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A Pirate’s Life: The Rise and Fall of ‘Murdoch’s World’ | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

A Pirate’s Life: The Rise and Fall of ‘Murdoch’s World’

News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch testifies on Capitol Hill

News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch testifies on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo)

First a couple of Alter-reviews, then Reed:

Last Friday I went around the corner to Symphony Space on the occasion of Theatre Within’s 33rd Annual John Lennon Tribute. I’ve been to a couple of these before, but I don’t recall anything like the terrific line-up they amassed for Friday’s show. To be honest, it could hardly suck, given the material. But it could, and occasionally did, drag, in the middle.  It got off to a really strong start with Teddy Thompson, who will almost certainly grow more and more popular as more people hear him. He’s got a powerful and often beautiful voice and a winning stage persona. I can’t remember what he sang anymore, but I remember hearing it anew. (Each performer, pretty much, did one Beatles song and one Lennon solo song.)  Performances by Dan Bern, Dana Fuchs , Bettye LaVette, Toshi Reagon and Rich Pagano (of the Fab Faux). Lennon Tribute creator and MAD Magazine Senior Editor Joe Raiola followed and were either great or not so great depending on your taste. Since we’re talking about my taste I think things really began to take off again with Steve Earle dong “Cry Baby” and something else and then insanely great performances by Raul Malo (looking like a dead ringer for Lunciano Pavarotti) doing “The Ballad of John and Yuoko” and “Twist and Shout.” Joan Osborne batted clean-up as she says, and funked up the place with Ms. Lavette and left everybody feeling good, though “And So this is Christmas was the lamest of sing-a-long closers one could imagine. Great band too, led by Mr. Pagano.  

The Tribute was produced in association with Music Without Borders and shared its profits with the Spirit Foundations, established in 1978 by John and Yoko as a vehicle to support charities that address “the problems of the aging, abused women and children, and victims of terrorism and natural disasters.”  Theatre Within, meanwhile, is dedicated to “furthering the performing arts as a positive social force through concerts, theatrical productions and workshops.” Look ‘em up here

Speaking of the Fabs, while I don’t think I’m up to Mr. Lewisohn’s Tune In anytime soon—almost a thousand pages and it ends in 1962—and if you feel that way too, you might enjoy, as I am, Philip Margotin’s All The Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release, which is a thumb-through kind of picture and data book for obsessives who don’t have as many blocks of time on their hands but find this stuff endlessly interesting. (It relies on earlier work by Mr. Lewisohn’s research.) It’s a big fat doorstop/coffee-table book with wonderful photos and decently-footnoted stories, pretty-well written and impossible not to like for Beatle-types (unlike at least one other Fab coffee table books published this season).  

And if you’re looking for a book on the history of Israel and the Palestinians, I strongly recommend Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. I would not have thought it possible to do justice to all the competing visions of what the land and the struggle mean had Shavit not done it. I listened to the audio version and it was read beautifully by Paul Boehmer  with a lilting, Israeli-infected baritone.

Now here’s Reed:

Pirate’s Life: The Rise and Fall of “Murdoch’s World”
by Reed Richardson

By all accounts, Rupert Murdoch is not a man given to introspection or burdened by self-doubt. The son of an Australian newspaper publisher who died while Rupert was still in college, there’s little evidence he ever considered anything other than following in his father’s successful footsteps. Yet to think of Murdoch’s global empire as simply the lifelong fulfillment of a second-generation media mogul driven by his desire for wealth and influence would be a mistake. Indeed, in newsrooms of yore, that kind of naïve, overly simplistic narrative probably would have gotten one’s copy thrown back in one’s face by Murdoch himself. Get the real story, mate.

