish­ful think­ing. “If I was go­ing to be shot to­mor­row morn­ing, I bet I could get out of it,” Mur­doch said once, and he does. There is no happy end­ing, and hardly even any char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment. In­stead, Mur­doch seems to ex­ist in his own time, an era rather than a char­ac­ter. “What does Ru­pert Mur­doch want?” the now de­ceased Christo­pher Hitchens asked, 28 years ago. He was al­ready part of the fourth decade of Mur­doch ob­servers, and the li­brary try­ing to an­swer this ques­tion stretches and swells to the present day. Delv­ing into it finds al­most spooky con­ti­nu­ities. Read­ing The Aus­tralian, I thought “vendetta jour­nal­ism” seemed a con­cise, if ob­vi­ous, de­scrip­tion of the pa­per’s style, and won­dered if any­one had used it be­fore. Don­ald Horne had, in 1975, years be­fore I was born. In 1969, Mur­doch and the then ed­i­tor, Larry Lamb, re­designed The Sun, in­vent­ing the en­dur­ing form of the mod­ern tabloid – right down to the red top. Mur­doch was then, as now, in com­pe­ti­tion with a new tech­nol­ogy threat­en­ing the print me­dia. It was colour tele­vi­sion.

The spear

Events that might have been ca­reer or life defin­ing to any­one else are half-re­mem­bered in Mur­doch’s, minia­turised by the scale of his events. There was a kid­nap­ping at­tempt on Anna Mur­doch, Ru­pert’s sec­ond wife, not long after the cou­ple moved to the UK. Muriel McKay, the wife of one of Mur­doch’s se­nior ex­ec­u­tives, was mur­dered as a re­sult. It was a case of mis­taken iden­tity: the McKays had bor­rowed the Mur­doch fam­ily car. Anna said in 2001 it was like some­thing that “hap­pened to some­one else. That sort of pe­riod was some­body else … another life­time.” Part of the ten­sion in their mar­riage re­port­edly came from a be­lief Ru­pert might fi­nally re­tire when he hit his 60s. That was al­most 30 years ago. The Mur­doch epoch was also sup­posed to end, or at least be­gin to end, on July 19, 2011, the self-de­scribed “most hum­ble day” of Mur­doch’s life. The News man, called be­fore the UK House of Com­mons Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport Com­mit­tee, did his best im­pres­sion of a hu­man be­ing, a bum­bling, fore­lock-tug­ging old man with an An­glo­spheric mon­grel ac­cent. He was there to ex­plain the ap­par­ent fact that he was run­ning what one MP called a “crim­i­nal en­ter­prise”: his news­pa­pers were il­le­gally hack­ing thou­sands of peo­ple’s phones, along­side brib­ing po­lice of­fi­cers and public ser­vants. How­ever, he had an ac­ci­den­tal ally. An ac­tivist and failed stand-up co­me­dian (code name: Jon­nie Mar­bles; real name: Jonathan May-Bowles) had hid­den a pie made from shav­ing foam in the hear­ing room. At the right mo­ment he would thrust it into Mur­doch’s face, shout­ing “You naughty bil­lion­aire!”, and turn hu­mil­ity into hu­mil­i­a­tion. In­stead, Mar­bles missed with most of the pie, Mur­doch’s third wife, Wendi Deng, punched him in the face, he was ar­rested (and later sen­tenced to six weeks in jail, in­evitably an­nounc­ing out­side the court­room “This is the most hum­ble day of my life”), and Mur­doch barely changed pos­ture. The mood in the room changed. It had be­come a joke. “Don’t worry, this will play well,” the MP Tom Wat­son over­heard one of Mur­doch’s crew say­ing. “Ru­pert must have fixed that,” some­one from