After one of his semi-regular visits to Australia, News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch recently let forth with a series of Twitter pronouncements covering Labor’s problem with unions, the need for a free trade agreement with China, the deadlocked Senate that is making Australia “ungovernable”, and the natural beauty of the Great Barrier Reef (which was cover for a dig at the Greens).
Murdoch is nothing if not a prolific tweeter. But why does he bother?
As the head of News Corp and 21st Century Fox, Murdoch has more media outlets at his beck and call than anyone. His editors famously either intuit or are told what he wants published and act accordingly. He has more reach than any single individual on the planet. And he uses it.
So, why would a man with so much media power at his fingertips, and political power on three continents to match, choose to expose himself to the raw landscape of the Twittersphere?
It’s a question that has exercised at least one of his biographers. Michael Wolff has said Murdoch uses Twitter to “express himself”, which really doesn’t explain why a global news organisation isn’t satisfying enough.
To anyone familiar with his newspapers and TV networks the views Murdoch expresses on Twitter are not surprising. It appears he is not “expressing” anything different on Twitter.
In the past week Murdoch has tweeted in support of Ben Carson as the potential Republican US presidential candidate, drug threats faced by rural communities, and the political situation in Australia. His news organisations comprehensively covered all of these topics and apparently represented his viewpoints accurately (pro-Carson, anti-drugs, pro-Tony Abbott).
So it’s clear Twitter serves a different purpose than simply allowing Murdoch to express a personal view. Nor is his use of the social media network about engaging directly with other users. His responses to specific tweets are rare – he uses it as a broadcast medium.
Murdoch has 609,000 followers on Twitter, which is tiny in the context of News Corp’s global audiences. He follows 110 people. Social media conversation is not what he is interested in.
Murdoch’s use of Twitter may be far more revealing on a personal and sentimental level than has previously been recognised.
In 2008, Wolff wrote:
Murdoch, at 77, can’t use a computer, doesn’t get email, can’t get his cell phone to work properly, can’t even imagine changing the variables on a spreadsheet.
Some of that, at least, is simply wrong.
While it is true that Murdoch isn’t a digital native, he has always demonstrated a hands-on approach to technology that pertains to the media industry. Whether that is sub-editing copy onscreen for early editions of The Sun, running printing presses during the Wapping strikes of the mid-1980s or tweeting from his iPad, he knows how to use the tools.
In November 2005, at a small gathering of News Limited editors in Adelaide that I attended, Murdoch said:
When I get up in the morning I check the news from all over the world. I am constantly amazed by the rich variety of offerings on the web.
This was at a time when News was gearing up for a digital fight with its competitors. Murdoch said very clearly that day that he wanted News to be at the forefront of digital publishing:
It’s where our audiences are moving to. And it’s where we have to be.
This is a man who has always led from the front. Murdoch is far more comfortable with technology than his legend would have us believe. And yet, something is odd about his use of Twitter.
For one thing, Murdoch’s style is unfamiliar to modern readers. Twitter is defined by its 140-character limit. But he uses this restriction to pack description via adjectives and terse use of verbs into the available space and make this relay his meaning:
Why should we be surprised at the incisive use of language? Murdoch has always identified as a journalist. He is, after all, the son of a celebrated journalist. But Twitter’s 140-character limit lends itself to a wonderfully eloquent and antiquated style of writing: telegraphese.
Rupert’s father, Keith, would instantly recognise his son’s tweets as exactly the sort of writing employed by journalists sending breaking news reports by telegram.
From the battlefields of the US Civil War to Murdoch senior’s own reporting from the Dardanelles in the first world war, telegraphese was the essential mode for journalists.
And that is how Rupert tweets, as if he is reporting to the world and paying for each word. The only thing missing is the characteristic “STOP”. If we were to add that into the above tweet the effect is immediate:
2 stories STOP Carson, Detroit ghetto to brilliant neurosurgeon STOP Obama white upbringing to community organizer STOP Sincere men, different values
In Rupert’s dotage, it seems the son is reliving the father’s glory years as a global correspondent.