And he’d be right; just because someone isn’t haunted by doubt doesn’t mean they’re not haunted by something else. In Murdoch’s case, the money and power he has accumulated over the decades aren’t the real payoff, they’re merely plot devices in his own personal Count of Monte Christo-like tale of vengeance and vindication. Fittingly for someone who grew up in the antipodes, his is a reactionary existence, one that constantly measures itself against the perceived establishment in London or New York and positions itself in opposition accordingly. His is an underdog’s tale in which there must always be cast a foil or a villain, someone or something that can’t wait to brush him off, lay him low, or cheer his failure. Thus, in Murdoch’s world, no slight goes unregistered, no grudge goes unborn, and no victory goes uncelebrated (often rudely).

This consummate outsider shtick is, to put it mildly, bullshit. Murdoch fils enjoyed a ridiculously privileged childhood growing up in Australia, went on to attend Oxford, and, thanks to his father, hob-nobbed with the world’s rich and powerful along the way. On his first trip to America, at age 19, he visited Hillandale, the country home of the Sulzbergers. That trip culminated with a visit to the Truman White House. Then, at age 20, he accompanied his father to meet the pope. His family was known to entertain Katharine Graham, doyenne of the Washington press establishment. This penchant for conveniently interpreting history is something of an inherited trait, it turns out. His father, Keith, while a reporter during World War I, filed a dispatch from the battle of Gallipoli that accused British officers of intentionally risking Aussie soldiers’ lives while protecting their own. His outrage turned him into a national hero and launched his career, no matter that it mostly turned out to be fiction, as Rupert himself later admitted.

Murdoch’s complicated relationship with his father is the key that unlocks nearly everything he has done in his career, as NPR reporter David Folkenflik makes clear in his excellent, insightful new book “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires” (Public Affairs, $27.99). Not coincidentally, the book opens with a set piece from last year where Murdoch, shamed and shaken, profusely apologizes to the tramautized family of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old English girl whose murder was both tainted and sensationalized by his newspapers’ voracious phone hacking. But even in the midst of his overwrought contrition for a scandal that will eventually sunder his media empire in two, the mask slips; 60 years on, the son still can’t let go of his incessant compulsion for score-keeping:

"Mention of his father seemed to change Rupert’s mood. His shame melted and he found himself repeating a signature complaint that had motivated him throughout his career. My father was a great newspaperman, Keith Murdoch’s son said ruefully in the London hotel room. The British never gave him his due. It was absolutely irrelevant to the people in the room, a strange aside, an echo of old battles called to mind by his father’s ghost that he had summoned unwittingly to the conference."

Folkenflik’s book is mostly an outsider’s view of the News empire, as Murdoch refused to participate and actively encouraged others not to as well. As such, when it comes to in-the-room reporting, Folkenflik acknowledges in an author’s note that he is relying upon his source’s sometime paraphrased recollections of what was said, as the italicized portions above indicate. As far as journalistic flaws go, this one is relatively minor, and the meticulous reporting throughout the book and the 50 pages of endnotes speaks to a high degree of due diligence.

Indeed, Folkenflik’s latest addition to the Murdoch canon stands in stark contrast to the previous entry on bookshelves, Michael Wolff’s 2008 book “The Man Who Owns the News.” Wolff’s account, which primarily focused on the 2007 acquisition of the Wall Street Journal, included unfettered access to Murdoch and stands as a classic example of the dangers of getting too close to one’s subject. For example, the very first sentence of Wolff’s prologue dubiously begins: “Rupert Murdoch, a man without discernible hubris—or at least conventional grandiosity…” But then just a few pages later, Wolff informs the reader that, as the Journal deal was wrapping up, Murdoch gleefully planned an in-your-face marketing campaign aimed squarely at taunting his sworn establishment enemies, the New York Times and the Financial Times:

“One of the ads had the big headline ‘Agent Provocateur.’ Another proposed the idea of pirates—the notion that for more than fifty years the company had been…well, if not exactly outlaws…not literally still…”

In light of the multiple international investigations and criminal indictments of Murdoch’s news executives since then, Wolff’s language here is eerily prescient, even though he either wasn’t able or interested in seeing it. In essence, Wolff’s book fell under the spell of the Murdoch mystique, documenting the very moment when the News empire peaked, but leaving readers without any sense of the coming crash. Folkenflik’s book, on the other hand, looks at an empire in retreat, after the bubble has burst. But there is one broad, perplexing leitmotif that occurs in both Wolff’s and Folkenflik’s exploration of Murdoch: pirates.

