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A Domain of Personal Tyranny

A Real History of Rupert Murdoch

by BRUCE PAGE

If, as seems possible, we shall need a block of something to lower onto the grave of western journalism, then Michael Wolff’s fat masterpiece  of sycophancy about Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, might come in handy. Otherwise, its value is slight. The contents matter only insofar as they call for refutation. Chiefly, it’s an attempt to tell the story of the Wall Street Journal takeover and suffers because there’s little to tell. As we knew at the time, the proprietorial Bancrofts were rich, mostly dim and, to a sufficient extent, greedy. Murdoch was, as usual, acquisitive without constructive purpose. Most of us writing about it were concerned only to ensure that the Bancrofts couldn’t claim to act in ignorance, bar the invincible sort.

Most of his telling Wolff does in the corporate-groupie style, which may not hold its fashionable position much longer (people seem weary of swaggering by the hyper-rich and their votaries). It requires that breathy present tense in which the author takes station inside a protagonist’s brain-pan, and from there reports narrative minutiae with no tedious need for reference:

“… Murdoch knows this is the instant of penetration: that he is inside the envelope; that indefatigable pertinacity has elevated him to a sudden, supernal eminence in media finance; the men across the table, suddenly, are prostrate before him as were the Assyrian horde … As never previously before a man wearing a singlet under his shirt…”

Okay, I made that up. But, to parody Wolff is less painful than transcribing him. The man’s fixation with Murdoch’s underwear is quite real all the same, and his reflections about Wendi getting it off first time may not be outdone for roguishness in 2009.

Wolff isn’t well equipped for handling aspects of the Murdoch story which matter, as he knows nothing of Australia, little of Britain, and sees America only through the astigmatic lens of gossip.

A true outline can be stated briskly. Rupert’s father, Sir Keith, founded the dynasty during World War I as a dirty-tricks minion for “Billy” Hughes, probably Australia’s nastiest prime minister. His cover myth as a heroic war reporter has been so thoroughly dismantled that now it impresses none but family retainers and – of course – Mr. Wolff.

At Versailles, Keith was Billy’s ever-present aide in striving to make the Peace Conference into a vicious cock-up, rich in racist and imperialist content. Curiously, the pair would have had zero leverage but for the failure of a plot of Keith’s, which sought in 1918 to remove Australia’s battlefield commander on the Western Front, John Monash, for being an unheroic Jew. (Monash wrote home that it was a bore having to fight a “pogrom” at the same time as fight Ludendorff.) The overall commander, General Douglas Haig, wouldn’t play: and Monash’s divisions led the British breakthrough at Amiens which, ruining Ludendorff, put Germany – suddenly, unexpectedly– at the Allies’ mercy.

Haig and other soldiers hoped there might be space for a decent peace. But politicians of various brands thought otherwise and none outdid Keith’s boss in vengeful demagoguery,  destroying at last all the credit Monash had gained for Australia. Billy and Keith weren’t prime authors of the Versailles debacle in 1919. But none toiled harder in its cause.

This ironic history yields two items of present relevance. One, we see the core of the Murdoch business: offering political propaganda services, disguised thinly as journalism. Two, there’s the stunning Murdoch talent for seizing the wrong end of any available political or military stick. Keith’s estimate of Monash and Rupert’s of the pseudo-warrior Bush Jr. were reciprocals, to be sure, but identically crass.

Not that we’ve seen, over the years, any Murdoch disquiet with the results of serving as an uncritical understrapper to power. Certain flirtations apart, it has made Rupert a comfortable insider aboard the Thatcher-Reagan-Bush juggernaut during its blundering, destructive career. Just now, of course, the thing’s a wreck – maybe an irredeemable one – but many lives have been and will be trashed before any consequences reach Murdoch. Implausible as it may now seem, Rupert began with an honorable path before him, and even took some steps along it. In 1950s Australia, he inherited a small but prospering newspaper, run by people who were his friends and admirers. Stirring issues were to hand : notably, the liberation of Australia’s indigenous people and the rescue of its white majority from a perilous racist quarrel with  its Asian neighbors. These  have developed into serious popular movements – but were repugnant for decades to the politicians of orthodoxy. And they, Rupert saw, were the ones dishing out  television licenses.

