Rupert Murdoch saved the British newspaper industry – but at what cost?

Working under Murdoch in the 1990s, I realised that he didn’t want to dominate the world – he just wanted to play with it.

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Rupert Murdoch at 87 ranks among the world’s most successful businessmen. He has built a global media empire of unparalleled extent, and he is still going strong. Since his stock-in-trade is information, opinion, influence and entertainment, he has been admired, feared and reviled. He has seen off detractors and defied biographers, who either succumb to his charm or resort to apoplexy.

Apart from Murdoch’s own family, Irwin Stelzer is virtually the only courtier to survive in the billionaire’s retinue, almost throughout his career. An academic economist, Stelzer is the kind of intellectual tycoons like to have on hand, flattering their egos and ready with the occasional quote.

His loyalty is absolute. If Murdoch crashed, I am sure Stelzer would be there on the windy heath, playing Fool to the great man’s Lear. He has now written the case for Murdoch’s defence, which he says is “unauthorised”. It hardly needs to be, but it scores some deft blows.

Murdoch’s riches-to-riches saga is well-known. He was sent to Geelong school in his native Australia and then Oxford, where he felt an “outsider”, ran for the Labour club committee and had a bust of Lenin in his room. When he was 22, his father gave him a tabloid newspaper in Adelaide and he spent a decade making it pay. His downmarket methods so appalled his mother that, in 1964, she shamed him into founding Australia’s first serious national newspaper, the Australian. He has sustained its losses ever since. From the start, a running theme of Murdoch’s career has been a battle between vulgarity and respectability. 

By 1968 Murdoch was rich enough to come to London and play the big time. He tried to buy the Daily Mirror and found himself with the News of the World and the ailing Sun. He galvanised them both and struck gold. Yet he was ostracised from “society”, largely for publishing Christine Keeler’s lurid Profumo memoir. He adorned the Sun with topless girls – the idea was his editor Larry Lamb’s – and doubled its sales in two years. He was treated everywhere as a crude antipodean, and mauled outrageously by David Frost on television. Murdoch left for America in a huff, contemptuous of the pomposity and hypocrisy of the British establishment. But he kept his papers.

In America, Murdoch founded the scurrilous National Star and bought the New York Post, which lost much of what the Star made. In 1981 he could not resist revenge, returning to Britain to buy the establishment’s Times and Sunday Times. Driven to distraction by the print unions, in 1986 he undertook the biggest gamble of his career, moving his entire British print works to Wapping in London’s Docklands, computerising the production process. Every other proprietor – and indeed a group of staffers on the Times – had dreamed of doing this. But no one offered Murdoch a word of support, until he won.

Within months, the whole of Fleet Street followed suit. As a result, a declining industry was transformed. While papers were closing across Europe and America, Britain enjoyed a decade of new titles, rising sales, soaring pagination and a boom in journalism. One of the founders of the Independent, Andreas Whittam Smith, admitted that it owed its existence to Wapping.

The experience further fuelled Murdoch’s loathing for “the system”. Despite being born with a silver spoon – perhaps because of it – he was obsessed with “us” against “them”. He called his tabloids “popular” papers, and his broadsheets “unpopular” ones. Stelzer has him deriding one of his columnists for winning a Pulitzer Prize. The feeling was mutual. He said he never wanted to be a press lord, so the system leaked that he had been proposed for an honour and been deemed “unfit”. One of the many ironies about Murdoch is that so much about him should appeal to the left – perhaps a reason that it cannot stand him.

The establishment continued in his sights. He founded Sky to compete with the BBC/ITV duopoly – and has underwritten Sky News’s losses ever since. In America, Fox TV was an assault on the NBC/CBS/ABC oligopoly. Fox News was founded to undermine what he regarded as America’s liberal media stranglehold. When it boasted its coverage was “balanced”, the word was altered to “balancing”. Murdoch was so obsessed with the power of the New York Times he stalked the Wall Street Journal relentlessly, paying twice what it was worth when he got it in 2007.

There were spills aplenty along the way. Murdoch’s Chinese Star TV proved a fiasco. Attempts to break into this burgeoning market saw him shamefully exclude the BBC from its satellites, fearing it would upset the regime. He got his comeuppance when in 1993 he boasted that his satellites were “an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere”. The boast was directed at Russia, but Beijing thought otherwise and was “incandescent”. Murdoch was eventually eased out and lost a fortune.

Murdoch misread the digital revolution. He bought Myspace in 2005 for $580m, but then allowed it to be knocked sideways by Facebook. Myspace peaked in value at an astonishing £12bn in 2007, but was sold four years later for $35m. Perhaps understandably, Murdoch came to despise the duopolistic “content thieves” of Google and Facebook. Having spent a lifetime seeking to dodge regulators, he found himself lobbying for them to intervene.

Stelzer’s search for “method” in all this is half-hearted. It is reminiscent of Talleyrand on Napoleon’s strategy: whatever opportunity is offered by what he did last. Working for Murdoch in the early 1990s was an exhilarating but eerie experience. Those with whom he “fell in love” would find him kind, generous and a good listener. He was a natural tabloid journalist – sub-editor rather than writer –with none of the bombast of a Hearst or a Beaverbrook.