the press mut­tered as they were ush­ered out of the room. “We know no spec­ta­cle so ridicu­lous as the Bri­tish public in one of its pe­ri­od­i­cal fits of moral­ity,” Baron Macau­lay wrote a long time ago. Ru­pert Mur­doch might know more about those fits than any­one else who has ever lived, and he had out­lived another one. Some jour­nal­ists went to jail, Mur­doch’s son James was forced to step down from News In­ter­na­tional, but the mea­sures to fur­ther in­ves­ti­gate wide­spread crim­i­nal­ity on Fleet Street never ma­te­ri­alised. A cross-party par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee de­ter­mined Ru­pert Mur­doch was “not a fit per­son to ex­er­cise the stew­ard­ship of a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional com­pany”, but so what? It added to a pile of in­ef­fec­tual es­tab­lish­ment con­dem­na­tion and naysay­ing. It was re­ally lan­guage aimed at as­sist­ing the reg­u­la­tor, Of­com, but that had never worked in the past ei­ther. The sec­re­tary for cul­ture and me­dia, Jeremy Hunt, had once been nick­named “The Min­is­ter for Mur­doch”. There was al­ways some­thing that was sup­posed to bring about his down­fall. He didn’t un­der­stand the in­ter­net. He didn’t even know how to use email. The pur­chase of MyS­pace had blood­ied his nose. Print news­pa­pers were dead. His rep­u­ta­tion as a CEO was in the dol­drums. He was not the man to man­age in the digital age. Tabloid di­nosaurs were on the brink of ex­tinc­tion. But the down­falls al­ways seemed to hap­pen to other peo­ple. Ru­pert Mur­doch had fared bet­ter than his di­rect com­peti­tors. Robert Maxwell had dis­ap­peared off his yacht. Con­rad Black went to jail. Ted Turner chal­lenged him to two tele­vised fist fights that never tran­spired. The oth­ers – it was hard to even re­mem­ber their names. When Ru­pert Mur­doch’s fa­ther, Keith, be­queathed him a small Ade­laide-based press con­sor­tium in his will, he wrote, “I de­sire that my said son Keith Ru­pert Mur­doch shall have the great op­por­tu­nity of spending a use­ful al­tru­is­tic and full life in news­pa­per and broad­cast­ing ac­tiv­i­ties and of ul­ti­mately oc­cu­py­ing a po­si­tion of high re­spon­si­bil­ity.” He hoped, he wrote in an ac­com­pa­ny­ing let­ter, that Mur­doch might use the com­pany to “do some good”. The “full life” and “po­si­tion of high re­spon­si­bil­ity” have tran­spired. But how many peo­ple not em­ployed by him would de­scribe Keith Ru­pert Mur­doch as an al­tru­ist? Lach­lan Mur­doch’s yacht is called Sarissa, the name of an an­cient Greek spear. James Mur­doch stud­ied his­tory at Har­vard, and of­ten draws on this knowl­edge to name things. (One of James’s pet projects in­side News Corp was called “Project Ru­bi­con”.) He must know there is a spe­cial ex­cep­tion to the rule that a fallen leader presages dis­as­ter. The sarissa was in­tro­duced to the armies of an­tiq­uity by Philip II of Mace­don, who once tried to kill his son Alexander the Great in a drunken wed­ding fight, but slipped and fell in­stead. When Julius Cae­sar ar­rived at Hadrume­tum to at­tack Carthage, he landed face­first on the sand, and a mur­mur went through his army that this was fa­tal, but he laughed and said, “Oh Africa, I have you!” And at Pevensey in 1066, the man then called Wil­liam the Bas­tard tripped off the boat. The ex­cep­tion to the su­per­sti­tion is con­querors.

