Rather than focusing on particular aspects of Rupert Murdoch’s personality or career, this comprehensive biography traces the whole of the Australian media tycoon’s business trajectory, the entrepreneurial strategies that led to his early successes, and his later exercises of monopolistic power. It examines the development and evolution of his business, political, and journalistic ideas over the six decades he has been running an increasingly powerful company, inquiring as to whether the trends and patterns in his behavior and beliefs have changed or remained the same. Where Murdoch’s political ideas specifically are concerned, the book dissects these, the relish with which he approaches political campaigning, and the way he has leveraged political support into policy outcomes that favor his business. In offering a well-rounded portrait of Rupert Murdoch, media scholar Rodney Tiffen argues that, at times, Murdoch’s influence has been overestimated.
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About the Author
Rodney Tiffen is a leading international scholar of media and an emeritus professor in government and international relations at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Diplomatic Deceits; News and Power; and Scandal, Media, Politics, and Corruption in Contemporary Australia, and the coauthor of How Australia compares.
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By Rodney Tiffen
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2014 Rodney Tiffen
All rights reserved.
The passing of the Murdoch era?
16 October 2013 marked Rupert Murdoch's 60th anniversary as a director of News Limited. Since 1953, although his formal titles have changed at various times, he has been in charge. Such business longevity may be unique. It is hard to think of any other corporate head who has had such a long tenure.
Murdoch's record is extraordinary at both ends of the age spectrum. He is still running a company in his eighties, a time when most chief executives have long since retired. Likewise, he gained control at the tender age of 22 as a result of the death of his father Sir Keith Murdoch, who had been the dominant figure in Australian journalism for three decades. Although Sir Keith had been head of Australia's largest newspaper group, the Herald and Weekly Times, his actual ownership of newspapers was much more limited. Rupert's inheritance was restricted to one afternoon newspaper in the South Australian capital, Adelaide.
When Rupert arrived at the Adelaide News, television had not yet begun in Australia, geostationary communication satellites did not exist, and of course no one could even envisage the internet. The movement from a single newspaper in Australia's fourth (now fifth) largest city to a multi-media empire with global reach is by any measure a remarkable business success story.
According to the Financial Times Global 500, in June 2012 News Corp ranked 120th among the world's corporations by market value, with a total of $54.2 billion, one ahead of the National Australia Bank. It was the second-ranked media company, behind Walt Disney (ranked 57, value $86.7 billion), and a long way ahead of the third-ranked Time Warner (183), although some other corporations, particularly those classified as IT and telecommunications, have expanded into media areas.
News Corp differed from the other leading global media corporations in two crucial respects. The first was that its roots – and still much of its public profile – lay in newspapers, and so in a medium where politics and the potential for political bias and conflict were ever-present.
The second was that, far more than any of the others, News Corp was the personification of its principal owner, its actions inevitably associated both in the public mind and in reality with Murdoch himself. 'For better or worse, [News Corp] is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values,' said Murdoch in 1996. He stands in direct descent from the most controversial press barons in Anglo-American democracies, such as Britain's Beaverbrook and Northcliffe and America's Hearst and Pulitzer, relishing political power as much as commercial success, ruling internally with an iron fist and externally exciting controversy and gossip.
Murdoch, however, has a presence in several countries and across different media that Northcliffe and Hearst could never have imagined. He is the largest press proprietor in both Britain and Australia. In Australia his titles comprise around two-thirds of daily metropolitan circulation, a concentration of control not matched by any proprietor in any other democratic country. In Britain, he has both the biggest-selling daily paper, the Sun, and the most famous quality title, The Times. In both countries, he is the key player in the pay television market. In the United States his media assets include the Wall St Journal and the New York Post newspapers, one of the four free-to-air television networks, a major movie studio, and a large presence in cable TV channels, including Fox News. In Asia, he has the Star satellite television service (now split into four companies), and he has various holdings in Italy and other European countries. His companies go beyond newspapers, television and film into magazines, book publishing (HarperCollins), pay TV decoders and supermarket inserts.
He renounced his Australian citizenship in 1985 to become a US citizen, prompting New York Times columnist William Safire to refer to him as a symbol of something new: global man, equally at home in Sydney, London and New York. Ironically, at the same time, he is regarded as a foreigner everywhere, and is perhaps in that way as well the ultimate embodiment of globalisation. Most Americans still refer to him as Australian, while in Australia his domination of the country's newspaper industry is even more controversial because he is a foreigner. In England, he was dubbed the 'dirty digger' in the early 1970s, and his Australian-ness is a recurring theme in commentary. British journalist Michael Leapman, for example, thought that Harry Evans, when editing the Times in 1981–82, 'was trying to show Murdoch that he could be as ruthless and spiteful as any Australian'.
