Book review: Breaking News – Sex, Lies & the Murdoch Succession

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch on his ‘most humble day’ before a British parliamentary inquiry into phone hacking. Paul Barry’s new book delivers an insight into his rise and recent troubles. EPA/Press Association

The best lines in investigative journalist Paul Barry’s new book - Breaking News: Sex, Lies & the Murdoch Succession - are supplied by Lord Conrad Black of Crossharbour, that connoisseur of corporate integrity once imprisoned for fraud and recently barred from holding company directorships in the United States.

Formerly owner of London’s Daily Telegraph and of a controlling interest in Fairfax, Black watched his long-time rival Rupert Murdoch appear before the House of Commons Culture Committee to answer for the phone hacking scandal, and knew what he saw.

[Rupert’s] old possum routine…Bumbling into a parliamentary hearing…supported on each arm like a centenarian semi-cadaver, mumbling about humility.

Such was Black’s assessment of Murdoch’s now widely-lampooned statement that “this is the most humble day of my life”.

But was it humility, in fact, that Murdoch was seeking to express? Or was it a statement with as many meanings as a listener cared to read into it? Murdoch is a master of the English tongue and masterful in creating ambiguity of just this kind. Could he have been saying it was a day on which he found himself in a more demeaning position than ever before? Or did he mean “humbling”, which might have indicated remorse? Or “humiliating”, which might have indicated a sense of shame?

No. Murdoch chose “humble”, which conveyed the impression of humility but not necessarily the substance.

A few months later Murdoch told his journalists on The Sun that the whole police investigation into their bribery of the police to obtain information was “laughable”, “outrageous” and “over next to nothing”.

Here Murdoch was talking to a different audience. These were people who were in danger of losing their jobs and perhaps their liberty as a result of corrupt behaviour at his newspaper. He avoided acknowledging any responsibility for their crisis, but clearly sought to create an impression of solidarity.

To these two performances, there was a common thread: avoid responsibility, but create impressions suited to the occasion, even if they are contradictory.

Contradictions like this seem not to bother Murdoch. He is willing to tell people whatever he thinks it is in his interests to tell them, regardless of truth or logical consistency. Through this book, a picture emerges of a man with a disordered personality, so obsessive about business success that norms of civilised behaviour, the processes of reason and his treatment of people - including his children - are ruthlessly subordinated to it.

Murdoch even contrives at one point to present himself as a victim of the hacking scandal, a delusional inversion of the truth if ever there was one.

Barry writes at one point about there being two Ruperts - the charming Rupert and the cynical Rupert. The evidence of the book suggests that there is in fact only one: it is the cynical Rupert, and the charm is cynically deployed in order to help him advance his business interests.

Barry’s book has three main benefits. First, he untangles the numerous inquiries, case histories and court cases arising from the hacking scandal, and sets them out in a coherent fashion. This makes the book a valuable reference and summary.

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The book also keeps public attention on the criminal wrongdoing at Murdoch’s British newspaper operations. This serves the public interest.

Finally, it helps us see with greater clarity the real nature of Murdoch’s power. He has the power to destroy lives. He uses it unscrupulously to intimidate people in public life so that his business or political interests are advanced, or to take revenge on people he sees as enemies.

The impact of his use of this power to target individuals is clear-cut: we can see the victims of the hatchet jobs, we can see what happens to their lives. Harder to quantify is the extent of Murdoch’s power to alter political destinies or achieve political objectives beyond the field of his own business interests – media and communications. The impact of this power is questionable, as has been demonstrated by another valuable book, Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power, by author and academic David McKnight.

Murdoch trades on the idea that he can make and unmake governments. In fact, history tells us he is adept at picking prospective winners and then backing him or (in Margaret Thatcher’s case) her.

Whether his backing makes any difference is a moot point, but politicians clearly think it does. Kelvin MacKenzie, a former editor of The Sun, is reported by Barry as having said:

The most incredible aspect I have seen in my lifetime is the queue of politicians lining up to kiss Rupert’s backside.

So there are strong reasons to welcome this book, even though the amount of new material is limited. Part one is a brief Murdoch biography. Part two consists of extended profiles of the three Murdoch children who are involved in the business and seem destined to be part of the succession, and part four gives an account of the recent division of the empire in which the loss-making newspapers were hived off from the profitable broadcast operations.

The book’s real strength is in part three. This is where the entrails of the phone hacking scandal are laid out, and where Murdoch’s capacity for manipulation and treachery is most vividly on display.