He hated corporate bureaucracy, loathed committees, consultants and strategy – an aide said he regarded them as “corporate masturbation”. He was always trying to leave meetings. His greatest virtue was decision – intuiting that a bad decision was better than none at all.

Murdoch mostly honoured the “editorial non-interference” conditions of his ownership of the Times, in contrast to his direction of the Sun and the New York Post. Of the latter he would say, why own a paper if you can’t edit it – which left open the question of why he wanted the Times. As every editor knows, the great interferer is not policy but money. When I was at the Times in the early 1990s the paper was losing money and Murdoch was facing bankruptcy. He blitzed it with staff cuts and price rises – and complaints when the circulation dropped. It was the price a free press pays for capitalism’s charity.

Murdoch was a poor people manager. Turnover at News Corp was high and Stelzer remarks on Murdoch’s cowardice in always getting minions to fire even old friends. His staff reacted in various ways. I remember standing on a Colorado street during a get-together and asking the Fox studios wunderkind, Barry Diller, how he was getting on with Murdoch. He replied by borrowing a Harley-Davidson and roaring off up a local mountain, telling me afterwards that he needed to scream “Fuck Murdoch” into the sunset. I gather they are still on good terms.

I am sure Stelzer is right that Murdoch’s fascination with the media is not just a matter of money, or the classic media mogul’s fixation with power. His motivation is complex, psychological as much as politico-commercial. Above all, says Stelzer, he is addicted to risk, always “seeking the next oil well to drill”. When in 1989 he was in London hunting both the Financial Times and the publisher William Collins, I pointed out that the government would not let him buy the first, and he did not want the second, as he had once said, “Publishing is a job for kids in attics.” He lost the first, won the second, and loved every minute of it. It was the thrill of the chase.

I doubt if Murdoch ever desired to dominate the world. He just wanted to play with it. His politics were an unsophisticated bundle of mostly conservative prejudices, which he was happy to argue and even concede. He hated his papers boasting: he “bollocked” the Sun’s then editor Kelvin Mackenzie for the headline, “It’s the Sun wot won it”, in 1992.

Murdoch has been almost whimsical in his favourites, variously backing Wilson, Heath, Thatcher and Blair. Some Murdoch papers were for Leave in the EU referendum, others for Remain. In 2010, he liked Gordon Brown and was upset when his son James Murdoch, who was running the Sun at the time, went for David Cameron. He tolerated embarrassment from Fox News, defending it as much for its disruptive populism as for its neocon rants. He did not tamper with the legally required impartiality of Sky News.

Stelzer is clearly upset by Murdoch’s inability to define the obligations of those who own media outlets. At one point Murdoch declared that “anybody who, within the law of the land, provides a service that the public wants, at a price it can afford, is providing a public service”. Stelzer retorts that there are “externalities” to the media’s “service”. They include “the special responsibility of a media company to truth and decency”.

This concept of responsibility constantly gnawed at Murdoch. His mother, Elisabeth, would constantly phone to deplore some vulgarity. “Every time she calls,” Murdoch said, “it costs me $5m.”

He was not beyond being shocked at what was done in his name. He sacked an executive for staging a striptease at his annual beano in Aspen, intended to show that audiences will always watch sex before seriousness. I was in the audience and we did watch, but Murdoch was furious. He eventually rid himself of the Sun’s page three girls. For all that, he gave his tabloids free rein in their muck-raking and intrusion, until they came back to hit him in the hacking scandal, leaving him grovelling and diminished before a Commons committee.

Like a mischievous child, Murdoch seemed to revel in disrepute – and then be peeved at the response. He loved the loss-making New York Post “for the thrill of owning a paper in New York”, despite an alleged refusal by Bloomingdale’s to advertise, because “your readers are our shoplifters”. He loved it because smart New York hated it.

More telling have been Murdoch’s efforts at reputational rescue. Apart from subsidising the Times and the Australian, he gave generously to his old university, Oxford, even mooting the possibility of a college named after him. He sustained the TLS, New York magazine and Village Voice. Contrary to what Stelzer says, he did start a Sunday Times book section – I edited it – despite being warned that it would get no ads. Asked its purpose, he replied, “So I don’t have to read the books.”

Stelzer finally portrays the Murdoch empire not as world-ruling but as dynasty-bridging, a link between his parents, himself, and his offspring. His family is his obsession. But all empires decay as they grow. Murdoch has recently divided his domain (as did Diocletian) between his sons, Lachlan and James. But division did not save the Roman empire. Only one chapter of the book, on Murdoch’s niceness and generosity (to Stelzer) is oleaginous. Otherwise he gets a qualified bill of health: that the “net benefits to society outweigh the not inconsiderable costs”.

Since Stelzer quotes Gertrude Himmelfarb on the costs as “the coarsening of the nation’s culture and the trivialisation of morality itself”, the term “not inconsiderable” might be thought an understatement. There is also the considerable cost of Fox’s support for Donald Trump.

I would give Murdoch more limited credit. I have no doubt that the Wapping revolution is why London still has eight daily newspapers, more than any comparable city and as many as when Murdoch arrived in the 1960s. For that, I will take a dollop of coarsened culture. 

Simon Jenkins is a former editor of the Times and the Evening Standard

The Murdoch Method: Notes on Running a Media Empire
Irwin Stelzer
Atlantic, 320pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right