The Old Fox
On Rupert Murdoch and his decades of influence
“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
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.
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.
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, realtor.com, 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,