Murdoch: a life on the risk frontier

Two very different books come as close as possible to explaining the enigma that is Murdoch and his extraordinary media empire

William Shawcross

These two very different books are by men who have worked for many years for Rupert Murdoch — each admires him very much, and each understands the problems his restless, indomitable energy has sometimes caused.

Each book is excellent and together they come as close as possible to explaining the enigma that is Murdoch and the extraordinary media empire he has built around the world since the early 1950s.

Les Hinton, born in 1944 in a badly-bombed working-class area of Bootle, went with his family on a £12 assisted passage to Australia in 1959, nearly lost his eyesight and fell for the exquisite nurse Sophie with sapphire, sky-blue eyes who tenderly nursed him. His book is as much an utterly charming autobiography as it is an insider’s tale of Rupert Murdoch’s astonishing derring-do, though it happened that he became one of Murdoch’s most trusted lieutenants.

His first job was as a copy boy on the Adelaide News, the first building block of Murdoch’s great empire. One day in 1965, the boss turned to him and said: “Can you buy me a ham sandwich, please?” That was all for the next 15 years but they then made up for it. Hinton finally left Murdoch’s employ 52 years later and he tells a rollicking good tale of his extraordinary life’s journey as Murdoch, with more and more help from Hinton, expanded his newspaper empire in Australia, reached out to London and then across the Atlantic and beyond.

At the end of the 1960s Hinton returned to England and joined the Sun soon after Murdoch bought it and transformed it into a racy tabloid. Hinton writes: “Rupert had come to Fleet Street to tear up the rules. Criticism never seemed to deter him . . . he showed no respect to anyone” — neither those he regarded as of the “British establishment” nor the unions.

The Sun started “soaring away”. Hinton says that its “wild side”, including half-naked young women, was part of the reason.  But it also ran serious stories about politics, economics, education and health. “It was the combination of these two extremes that made it exceptional and successful.” That is still true today.

In 1976, when Murdoch bought and transformed the New York Post in similar manner, Hinton was there, and also when Murdoch bought the Boston Herald.

In America, as in London, “Rupert’s raiders” were seen by many in the US newspaper establishment (and others) as “raucous, reckless and uncouth”. But Murdoch never minded that sort of criticism.

Irwin Stelzer is almost a new boy by comparison — a gifted  American consultant and economics commentator, he has advised Murdoch at close hand for a mere 35 years. His book is more analytical than Hinton’s as he examines what he calls Murdoch’s Method. That method “has enabled Rupert to build his empire to a globe-girdling enterprise with 100,000 employees, a market cap of some $56 billion, and annual revenues of more than $36 billion” in fiscal 2017. But that same method almost brought him down, through excessive reliance on short-term borrowing “and by creating a culture that did not always respect limits”.

Murdoch, says Stelzer, had guiding stars to his methods, most importantly his deference to the opinions of his parents. His father was a famed and stern newspaper owner and editor who died while Rupert was still at Oxford. His mother, Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, a great Australian lady and philanthropist who died only in 2012, aged 103. had misgivings about some of her son’s tabloids and often told him so. He once said that every time she called him with a complaint, it cost him $5 million.

Other guiding stars include his belief in competition providing choice and rewarding the able; in discomfiting an exclusionary establishment, everywhere he went; in keeping his word, which he always did, unlike his rival, the late Robert Maxwell; in the need for his own close involvement in all his companies; in taking risks that others would not take; and in planning to pass control of his empire to his children.

That’s a fine summation by Stelzer.

Indeed, when I wrote a biography of Murdoch almost 30 years ago, he told me that he lives on “the risk frontier” and relies more on his own intuition than formal risk-management techniques. He loves taking chances — he has damaged a knee skiing and lost part of a finger crewing in a dangerous yacht race with much younger men. 

He does not have much time for formal organisational structures, and he  encourages people to “jump the chain of command . . . We are greedy: we want to develop a management technique that gives us the best of entrepreneurial individualism and  the  best of organisational teamwork.”

