During Tuesday’s parliamentary hearing, News Corp. CEO and Chairman Rupert Murdoch rope-a-doped his way through dozens of questions about the phone-hacking scandal. Questions he couldn’t rope-a-dope, he deflected to his corner man, son James.
But Murdoch was eager to punch back when the questions interested him. About a fourth of the way through the three-hour-plus session, MP Jim Sheridan asked whom he blamed for the closure of News of the World and the collapse of Murdoch’s bid for the 61 percent portion of satellite broadcaster BSkyB that he doesn’t already own.
Perking up, Murdoch said:
A lot of people had different agendas, I think, in trying to build this hysteria. All our competitors in this country formally announced a consortium to try and stop us. They caught us with dirty hands and they built the hysteria around it.
It sounds like a paranoid’s ravings, but Murdoch is absolutely right about the existence of a consortium of competitors. Executives representing the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Daily Mirror, the BBC, Channel 4,and the BT Group came together in October 2010 to lobby regulators against Murdoch’s BSkyB bid. Their letter stated, “We believe that the proposed takeover could have serious and far-reaching consequences for media plurality.”
The Financial Times didn’t sign the letter but had editorialized (subscription required) in September 2010 about how the government must bring Murdoch “to heel” and block the takeover. The FT further speculated that fear of Murdoch’s press power was deterring British politicians from investigating the scandal.
Much of those rivals’ animus for Murdoch is due to his fiercely competitive ways. His restlessness, inventiveness, and risk-taking have driven them batty as he has upended business as usual time and again ever since he arrived in the U.K. in 1968. He’s the man who broke the unions, who modernized newspaper production, and whose price-cutting forced other publishers to follow. He’s the entrepreneur who took on billions in losses to start a U.K. satellite-broadcasting company. They hate him, in part, because they’ve never had the brains or the guts to compete against him.
Murdoch is also hated by government regulators who have sought to undo him and failed. One of Murdoch’s biggest enemies included Vince Cable, the regulator in charge of assessing the mogul’s fitness to purchase the remainder of BSkyB. Cable opposed the purchase but was removed from the BSkyB proceeding last December after he was caught on tape by undercover reporters saying he had “declared war on Mr. Murdoch.” As Murdoch goes down, he should be proud of having made such wonderful enemies.
Other Murdoch enemies are petty ones he has created for reasons only his shrink could explain. Of his fellow London newspapermen, the genocidal tyrant once said, “I am sober after lunch, and in some parts of Fleet Street, that makes you a genius.” Other Murdoch enemies hate him because he hates them and uses his publications to express that hatred. As Spectator columnist Alex Massie tells me, Murdoch despises all establishments and practically all institutions—the BBC, Parliament, the “royal” family, the New York Times, patricians, and practically anybody who doesn’t conform to his populist self-image. “He respects brashness,” Massie says, “and hates anything that smacks of patronizing.” For this reason, among others, Murdoch adored Margaret Thatcher.
“He thinks of himself as the plucky, plain-speaking Australian taking on the establishment,” Massie says, a role inherited from his father, Keith Murdoch, who stuck it to the British establishment during World War I with his report from Gallipoli. Rupert’s veneration of his father explains why he, apropos of nothing, brought up Keith during the hearing, saying:
I just want to say that I was brought up by a father who was not rich, but who was a great journalist, and he, just before he died, bought a small paper, specifically in his will saying that he was giving me the chance to do good. I remember what he did and what he was most proud of, and for which he was hated in this country by many people for many, many years, was exposing the scandal at Gallipoli, which I remain very, very proud of.
Without getting into the journalistic merits of Keith Murdoch’s work from Gallipoli, which are debatable, we can, as Massie says, understand it as one of the foundation myths of Australia, of brave and heroic Australian and New Zealand soldiers butchered because of the stupidity of their British commanders. It is a myth that Murdoch subscribes to.
A major difference between Keith Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch is that ease with which Rupert can turn a simple battle into Gallipoli and his every foe into stupid British commanders who must be broken. Murdoch delights in using his publications to punish enemies and reward friends. Take for instance, Murdoch’s long-running feud with Mortimer Zuckerman, the real estate tycoon who owns the New York Daily News, the tabloid that competes against Murdoch’s tabloid, the New York Post. Last year, Choire Sicha of the Awl documented a decade’s worth of insults and vilifications the Post had sent Zuckerman’s way. Sicha writes:
Over the last ten years, the New York Post has called Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman a cheapskate, a tyrant, an illegal maid-payer, a friend to unsavory characters, a bad businessman, a racist, a friend of terrorism, a firer of pregnant women, a publisher who uses his editorial page for the his own real estate interests, a constructor of dangerous buildings, the provoker of staff suicides, as well as wild-eyed, mercurial, panicky, a cheater of readers, a scoffer at laws, a “horrible, nickel-and-diming boss,” and the publisher of boring publications.
Proving Murdoch’s willingness to reshape an enemy into a friend if friendship proves expedient, Sicha’s piece pointed to that day’s Post, in which aneditorial applauded Zuckerman as a potential candidate for the U.S. Senate. In the Murdoch universe, this sort of instant turnabout is called a “reverse ferret.”
The phone-hacking scandal has revealed the thinness of Murdoch’s friendships in Parliament, but also the limits of enemy-making and reverse ferreting. Today, Murdoch’s “friends” in U.K. politics are running from him as fast as they can, making the likelihood he’ll ever enjoy his status as a backdoor man at 10 Downing Street very slim. The scandal, Rupert’s doddering performance at the hearing, and the shuttering of News of the World may have defanged the Murdoch bite and can only embolden his many foes.
Murdoch’s media empire, which once had such a reputation for ruthlessness, seems to have lost its will to fight. Not one of the seven defensive editorials and opinion pieces published this week about the scandal in Murdoch’s U.S. flagship, the Wall Street Journal, has anyteeth. It’s hard to inspire terror in your enemies when all you can do is gum them.
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