To the LSE last night to hear Murdoch Kremlinologist Michael Wolff discuss what the future holds for News Corp. The answer, according to him, is a world without the Murdochs.
"I think this is the endgame for the Murdoch family's relationship with News Corp," he said. "In the next 90 days we'll see that play out." The chance of the "discredited" James Murdoch succeeding his father as chief executive was "nil", he added.
Wolff, who interviewed Rupert Murdoch at length for his 2007 biography The Man Who Owns The News, predicted that in the near future we would see the "separation of the newspapers from this company". If News International wants to salvage some respectability, he suggested, it should sell the Sun and use the proceeds to set up a not-for-profit trust (akin to the Guardian-owning Scott Trust) to safeguard the future of the Times and the Sunday Times. However, he added, he was reluctant to publicise this proposal. When he wrote in Vanity Fair in 2007 that Murdoch was set to endorse Barack Obama, the News Corp head was so angry that he switched sides to John McCain.
Elsewhere, he dismissed the claim that Murdoch didn't know what was going on at his newspapers as "totally bogus". "Everybody in the company is doing what they think Rupert wants them to do. It all flows down from not just trying to please Rupert but from the way that Rupert wants things done - especially the newspapers."
But for all his criticisms of Murdoch, Wolff retains no little affection for the media mogul. "I like him. Very much," he said. "He is incredibly human, he is a man without pretence. He is a man who's done what he wants to do. There is a warmth. You kind of have to dig around for it a bit. And if you turn around he's going to stab you in the back of course."
He contrasted Murdoch with Conrad Black, who craved approval from the British establishment and was made a life peer. Murdoch, he said, "doesn't need affirmation."
Wolff agreed with the chair Charlie Beckett that Murdoch had had, in some ways, a "positive" effect on the media world, not a popular argument to make in the current circumstances but an accurate one. Murdoch's epic victory over the print unions saved Fleet Street in the 1980s and enabled, among other things, the creation of the Independent. His decision to pour money into Sky was widely derided at the time (News Corp was almost bankrupted) but the company now has 10.3 million subscribers and has changed British broadcasting for the better. Nor, as Peter Wilby has argued in the New Statesman, would a newspaper industry without Murdoch necessarily be cause for celebration.
For all his faults, Murdoch is, to most journalists, a less obnoxious proprietor than the Express owner, Richard Desmond, or even than Trinity Mirror, owner of the Daily Mirror, which cares for little except the profit margin. Murdoch, it has been said, is the last of the great newspaper barons, one who, despite his contentious views of its purposes, genuinely cares about journalism.
Those who long for the day when the sun sets on the Murdoch empire should be careful what they wish for.