Stelzer points out that Murdoch “is happiest in the editor’s chair, able to provide information and views he thinks other media ignore. He can also attack those whose policies he thinks wrong — “raising taxes, cutting defence spending, raising the regulatory burden on business, failing to protect its citizens, closing the door to immigrants and otherwise deviating from a generally conservative agenda, spiced with a bit of libertarianism”.

Stelzer praises him for never giving in to pressure to kill stories. But he tells at length the mistakes Murdoch made when trying to gain access to the market in China. In efforts to please the Chinese communist government, in 1994 he pulled the BBC off Star TV, his satellite company broadcasting around Asia, and cancelled publication of the memoir of Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, whom China had vilified. He stated that the reason was that the book was boring, which it was not. Finally he accepted full responsibility for the unnecessary furore, calling it “one more mistake of mine”.

Murdoch has never been frightened of paying well for a property he wants. He was criticised for overpaying for the first newspaper he bought — and has said since then:  “We have ‘overpaid’ for soccer rights for Sky, we have ‘overpaid’ for American football for Fox, we have ‘overpaid’ for Titanic, and for a host of other properties. And it’s a good thing that we did!”

His point was that in all these and other purchases he saw opportunities that others did not. Stelzer wonders whether he will in the end be seen not to have overpaid for the Wall Street Journal, a wonderful property which he stalked for years, and finally acquired in 2009 — and which he has improved ever since.

When Murdoch loves a property, he discards ordinary rules. He has invested millions in the New York Post and in The Times  of London — indeed he is probably the only man who would have kept the loss-making Times alive for so long. When he sought to buy The Times and the Sunday Times in 1981 there was a furore as to whether he was a fit and proper person. His enemies on the Left (especially at the Guardian and the BBC) and in the British establishment fought the sale and imposed restrictions on his ability to control the editorial direction of the papers.

But the owners of the papers, Thomsons, believed that Murdoch was the only person they could trust to keep The Times alive despite the inexorable losses it made. They were right. He had promised to do just that, and he kept his word, just as the wise editor of the time, William Rees-Mogg, predicted he would.

But the whole process rankled him. Three decades later, the former KGB spy in London and subsequent oligarch, Alexander Lebedev, bought the Evening Standard and the Independent, and Murdoch grumbled to Stelzer, “A KGB agent is fit and proper to buy a newspaper, but when I bought The Times, some said I wasn’t.” It is rumoured that keeping his promise may have cost him some £100 million. It is hard to believe that any other proprietor would have done that — and Murdoch has also made sure that it became an even better paper over the years.

Apart from saving The Times, and creating Sky Television — a huge new asset to Britain which competes superbly with the BBC — Murdoch’s greatest gift to this country is probably facing down the corrupt and all-powerful print unions who beggared newspapers. By moving his newspapers to a secretly-prepared new factory in Wapping in 1986, he forced a battle with those printers. His opponents were well organised and vicious but, as Stelzer puts it, with the crucial support of the Thatcher government Murdoch kept his nerve “in the face of enormous political, social and trade union pressure”. He saved not only his own papers, but the entire timid industry — without Murdoch far fewer newspapers would have survived to fight the existential war with the internet in which they are perforce engaged today.

Stelzer quotes the late Brenda Dean, a powerful union leader at the time of Wapping, who told him later that “during the fraught negotiations, which ended in total defeat for the union, Rupert had kept every promise he made. High praise from a defeated adversary.”

Hinton points out at the end of his book that Murdoch’s “had been the biggest and best media company ever created — or the heart of darkness, depending on your point of view”. Neither Hearst nor Beaverbrook, nor the Northcliffes and Rothermeres, had come close to having so many newspapers in so many places around the world — in three continents in fact. And no other television operation had such a global spread — from Australia, to Britain, to the US and beyond. 

