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19 April 2022

Time for Rupert Murdoch to trade his empire for a legacy

If the media mogul wants to salvage his reputation, why not set up a trust to preserve his newspapers?

By James Ball

Earlier in April we learned that Joe Biden – the man who serves as commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military – apparently considers Rupert Murdoch the “most dangerous man in the world”.

It’s something of a jarring choice, given that as president Biden needs to contend with the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Unless he’s covered it up very well indeed, Murdoch isn’t in possession of a military or weapons of mass destruction, and hasn’t been involved in any genocides to date.

That’s not, of course, to suggest he’s harmless. In the UK the Sun, particularly under the editor Kelvin Mackenzie, was blatantly racist and homophobic, and famously smeared the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy – an act for which it has (understandably) never been forgiven in Liverpool, despite multiple apologies from the newspaper.

More recently, the Sun’s former sister newspaper, the News of the World, was deeply embroiled in the phone hacking scandal, which led to its demise. Having previously insisted that phone hacking was merely the act of one rogue reporter, News UK now insists phone hacking was restricted to one rogue newspaper – despite paying £50 million or more each year in settlements (admitting no wrongdoing) and legal fees tied to claims of phone hacking at the Sun. No claim relating to the Sun has ever been allowed to reach court.

But it’s the US operation that attracts the real ire for Murdoch, despite his custodianship of titles such as the Wall Street Journal remaining uncontroversial. Murdoch is the owner of Fox News, which is widely seen as a dangerous pollutant to US politics, a vehicle pushing QAnon-style conspiracy theories and a purveyor of misinformation.

It is also – largely thanks to, rather than in spite of this – the most trusted news source in America, due to its dominant place in conservative media. Fox News is the most watched cable news network, and often beats even network TV in primetime. It is a juggernaut that only its owner could stop – and Murdoch has shown no intention to do so.

What really starts to worry people is the idea that Murdoch uses his publications, both populist and elite, to influence politics. That is undoubtedly where Biden’s concern stems from. But a look back over recent media history reveals that people tend to get Murdoch wrong: he has absolutely used his newspapers to help him gain political leverage, yes. But that leverage was almost always about fuelling his business interests, not the other way around.

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Murdoch used to own the majority of Sky, as well as US TV networks and movie studios. News was the most visible part of a vast media empire that often needed help beating antitrust laws or other regulatory hurdles – and influence was certainly directed towards those ends, with Murdoch securing valuable support from Margaret Thatcher in bypassing the Monopolies and Mergers Commission when buying up his papers, while Tony Blair allegedly rejected a public inquiry into the Hillsborough tragedy so as not to offend Murdoch. But that is no longer the case. Murdoch has sold off everything except the newspapers, the publisher HarperCollins and Fox News.

And now that he is in his nineties, nearing the end of a seven-decade career in media, there is the opportunity for him to do something a little different.

Biden and co don’t have to worry as much about Murdoch seeking to use his news outlets to gain advantage for the rest of his empire. The rest of the empire is gone. If anything, the 91-year-old seems to be looking for a legacy. He has, after all, bought TalkRadio, launched Times Radio, and has a Piers Morgan-fronted TV proposition along the way. It’s not about money any more – it could be about prestige instead.

Murdoch’s short-term legacy is likely to be a tarnished one, but in the long run he has a chance of salvaging the Murdoch name. After all, Alfred Nobel might be remembered as the inventor of dynamite had he not also endowed his prizes, and Joseph Pulitzer would be thought of – if at all – as the proprietor of infamous “yellow journalism” tabloids if not for his own awards.

So here’s an idea for the media mogul. Rupert Murdoch’s children have their billions to hand, thanks to the sale of most of the media empire. There are still profitable bits of the company left, in the form of Fox News and other assets. The newspapers, though, are not the cash cows they once were; taking complete ownership and control would not be that expensive a proposition.

CP Scott was the Guardian’s most famous editor, but he was also its owner. When he died, he endowed the newspaper as a not-for-profit trust (allegedly partly for tax reasons), which bears his name to this day and still owns the Guardian.

So why not establish the Murdoch Trust, give it an endowment, and choose which papers he would like to preserve: the Times and Sunday Times (doing some of the UK’s best investigative journalism)? The Sun? The Wall Street Journal?

The move is more possible than it has been at any time in his lifetime – and could be the legacy Murdoch is after. It might not change how the Murdoch name is viewed next year, or even next decade, but what about in a century’s time? It has, after all, worked before.

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