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Rupert Murdoch’s lust for newspapers

Rupert Murdoch’s lust for newspapers
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First Published: Thu, Jul 21 2011. 09 32 PM IST

News world: (right) Murdoch talking to the press on 15 July; and the New York city office of The Wall Street Journal, owned by Murdoch. Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP & Mary Altaffer/AP
News world: (right) Murdoch talking to the press on 15 July; and the New York city office of The Wall Street Journal, owned by Murdoch. Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP & Mary Altaffer/AP
Updated: Thu, Jul 21 2011. 09 32 PM IST
To those who love and understand this profession, Rupert Murdoch is the world’s greatest newspapersman and its finest editor. Among those who have crafted newspapers, a rare and beautiful talent, he is without equal. He has defined without question all modern tabloid journalism but arguably also most of its broadsheet trade. This might appear strange, but he isn’t prejudiced in that sense and doesn’t discriminate between short, fun-loving newspapers and tall, prudish ones.
He owns Britain’s most downmarket newspaper (The Sun) and its most upmarket one (The Times). He owns America’s most downmarket daily (New York Post) and its most upmarket one (The Wall Street Journal). He owns Australia’s most downmarket newspaper (The Daily Telegraph) and its most upmarket one (The Australian).
If India didn’t have paranoid newspaper ownership laws, he would own and run good (and bawdy) newspapers here.
Of those titans, famous by last name alone, who have owned newspapers for love of the printed word, Murdoch is Kronos, with more power, more success and more skill than Rothermere or Northcliffe or Hearst.
News world: (right) Murdoch talking to the press on 15 July; and the New York city office of The Wall Street Journal, owned by Murdoch. Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP & Mary Altaffer/AP
I think it was Hearst who called journalism “the stuff between the ads”. Murdoch cared about this stuff more than he did the ads.
Murdoch’s money is made in television—BSkyB in Britain, Fox News and the Fox Network in America, and Star in Asia. And it is made in movies—he owns 20th Century Fox, producers of Avatar and X-Men. But his love is his newspapers.
It isn’t a romantic love. It is lusty, groping love. He has sentimentally invested in newspapers against the will of his company News Corp.’s investors. He subsidized The Times for decades when it made enormous losses.
The epithets people have used for him, in praise and in contempt, are linked to his editorial skills. In his book Full Disclosure, Andrew Neil referred to his former boss as “The Sun King”. Britain’s fabulous Private Eye magazine calls Murdoch “the Dirty Digger”.
Given the provenance of Britain’s other newspaper proprietors—among whom are convicts (Lord Conrad Black who owned The Daily Telegraph), pornographers (Richard Desmond of Daily Express) and KGB agents (Alexander Lebedev of The Independent and Evening Standard)—Murdoch’s editorial crimes are mild. One of his many rivals, Lord Black, admitted that Murdoch had actually improved the mighty Wall Street Journal after buying it.
Tabloid journalism is more difficult than broadsheet journalism because one needs to create, to shape, to titillate, to outrage, to humour. Tabloids must try harder. It isn’t surprising that it is a tabloid, News of the World, that has got Murdoch into trouble by using extreme means to secure a good story.
Without Murdoch we would have no “Page 3”. Not the piffle printed in Indian newspapers. The real Page 3, in The Sun, has a pretty girl baring her breasts to a grateful working-class reader, accomp- anied by a short interview revealing something a little more personal.
Almost any clever headline you can think of that lives on in legend is from a Murdoch tabloid: “Headless body in topless bar”, “Kiss your Asteroid goodbye” (reporting a comet’s near-miss with earth), both from the New York Post. “Freddie Starr ate my hamster”, “GOTCHA” (when Thatcher’s Royal Navy sank the Argentinian battleship General Belgrano), both from The Sun.
To a report that Australians were increasingly having children out of wedlock, Col Allan, one of Murdoch’s favourites, ran this splash: “A NATION OF BASTARDS”.
This irreverence and sense of fun comes to them from their master. Murdoch has had a very normal upbringing and does not take life too seriously—as witnessed by his grinning face when he landed in London to face the hacking allegations.
A few years ago I read a book in which the author lands in 1950s Australia to meet the Murdochs, young Rupert and his father Sir Keith. They arrive in a pick-up truck, and he’s cheerfully asked to squeeze in between father and son. After lunch, Sir Keith sends Rupert off to buy a couple of ties. “We’re meeting the prime minister later,” he explains to his son.
Of all the proprietors in the world, only Murdoch sees the world as a reporter would. Dining with presidents and monarchs, he would slip off to tip his editors to a story, however small. He regularly called the editors of his many newspapers to find out what was happening.
When he was made editor of News of the World, Piers Morgan (who has now taken over Larry King’s CNN slot) said he would tremble at the thought of Saturday nights because Murdoch would call to find out what story he was running. The first issue, Morgan wrote in his book The Insider, was almost sunk till the photo desk gave him a picture of a naked man parachuting into Buckingham Palace. A clever sub-editor headlined the story “BARE HE GOES”, and Morgan was greatly relieved.
Alone among the world’s proprietors, Murdoch doesn’t discriminate between journalists and MBAs. Only Murdoch has promoted editors to CEO—Rebekah Brooks at News International, Uday Shankar at Star. The Times’ editor Robert Thomson went to The Wall Street Journal as publisher, before editing it.
This aspect to Murdoch, that he is really on their side, has escaped the journalists who so despise him.
He has picked underprivileged, half-literate youngsters and made them editors—Brooks (who has no degree) at The Sun, Piers Morgan (who was a gossip columnist) at News of the World.
Les Hinton, whom Murdoch made CEO of Dow Jones, worked with Murdoch for 52 years, starting at age 15 as a tea boy, then rising to become a reporter. Brooks herself was a secretary.
From those around him, Murdoch elevated all who were enthusiastic and smart. No other qualification was needed, and that is as noble as it is wise.
He has shipped editors around the world. Aussie Col Allan from Sydney to New York Post, Thomson from London to The Wall Street Journal, Scot Andrew Neil at the revered Sunday Times. He saved all proprietors in Britain, which today has the best newspapers of the world, by single-handedly destroying the oppressive unions. His courage is chronicled in Graham Stewart’s book History of the Times: The Murdoch Years. All this must be remembered when Murdoch is attacked, quite rightly, for the sins of his employees at News of the World.
In India we own a vague ethic and a lower moral standard. Most of us will not understand what the fuss about a newspaper hacking into someone’s voicemail for a story is.
The Indian Express (for my money our best broadsheet) published transcripts it had been spoon-fed, hacked illegally by unknown enemies of the hapless and blackmailed Tatas, and called it investigative journalism.
The Hindu trumpeted its exclusives, handed to it by WikiLeaks but hacked illegally and criminally. Much of that is also gossip but since it involves diplomats and not celebrities that makes it legitimate journalism.
But Murdoch’s papers operated in nations which revere the rule of law. They broke laws and they have paid heavily. The reason he’s under sustained fire is that the other proprietors envy him his success. Most people hate him for revealing the true nature of his tawdry readers.
Eighty years old this year, I hope Murdoch survives this final ordeal in his magnificent career. He is the hero in the story of 20th century journalism.
News television, with its dependence on the subject’s acquiescence, with its staged drama and the weakness of its linear format, isn’t really journalism.
Real journalism needs journals. More than any man in history Rupert Murdoch created, owned and ran great ones.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
(Mint has an exclusive content partnership in India with The Wall Street Journal.)
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First Published: Thu, Jul 21 2011. 09 32 PM IST