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15 July 2020

From phone hacking to family dramas: the revelations of BBC Two’s The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty

Come to these films expecting glamour and you might be disappointed. Yes, there are pots of money and at least one yacht, but the juice lies elsewhere.

By Rachel Cooke

Like HBO’s Succession, a drama clearly inspired by Rupert Murdoch and his family, Jamie Roberts’ documentary series about the media tycoon (14 July, 9pm) involves much back-stabbing and ruthless ambition; several loyal but ultimately expendable henchmen and women; pots of money; and at least one yacht. There, however, the similarities end. Come to these films expecting glamour and you might be disappointed. Watching footage of middle-aged media executives arrive at Hayman Island off the coast of Queensland for News Corp’s notorious 1995 conference, I could only gaze in awe at their chewing gum skin, limp ties and appalling chinos. You’d have thought they were attending a pie and pea supper in support of their local Rotary Club, not a make-or-break event on a tropical island belonging to one of the world’s most powerful men.

And who’s this, also blinking in the Aussie sunshine, tufty of hair and big of tooth? Yes, it’s none other than Tony Blair, who began his efforts to seal a deal with Murdoch at the very same extravaganza: as Alastair Campbell reveals, from this point on, Murdoch declared, the two of them would be like a pair of “porcupines, making love slowly and carefully” (until, one assumes, they reached simultaneous orgasm in the form of the Sun’s support for Labour). Roberts’ interviewees are pretty acute about what Andrew Neil, the editor of the Sunday Times under Murdoch, calls the “incestuous” relationship between New Labour and News UK – and of its labyrinthine consequences. Nigel Farage, for instance, believes that by committing to a referendum on the euro before the 1997 election, Blair paved the way for Brexit. (Farage, incidentally, also reveals that he would not have agreed to be interviewed for this series had not Murdoch given him his blessing.) But, however troubling, all this is fairly well-trod ground.

No, the juice, for me, lies elsewhere: in Elisabeth Murdoch’s brilliantly halting deployment of the word “delightful” to describe her former stepmother, Wendi Deng; in the rumoured insistence of Murdoch’s sons, Lachlan and James, that Deng was a Chinese spy; and in the footage of Deng lying on a sun lounger reading Fortune magazine while pregnant with Murdoch’s fifth child, Grace. (Murdoch, looking on, seems to think nothing of this – though I guess it’s not as bad as if her nose had been stuck in Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Divorces.) How delightful to be reminded that Murdoch and Deng’s wedding in 1999 took place on a yacht called (yes) The Morning Glory. Also, that the groom insisted Charlotte Church sing “Pie Jesu” even after it was pointed out to him that this piece is from a requiem, rather than a nuptial, mass. My only hope, now, is that in future episodes, we’ll discover exactly what sort of a godfather Blair has been to Grace (I recall from the six-page spread in Hello! that he “robed” in white for the ceremony on the banks of the River Jordan). What, if anything, does he send her way? Birthday pizzas? Tiffany baubles? Internships at his foundation?

But if Deng exploded like “a bomb within the family”, there were other human landmines scattered about, too. Elisabeth, seemingly Murdoch’s favourite child – or the one most like him – fell in love with the PR, Matthew Freud, who never made any bones about his reservations when it came to his daddy-in-law. And then, of course, there was – there is – Rebekah Brooks, the CEO of News UK, whom Murdoch is said to adore like a daughter, and whose extraordinary survival following the scandal of phone hacking is an enduring mystery that I hope Roberts might also solve for me.

Piers Morgan calls Brooks the most talented journalist he’s ever worked with. (Piers! Didn’t I once interview you?) Nick Davies, the reporter who revealed that the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked by the News of the World, says she can flirt with anyone, turning them to mush. So far in this series, though, we’ve only their word for these things. The woman herself is, as ever, silent as the grave – a mausoleum in which, one presumes, she knows where all the bodies are buried. 

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The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty 

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This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine