British papers may be Murdoch’s next sacrificial lamb
By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.
Soon after Rupert Murdoch moved to Beverly Hills in 1986 to tinker with his new toy, Twentieth Century Fox, his wife at the time, Anna, was asked how she was enjoying Los Angeles. “Well, it’s very different when you don’t own the paper,” she said. In Sydney, London, and New York, Mrs. Murdoch was used to “A” list parties, tables in restaurants at short notice, the best seats for sold out shows. But wives of movie moguls, she fast discovered, were something less than the wife of someone who bought ink by the gallon.
Mr. Murdoch has his own reasons for “owning the paper.” As the scandal that is engulfing his company’s UK arm, News International, is exposing for all to see, he has had little compunction about marshaling his papers to further his interests. Although he is a free-market conservative, he is not concerned so much with party politics as ensuring that government regulations do not interfere with his business ambitions. In Britain in the last thirty years, those who aspired to power have had first to make their peace with him. Those, like Labour’s Tony Blair, who fell in with his plans, performing as the star turn at a management retreat on Hayman Island, Australia, were blessed with benign coverage. Conservatives like John Major, whom he disliked, were subject to ad hominem assaults in his papers.
Now that News Corp’s corporate culture has been shown to have failed to prevent voicemail hacking and police bribery in London, the question being asked on both sides of the Atlantic is, how far did the illegality extend? Hacking at the News of the World was, it seems, matched by sharp practice at The Sun and The Sunday Times. Murdoch’s world turned out to be little more than a free market version of “The Lives of Others.”
Have editors at the New York Post or Fox News, too, been turning a blind eye to bugging phones or paying police for stories? What bargains have been made to keep politicians’ dirty linen from being aired? What grubby secrets have been exposed because their perpetrators failed to tow the line? Above all, is Rupert Murdoch going to take responsibility for this sorry state of affairs?
Many companies are made in the image of their boss, but none more so than News Corp. While Murdoch has been obliged to delegate at his TV network, at Fox News, and at the Fox movie division, Murdoch, a brilliant tabloid journalist, is the true editor-in-chief of his newspapers, as every editor who has worked for him knows – full disclosure: I was an executive at The Times, London, 1992-2004. As Andrew Neil, a dozen years The Sunday Times editor, wrote, “Anybody of importance reports direct to him. Normal management structures . . . do not matter.”
As an aggressive Australian alpha-male, Murdoch does not like editors who have their own ideas. In Britain, editors of The Times and The Sunday Times used to be big beasts of the political jungle, larger-than-life personalities, movers and shakers among the great and the good. Since the Murdoch takeover in 1980, faceless, unquestioning, anonymous beta editors have taken their place, and woe betide those who become well known.
“When you work for Rupert,” explained Neil, “you are a courtier.” He has “a weakness for courtiers who are fawning or obsequious.” Neil, who was “too inclined to become a public personality in my own right,” was eventually squeezed out. Michael Wolff, Murdoch’s biographer, tells the same story. “He tends to hire people who are grateful for the chance,” he wrote. “He never seems to be surrounded by the brightest bulbs, the ‘A’ team.”
In these circumstances, it is hard for Murdoch to adopt Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra defense, that he was not paying attention to what was going on: “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it was not.” Nor does the Henry II line when hearing of the murder of Beckett seem appropriate: “I didn’t mean them to go that far.”
Years ago, Mr. Murdoch appeared to anticipate today’s events. “The buck stops with the owner,” he said, “whether the presses break down, whether there are libels in the papers, or anything else.” Standing down or stepping aside is out of the question.
But having been censured by all sides in the British House of Commons, and in light of his intense dislike of the Brits, it is possible that to stop the contagion spreading to his American properties he will sell his British papers and move on. It is in his nature, despite yesterday’s interview with his own Wall Street Journal where he dismissed the rumors and possibility of selling off his newspapers as “pure and total rubbish.” As his current wife Wendi explained, “He’s not sentimental about things. Most people, if something happens, they feel depressed. He’s like, he feels bad for the day.”