Rupert Murdoch: The man, the myths and a media dynasty which is as strong as ever
The media mogul may have lost out in the takeover battle for control of Sky, but those who know him will be certain that his story is far from over, writes Chris Blackhurst
They say that first impressions often count the most. That is certainly the case where me and Rupert Murdoch are concerned.
I was a young, new journalist on The Sunday Times. I’d been charged with “gutting” an official report into a business deal – the buyer was thought to have covered up the source of his money. It was a big story at the time. I was called to the editor’s office and told, to my shock, that I was not only going to cover the findings, but I was writing that week’s leader.
Just at that point, as the news sank in, the editor suddenly rose. Behind me, a familiar figure had walked, unannounced, into the room. It was Murdoch, the proprietor. He gestured to sit down, and asked what we were discussing.
The editor told him, and explained that it was going to be the subject of an editorial; and that I was putting it together. Whereupon Murdoch turned to me, fixed me with a stare, and asked: “Why does it matter?”
I stammered some sort of reply about the importance of knowing where people’s funding originated – this was well before money laundering became a hot topic. Murdoch wrinkled his face. I was on shaky ground, clearly he did not think it of any importance at all.
Then, another man who was standing in the doorway, who was accompanying him, spoke. He reminded Murdoch that they’d done a deal with the subject of the official inquiry, which had gone sour. Murdoch listened, and nodded. “That’s right, I remember.” He looked at me. “Son, write it as hard as you like.”
Down the years, the memory of that short encounter has stuck. Murdoch was not physically large, but he conveyed immense power. His energy was obvious. He was naturally combative, constantly seeking to challenge.
Back then, the basement under The Sunday Times building in Wapping was a store room. It was full of satellite dishes. Sky TV was in its infancy, and it relied on the newfangled device of a dish rather than the traditional aerial. If I’m honest, I doubt if many of us gave the fledgling venture much of a chance. Terrestrial broadcasting, led by the BBC, was so entrenched in the UK, that the prospect of it being seriously taken on seemed fanciful. Not only that, Sky would have to rely on a pay-per-view model, while the BBC was funded by the government, and by what was effectively a tax in the form of the annual licence fee.
Some 30 years later, Murdoch has sold his remaining 39 per cent stake in Sky to the US company Comcast, in a deal that valued the UK firm at £30bn, and which netted the founder and his family £12bn.
The company statement which accompanied the deal showed I was not alone in my scepticism. “When we launched Sky in 1989 it was four channels produced from a prefab structure in an industrial park on the fringes of west London,” it said. “We bet – and almost lost – the farm on launching a business that many didn’t think was such a good idea. Today, Sky is Europe’s leading entertainment company and a world-class example of a customer-driven enterprise.”
While that hints at the risk Murdoch took – and gives some indication of his resulting emotional attachment to the company, and pride in his achievement – it does not say what Sky also did: transforming English football; rivalling the mighty BBC for news coverage with Sky News; and taking on broadband providers by offering internet services. And as it says, the company spread across Europe, in Italy and Germany. In the process, Sky also grew to become a central component in the Murdoch global empire.
Now, it’s gone. Not only that, Murdoch has previously sold much of 21st Century Fox’s film and TV production assets to Disney in a $70bn (£54bn) deal, leaving him and his family with the Fox sports and news channels, and the News Corp newspaper and publishing businesses in the UK, US and Australia.
That’s still a massive undertaking, and one that would keep most people fully engaged. But Murdoch is not most people. Even at 87 years of age he exhibits the ambition and drive of someone much younger.
There have been signs in recent years of Murdoch slowing down. But it would be wrong to suppose these latest developments will see him signal the end. When he gave evidence to the House of Commons select committee on phone hacking by his newspapers in 2012 the slowness of his answers, containing numerous pauses, shocked many.
Not those who know Murdoch. He’s always spoken like this, particularly in a situation where he is being confronted and put on the spot. His tactic is to buy time, to speak after a considered silence, to be drawn out, and careful.
He is extremely happily ensconced with his new wife, Jerry Hall, 25 years his junior. At a recent party, attended by media and arts folk, their arrival drew the usual sarcastic whispers, along the lines of what does the tall, former supermodel see in the much older billionaire. My wife, who was observing, said it was obvious – they were very much in love, you only had to look at their body language, and their attentiveness towards each other, to realise that.
She had a point: they did indeed appear infatuated, moving away from the crowd to sit, chat and laugh together.
These days, Murdoch is more likely to be found in suburban Richmond, in southwest London, where Jerry has long maintained a glorious home, than in one of the world’s business centres. Early mornings often find him taking a constitutional walk in nearby Richmond Park. But that does not mean the friendly old cove – several journalists have declared their astonishment at seeing the feared media titan strolling along, smiling and relaxed – is not pondering as he goes.