Had Murdoch retired a decade ago, he would have been one of the media's most controversial figures because of his journalism and his political entanglements, but seen as an outstanding business success. These themes had been fairly constant since the 1970s, when author Thomas Kiernan judged that his great success in building the London Sun 'cemented his reputation as a brilliant international business and financial manager. At the same time, however, it increasingly drenched him in a self-perpetuating odour of moral and ethical disrepute.'
Since then there have been frequent invocations of both themes. The business achievements are praised: 'no other Australian has had a greater impact on the world business stage' thought former Australian Prime Minister John Howard; 'without doubt the most remarkable Western businessman since the Second World War', judged Channel Four investigative journalists Robert Belfield, Christopher Hird and Sharon Kelly. But the criticisms of his papers' journalism have been equally strong: most spectacularly, the Columbia Journalism Review editorialised that his New York Post appealed 'to the basest passions and appetites of the hour', and thought the matter was so grave that the paper 'is no longer merely a journalistic problem. It is a social problem – a force for evil.' Most bitingly, the British playwright Dennis Potter said 'no man [was] more responsible for polluting the press and, in turn, polluting political life', and famously named the cancerous tumour that was killing him Rupert. Most humorously, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko, who defected to the Chicago Tribune when Murdoch bought his former paper, thought that 'no self-respecting fish would be seen dead wrapped in a Murdoch newspaper'.
So, until recently, the typical judgement might have echoed that of Theodore Kheel, a New York lawyer, who acted both against and for Murdoch. Kheel famously said, 'Rupert Murdoch is very good at what he does. The question is: is what he does any good?' Now, however, the question will also be how good has he been at it? Now the journalistic and political critiques are even stronger, and judgements on business criteria are also more mixed. Several factors have fed the change, but the single most important one was the UK phone hacking scandal.
Rupert Murdoch's world changed forever on 4 July 2011. On that day the Guardian's Nick Davies published an article saying that the News of the World had tapped teenage murder victim Milly Dowler's phone. The scandal had been building – very slowly and far from surely – for almost five years, since August 2006, when News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were arrested for having tapped the phones of members of the Royal Family and their staff. Goodman and Mulcaire pleaded guilty, issued apologies, and in January 2007 were sentenced to prison. But News International portrayed it as the work of a single rogue reporter. However, the investigative work of Davies and the editorial courage of the Guardian; the work by the lawyers for civillitigants, who had been victims of News of the World phone taps; the efforts of some members of a House of Commons committee; and eventually – in contrast to their culpably shoddy work early – the investigations by the London police, all destroyed the single-rogue-reporter fiction.
The Milly Dowler story opened the floodgates. Since then, News Corp has been engulfed in the biggest media scandal in any English-speaking country in living memory. It triggered what veteran journalist and newspaper historian Roy Greenslade called 'the most astonishing 14 days in British press history, with daily shock heaped upon daily shock'. Politicians competed with each other in the ferocity of their denunciations. News International closed the News of the World, and in the face of opposition from all three major political parties abandoned its attempt to raise its ownership of satellite broadcaster BSkyB from 39 to 100 per cent, which would have been the largest deal in Murdoch's history. On successive days, London's chief police officer and one of his deputies resigned. Rupert and James Murdoch were forced to appear before a parliamentary committee, televised live, in what Rupert called the most humble day of his life.
The scandal revealed that Murdoch's London tabloid papers had engaged in phone tapping on an unprecedented scale, had bribed police, were at the centre of a web of political patronage and punishment, and had engaged in a systematic cover-up in which many senior executives lied. By late 2012, when the Leveson Report was published, 90 people had been arrested and were awaiting criminal prosecution, and News International had paid damages in at least 72 civil cases. The Leveson Inquiry, instituted by the Cameron Government to examine the scandal and the issues it raised, held oral hearings for around nine months, and heard from 337 witnesses, including the current prime minister and three of his predecessors, and other political and media figures, before publishing a 2000 page report. Events are still unfolding, and will affect the future of the Murdoch empire.
The scandal will now be central in defining Murdoch's career and legacy. It sharpened previous critiques of Murdoch's journalism and political influence. British Labour Party MP Tom Watson said the scandal showed how Murdoch's company 'came to exert a poisonous, secretive influence on public life in Britain, how it used its huge power to bully, intimidate and to cover up, and how its exposure has changed the way we look at our politicians, our police service and our press'. The grubbiness and amoral cynicism of the journalism, the scale of the illegality and invasions of privacy, the timidity of the politicians, police and others in the face of Murdoch's power more than confirmed what his fiercest critics had believed. In addition, it has thrown a sharp new light on the governance and organisational culture of News Corp, and encouraged a more critical perspective on some of its business strategies.
The continuing fallout from the scandal suggests that in some sense the height of the Murdoch empire has passed. The personal power exercised by Murdoch may have peaked as well, and it is still to be seen how the corporation will adjust to a possible post-mogul phase. This moment of transition offers an opportunity to reassess Rupert Murdoch.
