Monday, 1 August 2011

Rupert Murdoch, as told to Michael Wolff

Michael Wolff, author of The Man Who Owns The News

We thought we had a chance to “catch our breath and calm down” on this story, began Charlie Beckett from Polis, introducing the US-based writer and journalist Michael Wolff for a special event in conjunction with the Media Society on 28 July. That evening, revelations had emerged of Sara Payne's mobile phone being hacked, just weeks after she had penned a farewell column in the last ever edition of the News of World. This story was far from over, with numerous inquiries launched, investigations started, and resignations – well, many.

Wolff was visiting the UK at a time when the developing phone-hacking scandal has put Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation at the centre of a storm in public life, claiming the careers of its own executives and editors, both current and former, two senior police officers and the closure of an entire newspaper.

Rupert Murdoch - not always hearing what others are saying

Wolff has spent a lot of time with Rupert Murdoch, and it shows. Although The Man Who Owns The News was published in December 2008, his personal look at the world's most influential media mogul will have never been so relevant.

Wolff talked about the sheer longevity of Murdoch, the media mogul who has been a figure of British public life since 1968, far longer than many of the journalists and editors working on his own papers. “Rupert has held power for far longer than anyone else. They come and go, he carries on".

Having not so much been given explicit consent but had never been told “no” when seeking access to the man himself, Wolff told the LSE audience that he simply sought to understand more about a man who “followed his interest and passion and created one of the most peculiar, extraordinary businesses of ever time”. By his own admission, Wolff had secured a role as chief obituary writer when the media magnate eventually goes to the great newsroom in the sky. “When the end comes, I will be the first person they call. So be nice to me” he recalled having told Murdoch.

“How wonderful he's helping you with the book" said Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, Rupert's 102 year old mother. "He's never read one!”

Referring to him as 'Rupert' in the sort of informal, first-name-terms way that's telling of the sort of access he's been privileged to have had, Wolff talked of the Murdoch family in a way that many people probably aren't familiar with. Coming from a family he describes as the “Kennedys of Australia”, Murdoch's own father was a newspaper owner, and his mother, Dame Elisabeth, is still going strong at 102 with a wonderful acerbic humour as Wolff recalls: “How wonderful he's helping you with the book! He's never read one!”.

For those who haven't read it, Wolff's book will undoubtedly be a fascinating insight into the psychological profile of Rupert Murdoch. Wolff talked about a man who displayed somewhat “autistic” traits through his lack of awareness of what is going on around him. Anyone who watched him giving evidence at the recent Culture, Media and Sport committee appearance might have just witnessed a slightly hard-of-hearing octogenarian passing the buck to his son when things got too hard. Yes, there's a hard-headed businessman still present, but in the body of a somewhat more frail and forgetful man than the one who made his first foray into British newspapers in the 1960s.

“He will lose track of conversation mid-sentence. But Rupert loves gossip. Speak to him about specific things or people, and he can respond. He hones in on people's weaknesses”. Some of Murdoch's past editors say he takes a back seat in editorial policy, including Roy Greenslade and Patience Wheatcroft. But according to Wolff, he's far from being hands-off. “Rupert knows everything – everybody is doing things in the Rupert world view” - and especially in the newspapers.

Given recent events, a bright spotlight is shining on News Corporation, and the way its subsidiary, News International, is structured. Newspapers are unsurprisingly Murdoch's first love, and it is through those organs that his businesses have projected their 'brand': The Sun, and The Times for example and until recently, The News of the World. This has shown up Rupert's empire to look extraordinarily incompetent and embarrassed when times are hard. “Rupert's usually good in a crisis. But they [News International] are not good at dealing with issues of trust, credibility and transparency” said Wolff, who drew attention to the highly unusual, personally oriented set-up of Murdoch's business empire.

“They have never felt they needed a public face or a need to justify themselves. From a marketing standpoint, they're a very old-fashioned company, all about controlling monopolies and undercutting the other guy's price”.

But how would Rupert Murdoch feel about the emotional wreckage caused by the News of the World?

“Rupert's a compartmentalised man. He sells tabloid newspapers, and he's very aware of the product he's selling. Phone hacking was not perceived as terribly wrong”.

So far, we'd heard a lot about Murdoch the man, and the politics of NewsCorp. But what of his relationship with senior politicians?

"It was Wendi who told me 'Tony' was one of the people I should go speak with. Within a very short time I was sitting in Tony Blair's office. And it was almost creepy".

“It was a close relationship with Tony Blair – and it was Wendi who told me 'Tony' was one of the people I should go speak with. She would arrange it, and then within a very short time I was sitting in Tony Blair's office. And it was almost creepy. Why was he talking about the Murdochs in this hagiographic way?”.

“He disdained David Cameron, and was convinced by James and Rebekah not to oppose their support of him.” Since those days of easy access to Downing Street – albeit nearly always through the back door - all of the politicians previously courting his attention have now found ethical values. “Or found that Rupert is toxic” proffered Woolf.

At Murdoch's side throughout everything is his third wife, Wendi Deng, a woman who Wolff describes as having “a big sense of humour”. But she's also someone that News Corporation executives and Rupert's children don't like, with her “indomitable presence”.

What's more, “Wendi did not like Rebekah, who had aligned with his children” leaving Rupert in the middle of a “very fraught” family dynamic. We are surprised to learn that he's a hen-pecked husband, dragged along to somewhat unlikely social events with Hollywood liberals by Wendi – hardly his closest ideologues.

Maybe in the midst of tensions within his own family and inner circle, it is unsurprising that the “house of cards” as Woolf calls it, has collapsed. There may well be a separation of the most toxic elements from the company – namely the British newspapers, Rupert's first love above everything else. Criminal inquiries will reach conclusions, things will change. The man at the centre of it all retains an unflinching, unflappable ability to keep his head while those around are losing theirs, a not undesirable quality. As Wolff concluded:

"I liked him – he's without pretence and incredibly human. I related to him as a father”.

Maybe there's more to this media mogul than meets the eye after all.

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