In the late 1980s, shortly after Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd had swallowed the Herald and Weekly Times to become the print media behemoth that it is today, I found myself working on the subeditors’ table of Melbourne’s tabloid daily, the now-defunct Sun News-Pictorial.
It was a dizzying, and sometimes exhilarating, introduction to a journalistic culture quite different to that of the Fairfax stable from which I had been lured. This was not least because even the lowliest hack at News could not fail to be aware of the proprietor’s fingerprints on everything that happened.
One of my colleagues, who aspired to win fame as the writer of “Gotcha!”-style headlines on one of Murdoch’s international mastheads such as the London Sun or the News of the World, kept on submitting applications for a transfer. These always bounced back with a curt “no” scrawled across them, so he decided on a more personal approach.
Rupert Murdoch’s sister, Janet Calvert-Jones, had an office in the Herald and Weekly Times building. After storming the barricade of personal assistants shielding her from the world he presented his letter of application and requested that she transmit it to her brother from her personal fax machine. A bemused Calvert-Jones asked if she could read the letter first – “a lot of cranks write to my brother” – but after doing so agreed to send it.
The next day my colleague showed me the reply. The answer, predictably, was still no. But it was not a form letter. His application was answered point for point, and the return fax’s signed conclusion has probably ensured that it is now framed on a wall in his home:
I applaud your initiative in contacting me directly.
Yours, etc, Rupert Murdoch.
The story epitomises what makes Murdoch chillingly different from almost all other media proprietors and, indeed, from most corporate bosses of any kind. He is capable of overseeing grand global strategies while, at the same time, directing his attention to the most trivial of decisions, such as low-ranking staff placements.
That almost omnipresent mind has made Murdoch a unique figure in media history, wielding power far beyond the dreams of the Northcliffes, the Hearsts and other press barons of the past, admired by some but feared by many more.
The image of Murdoch as a man who keeps the big picture in mind while relentlessly sweating the small stuff is also at the heart of the latest study of his career, Rodney Tiffen’s Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment. The book is not a biography in the conventional sense and, indeed, is heavily indebted to previous works by William Shawcross (Murdoch: The Making of a Media Empire), Michael Wolff (The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the World of Rupert Murdoch) and others.
The Murdoch editors, managers and journalists, together with the politicians News has acclaimed or excoriated, who are quoted in those books are quoted again here. Tiffen, arranging his chapters thematically rather than chronologically, has produced a one-stop shop for those who want to know about Murdoch, and if its content is mostly not original it is not less useful because of that.
What makes it a reassessment? The reassessing is not so much Tiffen’s own judgement as his recognition that, enormous though the reach of Murdoch’s global publishing operation, News Corp, and its allied entertainment company, 21st Century Fox, still is, the world has cooled in its attitude to the mogul and has become emboldened in its dealings with him.
Politicians who once declined to criticise him now openly do so. Investors who formerly never questioned his corporate governance now challenge it.
The latter have had more success than the politicians. The separation of the successful entertainment company from a company presiding over declining newspapers is an attempt to appease them. But the Australian-turned-American Rupert Murdoch is on the defensive in a way that he has never been before. He may still bestride the world like a colossus, but the world is shifting under his feet.
The cracks appearing in the Murdoch empire have several causes, not least of which is mortality. Murdoch is 83, and investors are unsure of the family succession, despite the recent elevation of eldest son Lachlan to senior roles in the media empire.
Then there are the well-known problems afflicting print publishers everywhere. The internet has destroyed the old newspaper business model, a new one has not been found, and the alliance between newly separate publishing and entertainment companies may only be the precursor to a more radical corporate divorce.
But above all, the colossus is faltering because of the phone hacking scandal that has destroyed the reputations of so many senior figures in News Corp’s UK subsidiary, News International, and raised disturbing questions about the global leadership of the empire.
Tiffen gives his readers the whole six-decade saga that began in 1952, when Rupert Murdoch, recent Oxford graduate and Daily Express subeditor, returned to Australia to become publisher of the Adelaide News, his share of the Herald and Weekly Times group that had been controlled by his late father Sir Keith Murdoch.
But the book appropriately begins and ends with the phone hacking scandal and the parliamentary and judicial inquiries it has spawned. Rupert Murdoch himself faced a grilling from British MPs over the activities of his editors and journalists at the now defunct News of the World and other UK mastheads. But unlike so many of his underlings, he was able to plead ignorance. There was no proof that he knew what they had been doing.
Those who have worked for him over the years, however, including my former colleague who received that polite refusal of his talents so many years ago, would have struggled to recognise the Rupert Murdoch they knew in the apparently contrite and humble old man answering MPs’ questions.
The Rupert we knew always knew exactly what was going on: the big picture and every gritty detail. That’s what made him the man he is.