Thus his first, pattern-setting editorial defenestration: of a close, loyal friend who was engaged with him in saving from execution a black man framed for rape and murder. The campaign might have given Murdoch, authentically, the outsider status he always pretends to. But true to subsequent form, he raised what can only be called the white flag. Still, by then the ex-editor, Rohan Rivett, had uncovered sufficient malpractice that the supposed murderer could not be hanged, and only jailed for life. This incomplete act of selfless courage remains unique on Murdoch’s record.

Possession of television licenses (well, state monopolies) in South Australia and New South Wales gave him resources enough to mount the world stage, and he arrived in London just as Britain’s huge popular newspapers began to realize (belatedly) that they were sick, often mortally so. Here, in the 1970s, was Murdoch’s indispensable breakthrough – a complex event, which Wolff totally misunderstands.

British daily papers in the first part of the last century were chiefly a middle-class habit, but by the time of World War II nearly everyone was joining up. Causes were manifold: new populist methods in journalism and advertising, astonishing socio-political drama, and overdue consummation of the long drive for working-class literacy.

In 1960, the Daily Mirror’s circulation was five million. But by the end of the Sixties every popular paper was in trouble. For instance , the News of the World, which Murdoch acquired in 1969 with a six-million circulation,  had been at eight million 10 years earlier.

Essentially, the popular press (not then “tabloid”) had been caught unaware by new postwar waves of education and social advance. Though sneered at by left and right, these were quite real, and meant that popular journalism’s audience was split. About half wanted a new, more intelligent product. The other half wanted more of the old one.

Only one proprietor solved this classic media-management problem creatively, and it wasn’t Rupert. Vere Harmsworth, while absorbing financial setbacks at his flagship Daily Mail, invested heavily in the skills of brilliant, strong-minded editors. The Mail raised its sale 50 per cent between 1970 and 2000 – and by organic growth, not transfer from other titles. Pardonably repelled by its berserk politics, liberals often miss the Mail’spopulist intelligence. It is formidable nonetheless.

Murdoch did otherwise. His target was the behemoth Mirror, whose bosses treated the Seventies crisis as an exercise in felo-de-se. Having sprinkled some flimsy upmarket features over the old paper, they cut its size and simultaneously raised its price. Murdoch, acquiring the derelict Sun, relaunched it as a crude clone of the old Mirror – but fatter, cheaper and a tad raunchier. The Mirror’ssale collapsed: the Sun’s soared, as its lockstep reciprocal. Media economics contains no neater (or better deserved) instance of parasitic symbiosis, but there’s nothing of the newspaperman’s creativity Wolff purports to admire.

Today the Sun (three million) and Mirror together sell about four million, as against the Mirror’s 1960s five-million peak: a secular decline of 25 per cent (continuing still), while Britain’s population grew 25 per cent. The News of the World, finding no parasite-host in its Sunday marketplace, has declined more simply, sales having halved under Murdoch control. Rupert the circulation mastermind is a myth as frail as Keith the upright war reporter.

Mostly, his newspapers are a sad pack of dogs, especially the New York Post and The Times of London – absurd vanity sheets by any defensible rules, much as Newscorp’s accounts veil their losses. Sentimentally, perhaps, having served it in pre-Murdoch days, I still see journalism flickering in the London Sunday Times. (We owe to it the Downing Street Memorandum, proving intelligence fraud in the Iraq preliminaries – overall, though, it sustained Newscorp’s aim of tedious servility to Bush Jr.)

But dogs have their functions. First, even in decline, the British tabloids generate vast cash flow, essential to Newscorp’s financial vitality. Second, all the papers, profitable or not, are business accessories of a unique type. They have always been politically deliverable: enabling Murdoch to extract from governments in Australia, America and Britain free passes against regulation, designed to sustain media diversity and independence — printed and electronic. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were his best-known playmates, but leaders of the Australian Labor Party, (specially inclined to fancy that they were exploiting Murdoch) must not be forgotten.