* * *
Unlike most books on Murdoch, this one is structured analytically rather than chronologically, to explore major themes. The second chapter traces the building of his empire, and later chapters analyse his business strategies, his politics, his journalism, his relations with governments, and his road to scandal.
There is no shortage of information about Rupert Murdoch. There are at least a dozen books, many of them excellent, of which Murdoch, or some part of his career, is the central subject. There are also several memoirs and journalistic accounts where he figures substantially. Moreover, there are tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of newspaper and magazine stories, as well as radio and TV programs, which contain material on Murdoch. Unlike some other Murdoch books, this one is not based on interviews or close acquaintance with central figures; it is a distillation of the abundant material already on the public record.
This book aims to examine all of Murdoch's long and varied career: to give due attention to all three countries – Australia, the UK and the US – where he is a major journalistic player, to go up to the British phone hacking scandals and their aftermath, but also to go back decades to probe formative and interesting episodes. It seeks to trace how his political attitudes, his business strategies and his attitudes to journalism have developed.
The first challenge for anyone seeking to analyse Murdoch is the sheer length and complexity of his career. He has packed into one lifetime more conflicts and controversies than a dozen other media proprietors might manage. Journalist James Fallows, reviewing Murdoch's career in 2003, remarked, 'I was surprised to be reminded of how many dustups Murdoch has been involved in.' Any book must therefore be selective. This one concentrates on his politics and journalism, rather than, for example, his entertainment businesses. Even here the range is impossibly large, as Murdoch's journalistic outlets cover many types in several countries. This book focuses on where Murdoch has been most directly involved, and on the areas that best illustrate his priorities and worldview, or have had the greatest impact.
A second difficulty is that despite the richness of what is publicly available, there are gaps, because Murdoch's modus operandi is secrecy. Even though the primary democratic purpose of news organisations is increasing public transparency, and News Corp is a public company, Murdoch prefers to operate beyond public view. He exercises personal control over his empire through telephone and face-to-face conversations, usually without any documentary record, so no outsider has access to these interactions.
Both he and the politicians he deals with are loath to put their dealings on the public record even though these politicians have placed great importance on their relations with Murdoch. He was the first media proprietor to visit David Cameron after he became Prime Minister in 2010, but at Cameron's request he came and went by the back door. Margaret Thatcher often expressed in private her great admiration for Murdoch and gratitude to him: 'Rupert is magnificent.' After she was ousted from the Tory leadership, Murdoch played a central role in the publication of her memoir, through his company, HarperCollins. Despite this, her memoir contained 'not a single reference to Rupert Murdoch'. Similarly, the memoirs of Bob Hawke, John Howard and most other leading Australian politicians make only the most minimal references to their governments' dealings with Murdoch. When Lance Price, a spin doctor for Tony Blair, wrote his memoir about the experience, the book had to get Cabinet clearance: 'The real surprise was that no fewer than a third of [the government's] objections related to one man – not Tony Blair or even Gordon Brown, as I might have expected, but Rupert Murdoch.'
In this book, when important conversations occurred with only Murdoch and one or two other people present that is indicated in the text. Occasionally, however, it is impossible to decide between contradictory accounts. Murdoch had told several people, and affirmed under oath before the Leveson Inquiry, that after the Sun very publicly withdrew support from the Brown Labour Government on 30 September 2009, the prime minister telephoned him and said, 'Your company has declared war on my government and we have no alternative but to make war on your company.' Brown denied that any such conversation occurred, and supported this with the log of his telephone calls from the Cabinet Office. Leveson declined to try to resolve these contradictory claims, and no outsider can do so with certainty.
The single most prolific source of information on Murdoch is his own public statements. But these need to be treated with caution. Murdoch's statements about his intentions or directions have proved an unreliable guide to his actions, although this can be the case with any business figure engaged in takeover activities and keen to confuse his competitors. Neither are his general sentiments a good guide. In 1977, he told More magazine that:
Excerpted from Rupert Murdoch by Rodney Tiffen. Copyright © 2014 Rodney Tiffen. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Murdoch family tree viii
Murdoch company names ix
1 The passing of the Murdoch era? 1
2 Building the empire: From Adelaide to Hollywood and almost to Beijing 17
3 Midas of the media: Murdoch's business strategy 53
4 Midas's lost touch: The business case against Murdoch 75
5 From Lenin to Palim The making of a radical conservative 90
6 The enthusiastic player: Murdoch's early political involvements 103
7 The passionate player: Thatcher, Reagan and beyond 121
8 The dominant player: Murdoch ascendant 136
9 Reaping the rewards: Murdoch and government action 155
10 The market for truth 187
11 The Republic of Fox 215
12 Those who live by scandal 255
13 The roots of scandal 291