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Rupert Murdoch at 90: why the old mogul may have one final act in him yet

Rupert Murdoch close up
The one and only … EPA

To understand why Rupert Murdoch, who is 90 years old on March 11, is still in charge of a global media empire and hungry to keep expanding, it may be instructive to look at the pithy assessment he made of career self-publicist and professional narcissist, Piers Morgan.

Morgan, who walked out of his latest job presenting ITV’s Good Morning Britain in a fit of pique on Tuesday March 9, cut his teeth as a senior executive at Murdoch-owned tabloids the Sun and News of the World in the 1980s and 1990s. He then defected to the Daily Mirror, where fabricated photos of British soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners eventually cost him his job.

Murdoch’s view of his former charge was that “his balls are bigger than his brains”. In other words, Morgan may have been fearless – reckless even – in his editorial decision-making, but he lacked the intelligence to see the possible long-term consequences.

On the other hand, Murdoch’s brains and balls are pretty much the same size – huge.

Murdoch begins

That combination of ruthless ambition and razor-sharp business instincts have seen Murdoch transform the global media industry since he took over his father’s Adelaide-based newspaper, The News, in 1953. Having made a success of the title, he built up a stable of newspapers in Australia and New Zealand before expanding to the UK in the late 1960s with the acquisition of the News of the World and then the Sun.

He later bought into US newspapers, including the New York Post, and became a cheerleader for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He famously went to war with the British print unions in 1986 after adopting technology that needed far fewer printing press workers. By that time, the man known to his enemies as the Dirty Digger was also the owner of the 20th Century Fox movie studio, and on his way to building a global media juggernaut that also spanned television and book publishing with brands such as Harper Collins and Sky.

Murdoch at the Times in 1981.
At The Times in 1981. Keystone Press/Alamy

Yet the mogul who swung elections and had the ear of prime ministers and presidents is now facing an uncertain future in his business life.

Murdoch still controls News Corporation, whose titles include the Sun, the Times, the Australian and the Wall Street Journal, as well as Fox News, and has a personal fortune in the billions of dollars. But he wasn’t able to stay at the top of the media pile. The mogul says that his sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney for US$71 billion (£51 billion) in 2019 – after he also unloaded his Sky interests to Comcast – was not a sign of him retreating from the market but merely “pivoting” to a new position.

Two years on, it’s still not clear exactly what that new position will be. But if Murdoch lives as long as his mother Elisabeth – who died aged 103 – he’s worked out that he has possibly 75,000 working hours left, enough for one more big play.

The final act

A newspaperman at heart, Murdoch will be loath to lose his famous British, American and Australian titles, but he has to find a way to compete without seeming a dinosaur, stuck with the values of previous generations.

And in the background, his six children have a variety of views of the way forward. Among the leading heirs, Lachlan runs Fox News, and is renowned as a staunch neo-conservative.

James, who is more progressive, took much of the heat for the UK phone hacking scandal. He resigned from the News Corp board in 2020 over editorial differences and was recently implicitly blaming Fox for the storming of the Capitol building in Washington. And then there is Elisabeth, a successful global TV executive who has mainly stayed out of her father’s business over the years.

Anyone who has watched the TV series Succession about the trials and tribulations of the Roy family can get an inkling of how a media family with an all-powerful patriarch may operate. The difference is that Murdoch’s finances are in good shape, and the end of a two-year hiatus on dealmaking imposed when he sold 21st Century Fox will give him the chance to revive his legendary dealmaking skills very shortly.

Against that there’s the worry that, at 90, Murdoch may not be quite the man he used to be in terms of energetic acquisitions. He also needs to factor in that it won’t be him but Lachlan who is likeliest to be running things in the future. So how much does Murdoch allow his son to choose potential assets?

With the Democrats now in power in America, will the phenomenally successful but right-leaning Fox News that had President Trump as a devotee continue to lose ratings? And what will be the effect of a US$2.7 billion lawsuit against Fox News for allegedly playing a role in backing the false news that the recent election was rigged? (Fox News points out that its ratings are still ahead in primetime, and it has lodged a petition to dismiss the lawsuit.)

Murdoch, who has just celebrated the fifth anniversary of his marriage to fourth wife Jerry Hall, has never worried about critics and enemies, of course. So it seems unlikely that he will start now. If his past record is anything to go by, 90 may prove to be just another number. Don’t be surprised if the old media titan has one last act in him yet.

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