But in July 2011, the Guardian’s appalling disclosure that the News of the World had hacked the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler, almost brought the whole edifice, the 60-year creation of Murdoch’s unique personality, crashing to the ground. Murdoch summoned Hinton from New York to help. When Hinton arrived at his London apartment, Murdoch, looking shattered, said: “This is the worst day of my life.”    Hinton writes: “ I had never seen him so distressed; he seemed almost on the edge of panic.”

Hinton had been running News International, the parent company in Britain, when phone hacking took place at the News of the World. “I was not responsible for, nor had I known about, the secret pay-offs to victims the company had later made . . . But hacking had happened — in the time-honoured, quitting letter phrase — ‘on my watch’.” He resigned.

The hacking crisis, writes Stelzer, “threatened the very existence of the Murdoch empire . . . because the [Millie] Dowler case was such an insult to everyone’s sense of propriety, because the subsequent legal problems might result in criminal action against the corporation in America, and because the hacking might induce the regulators to strip Sky of its broadcast licence”.

The horror of it allowed all Murdoch’s many enemies, particularly in the Brownite wing of the Labour Party, to pounce upon him and his company.  Gordon Brown declared in parliament that News Corp had “descended from the gutter to the sewer . . . The tragedy is that they let the rats out of the sewer . . . they marched in step, I say, with members of the criminal underworld.”   Such attacks surprised Hinton, who knew Brown quite well and writes that in many conversations at private dinners or at the theatre Brown “never once hinted” at such concerns about Murdoch’s papers.

Hinton was called three times before the Commons Culture Committee, whose Labour  members, led by the bruiser Tom Watson, were desperate to prove he had lied to them. The committee did so accuse him,  but Hinton counter-accused them of being in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Eventually parliament conceded it was wrong — he had not lied.

Each man tries to sum up the costs and benefits of Murdoch’s fiery trajectory and extraordinary media creations. Stelzer acknowledges that  “observers reasonably differ on how to balance the virtues and vices” of the Murdoch empire . . . In my view the Murdoch Method has conveyed net benefits to society that outweigh the not inconsiderable costs it has imposed, primarily on the culture.” For others, “Rupert’s effect on the culture and on the way news is reported make them wish he had not been as effective . . . as a change agent.”

For Hinton, Murdoch’s “60 years of success and tough tactics yielded for him a bitter harvest of enemies. To the bitterest, he was a scabrous plundering capitalist debasing cultures across the world . . . But the Rupert Murdoch they hated was a hallucination, a virtual devil, a crowd sourced apparition created to be the object of all their rage and grief about big business, great power, global inequity and everything else they saw wrong with the world.”

I agree. The extent of the loathing that Murdoch has attracted, particularly among British intellectuals and others on the Left, is grotesque. For nearly 70 years he has created businesses and jobs — hundreds of thousands of them — all over the world.  Some of his papers, like the Sun and the New York Post, have shadowed his views. Other groups, like The Times and the Sunday Times and the Wall Street Journal and Sky News (a magnificent creation) are totally independent of him.

Some journalists and some editors have found him difficult to work for — but, as far as I know, he has always been generous — even to those who continually attacked him after leaving his employ. There are many people, in and out of Newscorp, who testify to huge kindnesses from him.

It is easy and always seems to be fashionable to attack tabloid newspapers, but they are an essential part of a free press, and I happily concede that the Sun has long been my favourite tabloid. Nonetheless, the excesses of phone hacking were unforgivable — and Murdoch acknowledged that himself in testimony before Parliament and elsewhere. He created new safeguards to prevent such abuses thereafter.

Above all, Murdoch has always had clear ideological commitments, some of which are hated on the left. He believes — rightly — in the vital importance of Western civilisation to human freedom and in the need for the United States and its Nato allies to defend that, in extending liberties in society and curtailing bureaucratic power (which has always made him suspicious of the European Union), in absolute support for Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. In his own life, he has believed in taking huge risks, cherishing his children, and keeping his word. He will be missed.

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