Raw power

Ru­pert Mur­doch be­lieves that the press is not as pow­er­ful as peo­ple think, that it fol­lows the public, not the other way around, and that its in­flu­ence is over­stated. At least, this is his line when talk­ing to a judge. “If these lies are re­peated again and again they catch on,” he told Lord Leve­son. “But they just aren’t true … We don’t have that sort of power.” He was re­fer­ring to the power to swing elec­tions. He has been care­ful to main­tain this stance, at least most of the time. Pri­vately he did tell Harold Evans that he was more pow­er­ful than the gov­ern­ment. But he does not look pow­er­ful, and did not look any more pow­er­ful when he was younger. He is self­dep­re­cat­ing, even self-ef­fac­ing, a cheap­skate who used to have a Hong Kong tai­lor make knock-off suits, be­fore Wendi Deng gave him a makeover. He is cheeky in in­ter­views, and over the years has made the tran­si­tion from

boy­ish to avun­cu­lar with­out much in be­tween, though his ten­ta­tive smile and dart­ing eyes have grown less self-con­scious. He em­anates rea­son­able­ness, not sul­phur. He makes few ges­tures of dom­i­nance, though he does have a habit of tap­ping his palm or his watch on the sur­face in front of him when he talks. (There was a mo­ment dur­ing the Leve­son In­quiry, a tense mo­ment, when his wife, sit­ting be­hind him, reached out a stay­ing hand to his el­bow – he was do­ing it again.) Over­all, this an­o­dyne, rather dorky pres­ence is hard to square with the Ru­pert Mur­doch that his peers de­scribe. This is no doubt part of the dan­ger. The words they use – mogul, em­pire, fief­dom, dy­nasty, prop­er­ties – are the lan­guage of ter­ri­to­rial, even im­pe­rial, power, although this trans­po­si­tion be­tween the feu­dal realm and the fi­nan­cial realm is com­mon­place. Less com­mon is the re­sponse oth­ers have to Mur­doch. Other for­mi­da­ble peo­ple not only re­spect him but are also afraid of him. They note that his in­flu­ence is transcon­ti­nen­tal, rang­ing from Aus­tralia to the United King­dom to the United States. It is more last­ing than po­lit­i­cal power: dur­ing his ca­reer, he has en­joyed ac­cess to nine US pres­i­dents, nine Bri­tish prime min­is­ters and nine Aus­tralian prime min­is­ters. It is not just his cur­rent power but his ag­gre­gate power over time that pro­duces ve­loc­ity. Both his en­e­mies and those who work for him paint him as an al­most su­per­nat­u­ral fig­ure. Be­yond crit­ics call­ing him “the Supreme Satan”, or “Drac­ula”, or the “Prince of Dark­ness” are eye­wit­nesses to Mur­doch’s uniquely in­sin­u­a­tive and wily ap­proach. In Aus­tralia, Kevin Rudd’s for­mer cam­paign man­ager Bruce Hawker wrote that News Corp is “eas­ily the most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal force in Aus­tralia, big­ger than the ma­jor par­ties or the com­bined weight of the unions … I saw how, on a daily ba­sis, the storm of neg­a­tive sto­ries that em­anated from News Corp pa­pers blew our cam­paign off course.” In the UK, Mur­doch’s tabloids were at one time the most feared po­lit­i­cal force in the coun­try. This is partly due to their con­cen­tra­tion – they are na­tional tabloids, not city-based – and also their supreme nas­ti­ness. The for­mer direc­tor gen­eral of the BBC John Birt once met a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter who was phys­i­cally shak­ing at the prospect of an im­mi­nent meet­ing with Mur­doch. “I have never met Mr Mur­doch,” the for­mer Tony Blair com­mu­ni­ca­tions deputy Lance Price wrote for The Guardian, “but at times when I worked at Down­ing Street he seemed like the 24th mem­ber of the cab­i­net. His voice was rarely heard … but his pres­ence was al­ways felt. No big de­ci­sion could ever be made in­side No 10 with­out tak­ing ac­count of the likely re­ac­tion of three men – Gor­don Brown, John Prescott and Ru­pert Mur­doch.” There is a temp­ta­tion to play out coun­ter­fac­tu­als and counter-his­to­ries. Would Mar­garet Thatcher have been PM with­out The Sun? Would the Iraq War have hap­pened with­out Ru­pert Mur­doch? For a man in­vested in a lot, he was un­usu­ally in­vested in this dis­grace, and in the lead-up to in­va­sion Tony Blair spoke with him al­most as of­ten as he spoke with his gen­er­als. The thought ex­per­i­ment is not in­ter­est­ing so much for its re­sult but for its dif­fi­culty. Mur­doch me­dia prop­er­ties were so syn­ony­mous with the call to arms it is hard to imagine the clam­our in a dif­fer­ent voice. That in­di­vis­i­bil­ity ex­tends to the rest of our cul­tural re­al­ity. Mur­doch’s close as­so­ci­a­tion with Fox News and The Wall Street Jour­nal are ob­vi­ous, but he is just as re­spon­si­ble for Har­le­quin ro­mance nov­els, real­, and Mar­ried at First Sight Aus­tralia. It is easy to un­der­es­ti­mate the scale of his cul­tural im­pact: The Simp­sons, Avatar, the for­mat of the mod­ern tabloid news­pa­per and ca­ble tele­vi­sion sports cov­er­age would not ex­ist with­out Ru­pert Mur­doch. We can play this game with whole coun­tries. To­day’s Aus­tralia feels more in­su­lar, völkisch and hos­tile in char­ac­ter than its near neigh­bour New Zealand. Is this just an ac­ci­dent of his­tory or the end prod­uct of strong Mur­doch in­flu­ence in one place and weak Mur­doch in­flu­ence in the other? If you bought Harper Lee’s sec­ond novel, you gave money to Ru­pert Mur­doch. It is pos­si­ble to work for him with­out re­ally re­al­is­ing it – part­way through writ­ing this piece I re­mem­bered that I had once worked for The Sun­day Times in the UK and then re­mem­bered that Fac­tiva, the re­search tool I was re­ly­ing on, is a Mur­doch prop­erty as well. Even Michael Moore, Mur­doch critic ex­traor­di­naire, is a some­time Mur­doch em­ployee, and his Stupid White Men was pub­lished, al­beit re­luc­tantly, by the Mur­doch-owned HarperCollins. News’s am­bi­tions are not con­fined to Earth ei­ther. An­drew Neil, a for­mer ed­i­tor of The Sun­day Times, said that Mur­doch once told him he had bet the en­tire com­pany on the launch of a satel­lite. Like many of those close to Mur­doch – Harold Evans, the for­mer ed­i­tor of The Sun­day Times; Les Hin­ton, the for­mer Dow Jones CEO; even Philip, Mur­doch’s for­mer but­ler – Neil felt com­pelled to write about his re­la­tion­ship with his boss, per­haps to say that he had sur­vived it.