Again and again, the terms “buccaneer,” “swashbuckling,” and “pirates” comes up, whether used descriptively by Folkenflik or prescriptively by News editors themselves. For the former, the term helps explain Murdoch’s lifelong pursuit of rapacious acquisition. From the latter, it helps explain how, despite being spread across the world, the many News archipelagoes function with such seamless sensibility. As former London Sun editor David Yelland puts it: “Definitely there’s self-censorship…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 hard to believe, but the book actually makes a good case that whatever influence Murdoch exerts inside the U.S. pales in comparison to his media dominance in his home country. For instance, Folkenflik lays out how Australians are beset by Murdoch’s media reach from cradle to grave. Perhaps not coincidentally, Murdoch’s news ventures—the Australian, the Telegraph, and the Herald Sun—all ranked at the bottom in terms of public trust of media coverage of that nation’s 2013 elections. But clearly not everyone within Murdoch’s pirate chip is fully on board—nobody said the Aussies don’t have a clever sense of dissent.

For the uninitiated, “Murdoch’s World” serves as a worthwhile reminder that there’s far more to the News empire than just Fox News. Nevertheless, the portions of the book devoted to Murdoch’s U.S. entities come across as far less interesting to the reader and, for that matter, Murdoch himself. Chapters on Fox News, for instance, feel a bit stale, even when Folkenflik helpfully revisits his past NPR reporting about Fox News’s right-wing bias during its ostensible “news” portions. For long stretches, Murdoch, a newspaperman at heart, all but disappears from the narrative about the TV network, replaced by his proxy, Roger Ailes. And if you’re anxious to read the hundredth take on Fox’s 2012 Election Night coverage, well, this book has you covered. (Folkenflik has serialized a good portion of the book’s passages about Election Night and Ailes’s notoriously ruthless PR shop on TPM and Politico.)

Similarly, Folkenflik’s discussion of the Faustian bargain struck by the Wall Street Journal six years ago finds some of the more outrageous fears of Murdoch’s impact unfounded. But the idea that he would rapidly reincarnate the paper into a kind of serious person’s New York Post—an oxymoron if ever there was on—was to always miss the point. There’s no mistaking that his “too long, didn’t read” critique of the Journal’s pre-acquisition coverage has clearly taken hold, however. Under fellow Aussie and Murdoch “mate” Robert Thomson, Folkenflik’s sources at the newspaper explain how it has denuded its deep-rooted business accountability coverage while slowly and subtly constricted its supposedly straightforward political coverage to enforce right-wing talking points. It’s worth pointing out that the Journal hasn’t won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting since Murdoch took over. And though the Journal did win last year’s prize for commentary, the Pulitzer Committee’s choice has not worn well, to say the least.

The propulsive force of “Murdoch’s World,” though, is its detailed curation of the myriad immoral, unethical, and illegal actions taken by the editorial and managerial leadership at Murdoch’s U.K. newspapers News of the World and the Sun. Like a thorough prosecutor, Folkenflik weaves together strand after strand of evidence that Murdoch’s British newspapers had devolved into a corrupt, tip-sheet journalism driven by phone hacking and paying off cops. At one point, a former NotW reporter matter-of-factly tells Folkenflik that tips came from “police force employees” before catching himself. Building upon the reporting of Murdoch competitors like the Guardian, Folkenflik makes a compelling case that the rot went on for more than a decade and reached all the way to the top of the paper’s individual mastheads, and likely into the executive suite.  

That such a hands-on owner like Rupert Murdoch, or his son James, a high-level UK News executive, were unaware of the poisoned culture at the News of the World and the Sun is intellectual naivete of the highest order. The reality: the chummy, insular mateship across all of Murdoch’s News empire fueled an almost impenetrable, years-long code of silence, one whose allegiance was not to the truth but merely to mutual enrichment. As Neil Minow of GMI Ratings, a firm that tracks corporate integrity and transparency, explains to Folkenflik: “We have consistently given Mr. Murdoch’s board an F since they first incorporated in the U.S., and that’s only because there’s no lower grade.” Pirates, it should come as no great shock, make better far plunderers than managers.