It’s too easy to suppose the phrase “clogs to clogs in three generations” applies to Rupert and his offspring. On the face of it that might appear so – he spends three decades building up Sky, longer where his newspapers are concerned; his progeny are not up to the task of grabbing the steering wheel and pushing the businesses on to even greater heights.
It’s true that they might lack their father’s hunger and clarity of vision. It’s impossible for instance to imagine James, Lachlan or Elisabeth (Prudence, their elder half-sister, is not so business-oriented) having the courage to buy a fading paper like The Sun, and to turn it into the self-styled “People’s Paper”, challenging the orthodoxy every inch of the way. Or being prepared to tilt at BBC News. Or disrupting the established order by forcing up the price of live sports rights.
Neither, though, are any of the three exactly business schmucks. Each has proved themselves to be successful, capable of guiding and leading. They are however very different characters, with specific interests and qualities. Broadly, James is into distribution and technology, Lachlan loves news, Elisabeth is adept at developing new TV content. Ideally, possibly, Murdoch might have hoped for one of them to emerge as a Rupert Mk2, but that has not materialised.
According to Murdoch’s biographer, Michael Wolff, he was desperate for his children to take over – “taking pride of place even over profits.”
It was not to be.
The fact is that with the sales, Murdoch has seen the threat posed by the digital juggernauts, realised he was embedded predominantly in legacy media, as it’s somewhat disparagingly referred to by the onliners, decided it was going to be tough (and get even tougher) to compete – so stayed in the game, but readied to sell up if the price was right.
That moment has been reached, but while it must rankle that his interests have shrunk, he can take satisfaction from the realisation that the price paid is far higher than anyone foresaw. He may be emotionally attached, but price will always win out. Indeed, he can allow himself a wry smile that Comcast may turn out to have overpaid.
Meanwhile, the pressure of combatting the tech behemoths is off, and all he has to do is count his winnings. Murdoch’s situation is akin to that of a poker player getting out while on top. Yes, he may have gone on to chalk up yet more brilliant hands, but equally he may not have been dealt any more. Better, surely, to duck out now, and leave the agony of battle, and watch how the cards fall to the other players in future.
There were opponents – James, in particular, is believed to have been resistant (as he should have been, since it was James’s part of the Murdoch business mass that was being offloaded).
In the end, says Wolff: “It is Hall who is said to have given voice to the obvious: just sell and be done.”
But it’s not as if the Murdochs are quitting completely. Not only do they retain Fox News and their other sports channels and Fox assets (now repackaged in New Fox, to be run by Lachlan), but they have some of the world’s leading print titles with their attendant websites, to be going on with. And bags of cash.
They’re now able to pick and choose what they want to buy, where they want to go. One assumption is that they will bolster New Fox’s presence in sports by purchasing more live TV rights. Another is that they will seek to get back into content creation by making their own programmes for the Fox TV networks. Already, names like Sony Pictures Entertainment and Lionsgate are being mentioned as possible acquisition targets. Or, New Fox might decide to start from scratch and develop its own version of Netflix.
Lachlan takes the tiller at New Fox, answerable to his father. James is going off to pursue other interests – he is a director of Tesla, and a close friend of Matthew Vaughn, the film producer and director, and the possibility of James and Matthew hooking up in business together has been rumoured.
Of course, it won’t be the same, but consider: New Fox alone should generate more than $2bn a year in cash, and that’s without dipping into the proceeds from the sales of Fox’s entertainment and production arms, and Sky. Murdoch and the younger Murdochs, in short, are not leaving the global media stage. Not yet.
It may just be that the sell-offs allow Murdoch to return to his first love: newspapers. He was never that much interested in producing entertainment shows and films. His passion is in power, in the nexus of politics and business – and that is in news. And that means Fox, but it also means newspapers, where he began, in Australia, all those years ago.
In Australia, his newspapers played a pivotal role in the recent putsch against the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, criticising his energy policy. In the UK, his company has moved into news and current affairs radio, adding Talk Radio. Meanwhile, his News UK newspapers continue to enjoy prominence and influence, setting the agenda for TV and radio newscasts.
Trump, though, is a Republican, and a maverick, someone who likes to shake up the established way. In that sense, he is just like the head of the Fox channel – Trump’s favourite and, in turn, a strident supporter of the president – and the newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and New York Post.
Murdoch may have little time for Trump. For all his directness, and for all the cheekiness of some of his titles, notably The Sun, Murdoch remains a serious man at heart, reserving his favour for conviction politicians. But even if Trump does not qualify for praise in Murdoch’s eyes, the media chief still remains a hugely vital figure, right at the centre of the daily cut and thrust surrounding the president.
There is much, then, for Murdoch to relish. A chapter or two has been brought to a close, but the story of Murdoch and the Murdochs is far from over.
Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns and strategic communications advisory firm