The Sun King

It was Neil who first gave Mur­doch one of his most durable nick­names – the Sun King – and made one of the most in­flu­en­tial de­scrip­tions of him. In his book Full Dis­clo­sure, he wrote: When you work for Ru­pert Mur­doch you do not work for a com­pany chair­man or chief ex­ec­u­tive: you work for a Sun King. You are not a direc­tor or a man­ager or an ed­i­tor: you are a courtier at the court of the Sun King … All life re­volves around the Sun King: all au­thor­ity comes from him. He is the only one to whom al­le­giance must be owed and he ex­pects his re­mit to run ev­ery­where, his word to be fi­nal. There are no other ref­er­ences but him. He is the only bench­mark and any­body of im­por­tance re­ports di­rect to him. Nor­mal man­age­ment struc­tures – all the tra­di­tional lines of au­thor­ity, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and de­ci­sion-tak­ing in the

mod­ern busi­ness cor­po­ra­tion – do not mat­ter. The Sun King is all that mat­ters. This un­der­stand­ing has been en­dorsed by oth­ers close to the throne. One ex­ec­u­tive ad­mit­ted to Neil that he had dreamed about Mur­doch for years after he left his em­ploy. David Yel­land, the for­mer ed­i­tor of The Sun, likened his boss’s mind­set to a “prism” through which News ed­i­tors saw the world. “Most Mur­doch ed­i­tors wake up in the morn­ing, switch on the ra­dio, hear that some­thing has hap­pened and think ‘what would Ru­pert think about this?’ It’s like a mantra in­side your head,” he said. “You look at the world through Ru­pert’s eyes.” Another Sun ed­i­tor, the leg­endary Kelvin MacKen­zie, once said that if the boss told him to print the pa­per in San­skrit, he would do so with­out ques­tion. MacKen­zie him­self was a tyran­ni­cal man – Mur­doch af­fec­tion­ately called him “my lit­tle Hitler” – and along with Paul Dacre, the ed­i­tor of the Daily Mail, he per­son­i­fied the ugly, hec­tor­ing soul of Bri­tish tabloid jour­nal­ism. ‘‘Look at you lot, eh?” be­gan a typ­i­cal MacKen­zie pep talk. “Use­less load of fuck­ers, aren’t you, eh? Right load of wankers, eh, eh?” Bul­ly­ing was so en­demic at News’s Wap­ping com­pound that The Sun once pub­lished a staff mem­ber’s phone ex­ten­sion in the pa­per, invit­ing read­ers to abuse him, un­der the head­line “RING HIGGY THE HU­MAN SPONGE, HE’LL SOAK IT UP”. But Mur­doch was the big­gest bully of all. After a mil­lion-pound li­bel set­tle­ment to El­ton John, MacKen­zie was sub­jected to 42 min­utes of non-stop abuse – “the bol­lock­ing of a life­time”, he called it. Other times it would be more stud­ied psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­in­te­gra­tion: “You’re los­ing your touch, Kelvin. [Pause] Your pa­per is pa­thetic. [Pause] You’re los­ing your touch, Kelvin.” A favourite Mur­doch tac­tic was si­lence over the phone, lengthy enough to in­duce the other per­son to crack, and over time MacKen­zie would learn to keep sh­tum as well, lock­ing the two in un­spo­ken brinks­man­ship. Staff joked about the thou­sands of pounds spent con­vey­ing si­lence over the At­lantic. Broad­sheet ed­i­tors, in whom Mur­doch feels less in­vested, re­ceive a more icy dis­dain. Neil was given the si­lence, but not the per­for­ma­tive abuse. Still, the calls left him “an­gry and de­pressed”, he said, un­til he tried