Murdoch’s greatest trick, particularly in Britain, has been to use the leverage provided by his media empire to convince politicians to enable their own plundering. When viewed through that prism, his newspapers’ seemingly incongruous partisan twists and turns make perfect sense. As Folkenflik points out, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, who enjoyed News endorsement, the Labour Party “softened its stance on media ownership, labor unions, the euro, and other policies dear to Murdoch’s heart.” As for this notion of being Murdoch being an “outsider,” former Blair press aide Lance Price puts that lie to rest, calling Murdoch effectively a cabinet member, “one of only three people other than Blair whose opinion counted in making government policy.”

Murdoch’s stature, though, has taken a well-deserved beating of late. The ongoing criminal investigations of his former NotW editor and News International CEO Rebekah Brooks, his humbling, halting testimony before a parliamentary inquiry, and a scathing report by Lord Leveson all combined to sabotage his bid for full control of the BSkyB satellite network. Following that, the British government recently deemed him “not fit” to own a major media company, which ultimately forced him to cut his empire in two. One half includes his lucrative TV and movie properties—dubbed “Goodco” internally—while the other is mostly comprised of either struggling or tainted newspaper properties—snarkily called “Shitco” by News employees. Though Murdoch still bestrides both entities as chairman, the permanence of the News Corp. legacy that he will bequeath to his children has been thoroughly undermined.

That legacy for the next generation of Murdochs is the final piece of the puzzle to come under Folkenflik’s unblinking gaze. Throughout the book, the undercurrent of his mercurial relationship with his three heirs apparent—sons Lachlan and James, and daughter Elisabeth—makes for a Shakespearean drama all its own. (Murdoch’s eldest daughter Prudence, from his first marriage, expresses no interest in the family business and his two youngest children, from his third failed marriage, are of grade-school age.) Through the years, each of them enjoy their moment in the sun before being eclipsed by their father’s larger shadow once again. Lachlan, the first-born son, long ago gave up trying to prove himself and his ambitions to his father and has retreated to a comfortable life running the Australian News properties. James, damaged the most by the phone hacking revelations, has been all but run out of the company. And Elisabeth has not so subtly declared her independence by citing in a prominent media lecture a critic of her father who once called him a “drivel-minded, global huckster and so-to-speak media psychopath. Rupert Murdoch…Hannibal the Cannibal.”

Nevertheless, at eighty-two years old, Murdoch gamely swashbuckles on. But, as Folkenflik notes in his conclusion, Murdoch’s world is slowly but surely splintering under the weight of a lifetime of unfulfillable grievances and a selfish unwillingness to share the spoils of leadership. Beset by a corrupted, pay-for-news culture and an increasingly anachronistic old-boy network—check and mate, if you will—the old pirate king has fewer and fewer moves left to play.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The Mail
Ivonne Rovira
Louisville, KY
Thank you for your column on Third Way. There’s never a shortage of folks who think that the “responsible” thing to do is coddle bankers and devastate Social Security and Medicare.

David Donnell
Tulsa, OK
Mr. Richardson,

I enjoyed your article about the “3rd Way” and their incessant anti-New Deal drivel, but I am of the opinion that most commentators miss the most obvious fact when making comparisons between the various budgets of yesteryear compared with the now: in sheer numbers our population has expanded (and continues to expand).

I perceive a failure to explicitly mention population growth as an obvious driving factor in government expansion. There are more of us alive “NOW” (and requiring services) compared to “THEN” (be it 60’s, 70’s, 80’s).

For the most part this is a good thing considering the reverse would be a depopulation event (otherwise known as a die-off). Is it possible that the Right Wingers & 3rd way have a vision for an America with less people (but maybe more robots)?

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