Newscorp’s rise to television power was a major subplot in the four-decade deregulation epic, now tardily recognized as an unshackling of Caliban. Its dynamics explain Murdoch’s unremitting circulation losses. To be deliverable,a newspaper (or TV show) must be predictable. Then you may manage (even stabilize) its decline, but you mustn’t expect organic growth. If you’re doing fealty to a bunch of politicians, nothing sucks worse than your staff exposing their misdemeanors – even accidentally – however beguiling for the readers. There are some rib-tickling instances in Harry Evans’ account of editing The Times while Boss Rupert courted the Thatcher administration. Papers actually were selling fast – but numerous editions agonized Downing Street. Agony communicated itself to Rupert, and firing Harry was the only cure.

The extent to which the powerful could rely on other media bosses predictably to deliver their assets is often exaggerated. Certainly, the old monsters like Hearst, Northcliffe and Beaverbrook were driven by unpredictable – indeed, barmy – passions of their own. But Rupert is the supreme pragmatist. Barking right is the default state of his own politics: however, these can be readily overwritten any time there’s a deal to do. It may be worth discussing whether he really likes running moribund newspapers. But the commercial point is that politicians love them.

Their production requires editors whose curiosity-quotient addresses itself to thinking what the boss might think, and never to seeking stories which may penetrate unknown territory. Such people may be kind to dogs and beggars – though many of Rupert’s retainers are visibly feral – but they produce few exclusives, which impact the real world. Thus, their journalistic product centers on stings, checkbook scoops, antique scandals reheated and celebrity gossip. (Murdoch’s alleged desire to abolish Britain’s royal family would darken the Sun if implemented. But his own dynasty never has done irony.)

Operationally, all this requires a grotesque machinery of bullying, conformity, manipulation and toadyism. Mainly, it is staffed by people who have no exit, as Murdoch service at senior level severely dents a resume. Now and then able people become involved: some find havens where they can work decently and inconspicuously, but most are ejected, or self-eject. (The latter option is disliked. When The Times caught tabloid fever and self-trashed its image, Simon Jenkins was hired to do cosmetic repairs but would only sign for two years. Murdoch said he preferred to fire editors himself, but had to accept: of course, he then beat Jenkins to the punch.)

When I wrote The Murdoch Archipelago with Elaine Potter, we justified our title by saying that the Murdochs had built a domain as close to personal tyranny as the legal framework of the liberal West will allow. Most observers agree on this, and so do ex-denizens unless they hope for renewed Newscorp favors.

Michael Wolff doesn’t disagree. Indeed, he adds a few gruesome details of his own. But what makes him peculiar is that he admires the apparat – displaying, in his own coy fashion, much affection for its master. And he goes beyond this when considering his daughter’s interest in journalism. There can be no finer place to learn the business, he tells her, than the New York Post.

Predictably, dad’s admiration involves that smelly old-class warhorse, the Establishment. The critter exists only to be abjured by ruling-class members, determined to escape whatever obligations of law or honor such status might yet attract. Then actions, which would be greedy and irresponsible in a confessed kingpin, become innocent rebellion, undertaken to toss off oppression by invisible elites. Murdoch’s acolytes routinely use such hocus-pocus to obscure the true nature of the boss – often from themselves – and Wolff is right there with them. If you can see Murdoch, power’s long-term toady, in that light, nothing’s beyond your belief, and envisioning the Post as a palladium of journalism presents no difficulty. And his long support of it, against disastrous market performance (and by now, surely, a thinned-out political value), indicates that Murdoch feels that way himself.

It is, after all, his own creation as nothing else is. Fox News was the work of Roger Ailes; the Sun – of Larry Lamb and Kelvin McKenzie; the Newscorp (as against original) Sunday Times –  of Andrew Neil; the Sky satellite network – of the ravening Sam Chisholm. To be sure, they all accepted him as overlord, with sad consequences for their products (and often their ambitions). But, Murdoch myth apart, all of them were hardened pros, doing the hands-on stuff themselves (and fending Rupert off wherever possible).

Their products are not much good, but there is a certain professional gleam: disproof, indeed, of the claim that you can’t polish shit. The Post, however, is the product unrefined. It represents Rupert doing a complicated, difficult job as best as he can: something, which should make us think hard about the perils which oppress democracy.