MacKen­zie’s tac­tic. Neil an­swered si­lence with a si­lence so long he “could have gone and made a cup of tea”. “Just as I was about to crack,” Neil wrote in Full Dis­clo­sure, “he fi­nally said, ‘Are you still there?’” Mur­doch then ex­cused him­self – he had to go. Eric Beecher, a for­mer Mur­doch ex­ec­u­tive, once said that the em­pire was ruled “by phone and by clone”. The in­ti­macy of these re­la­tion­ships with his ed­i­tors – Mur­doch, jet-lagged or up late, freshly landed or in the of­fice in per­son, ask­ing after the front page, the ed­i­to­rial line, the gos­sip – pro­voke an old ques­tion: how much di­rect ed­i­to­rial in­flu­ence does the pro­pri­etor wield? “He has said he never in­ter­feres with his ed­i­tors’ ed­i­to­rial de­ci­sions,” the cor­re­spon­dent Phillip Knightley said. “Ab­so­lutely true, be­cause he is care­ful to choose ed­i­tors whose views agree with his.” A for­mer News em­ployee put it this way: “To be hon­est, I think Mur­doch’s pres­ence was a less im­por­tant fea­ture of the en­vi­ron­ment at News than the char­ac­ter of the fairly idio­syn­cratic ed­i­tors he ap­pointed to rep­re­sent him. The most charis­matic of those ed­i­tors, Paul Kelly, told me that Mur­doch brought no in­flu­ence to bear on his com­mis­sion­ing or story se­lec­tion. I’ve of­ten won­dered if this was a hol­low boast, but I be­lieve it was largely true, or true at the time. Kelly was later re­moved by Mur­doch, so I won­der if the game had changed by then.”

He is not shy about ly­ing, or con­fess­ing to this ly­ing. “You tell these bloody politi­cians what­ever they want to hear.”

The ed­i­tors are more “idio­syn­cratic” at The Aus­tralian than any­where else. It has none of the pres­tige of The Times or the tra­di­tion of The Wall Street Jour­nal, and a cousin-mar­riage ide­o­log­i­cal re­la­tion­ship with the Lib­eral Party. Apart from a hand­ful of tal­ents who might be spir­ited to the higher ech­e­lons of News it­self, most Aus­tralian se­nior ed­i­to­rial staff find there is nowhere to go, no other pa­per to poach them, no or­gan­i­sa­tion (apart from the Lib­eral Party again) keen for their tal­ents. They are lif­ers, and ex­press their grat­i­tude with a loy­alty that bor­ders on the ob­se­quious. Hap­pily, as the pa­per’s hard-copy read­er­ship has set­tled into old age, the pro­cliv­i­ties of its read­ers and its pro­pri­etor have be­come more sym­bi­otic. Did The Aus­tralian’s bizarre ji­had against wind farms stem from Mur­doch’s fre­quently voiced dis­dain for them? Hard to prove, and there is no spe­cial con­spir­acy re­quired: the pa­per’s read­ers cling to the same topic, per­haps the only time they ex­press con­cern for na­tive birdlife. Christo­pher Hitchens wrote that when politi­cians said they were afraid of Ru­pert Mur­doch what they were re­ally say­ing was that they were afraid of his read­ers. But this misses the in­tensely per­sonal pres­ence of Mur­doch in the po­lit­i­cal world, where he is not a proxy for his read­ers but for his busi­nesses. For a free-mar­ke­teer, he has been adroit at fos­ter­ing reg­u­la­tory cap­ture. He is not shy about ly­ing, or con­fess­ing to this ly­ing. “You tell these bloody politi­cians what­ever they want to hear,” he told his biographer Thomas Kier­nan,

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