It’s insufficiently realized that neither Rupert nor his father had any serious training in journalism. Keith, quite late in life, confessed that he might have made a better reporter had things been otherwise; in fact, he came up as freelance scrabbling  for lineage in Melbourne’s Edwardian suburbs and was, as he said, “sweated.” There are few worse  starts, as income depends on writing-up uncritically whatever your sources might offer, and developing habits of independent judgment carries serious prospects of hunger.

By the 1950s, metropolitan newspapers in Australia and America (some in Britain) had quite detailed training procedures. Indeed, Keith had assisted their creation. But he created also the dynastic channel through which Rupert passed them by: inheriting straightaway on his father’s death the Adelaide News business, which Keith had deftly extracted from the public company, of which he was managing director.

Very likely Keith anticipated a few more years, but death looked in while Rupert was still at Oxford – and no more equipped to command a newspaper than command a small warship or run a middle-sized lawsuit. The trust arrangements required his mother, with co-trustees, to certify Rupert’s professional readiness, and that pantomime was duly staged.

It’s wort looking back to the Rohan Rivett betraya, to ask whether Rupert, having seen a few years of hard reporting practice, might have been less daunted by the ridiculous – now forgotten – Pooh-Bahs who were running South Australia just then. But the real question is about maintaining liberty: something, which requires (among other things) regular performance of the arduous, intricate work of journalism.

From many roles of similar complexity we debar the unqualified. Your family may bequeath you an airliner but can’t bequeath you the right to fly it. And similarly with a pharmacy – though, as Kipling said, there are no drugs so dangerous as words, where we leave the traffic unrestricted.As we have to. The right to build a noxious empire like Newscorp is an indispensable consequence of freedom of speech. No society, says Rosa Luxemburg, can be healthy without it. (She is the most reliable libertarian: on consulting the right, such as Hayek, one gleans some admirable sentiments. But then he starts driveling about authoritarian governments being maybe liberal after all.)

Clearly, this freedom cannot be protected by proscriptive law (although some modest regulations may help, and none of those evaded by Newscorp were or are barriers to freedom, any more than are the rules of libel). It is a matter of conscience, as Luxemburg makes clear with her principle that “freedom is for the other fellow”: one that applies even when the other fellow is Murdoch. And, thus, it costs something: a price to be paid by those who believe in it.

It takes various forms, and first comes the effort of keeping your mind from decaying, like Michael Wolff’s, until you start disseminating nonsense about Rupert, the anti-establishment radical. There may be hard, rainy days when someone needs to work for Newscorp. But nobody should do it under the illusion (or pretence) of doing society a favor, or learning how to practice journalism.

Murdoch now controls enough of the market for English-language journalism that anyone resolved to keep clear loses some competitive advantage. People – already adequately fixed – should accept the limitation and let Murdoch find his servants elsewhere. We must retire the argument that “if I don’t do it, someone else will.”

Politicians may find it hardest to break the Newscorp habit. Real journalists, in any medium, may ask awkward questions: it’s not only paladins of the right who have found ease with Rupert. And, as a rule, his wants are humble – just deep-sixing a bit of monopoly law the voters know nothing of.

But signs of progress have appeared. In 2008, some candidates, notably Obama and Clinton, discovered there is no democratic obligation to help Fox News “debate” issues under conventions Judge Roy Bean would have disallowed. And many politicians now recognize the view of the British Tory Lord (Chris) Patten: Murdoch’s support is only available if you don’t need it, and isn’t useful even then.

Centrally, Newscorp is just one among the malignancies generated by four decades of upper-crust self-indulgence, disguised as libertarianism. Possibly there’s no cure. But if there is, it will come with a moral climate quite unlike the one Murdoch has so far found propitious. So far as climate change is concerned, Murdoch himself seems to be grasping that the model he has espoused down the years has shuddered to a halt. From Davos, at the end of January, he croaked that there’s no hiding from the worsening global economic crisis, and stressed the need for speedy “drastic action” to turn the tide. This may cause a tremor of alarm among the fanatics on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, whose lunacy is authentic and who perhaps fear that the new boss resembles the Dane in being apt to turn sane with a changing wind. 

BRUCE PAGE is the author (with Elaine Potter) of The Murdoch Archipelago, Pocket Books: 2004, 592pp. He can be reached at bruce@pages2.adsl24.co.uk.