Nearly a decade ago, I interviewed Rupert Murdoch in his office on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. The interview ran over an hour and covered familiar ground: his interference in editorial matters; his loathing of the British establishment; his feud with Ted Turner; his willingness to do anything in an effort to suck up to the Chinese government, etc.
Towards the end, when we had run through the predictable questions, I asked him if there were any media properties that he would like to acquire. He thought about it. The New York Times, he suggested, was always a possibility. He liked Time magazine, he said. And, oh yes, he thought that there was a lot that could be done with The Wall Street Journal.
My guess is that the old fox will finally have acquired the Journal by the time you get to read this. At the time of writing, it looks as though some members of the Bancroft family (which controls The Wall Street Journal) are fighting a losing battle trying to combat greed (and Murdoch’s is a very good offer, considering that most US papers make so little money and that the industry is in terminal decline) with a concern for editorial integrity.
These deals are notoriously difficult to predict but almost from the moment that Murdoch’s News Corp. announced its offer, I have been convinced that he will end up buying the Journal. Rarely has Murdoch lost an acquisition battle and he takes particular delight in stealing properties from under the noses of rivals.
For instance, shortly after he had bought Star from Richard Li, he flew to India and granted many of us in the local media long audiences. I met him twice then, once for a lengthy off-the- record chat and once for an interview. One of the things that struck me about Murdoch was how delighted he had been to have snatched Star from Pearson. At that stage, the British media conglomerate—owner of the Financial Times—believed it had the deal sewn up. And then, Murdoch wrecked it.
Years before our conversation, he had pulled a similar stunt with the boastful Robert Maxwell who had phoned him to gloat about the purchase of the British tabloid, Today. Halfway through the conversation, Murdoch realized that the deal had not yet been signed. He hung up on Maxwell, called the owners of Today and bought it himself. More recently, he stole MySpace from the lumbering Viacom conglomerate.
So, I’d be very surprised if Murdoch lets the Journal get away. Besides, he doesn’t want it to make money in the traditional sense. He needs the brand’s global positioning (such as its association with Mint, perhaps) and to add credibility to his soon-to-be launched Fox Business Network.
Why are so many American journos so bitterly opposed to Murdoch’s takeover? By any standards, the man is a genius, a media wizard whose empire has kept up with technology—from papers to TV to satellite broadcasting and to Internet-based new media.
The short answer is that Murdoch is any journo’s worst nightmare. Journalists like enlightened proprietors (such as the Sulzbergers of The New York Times or the Grahams of The Washington Post) and they have learnt to live with profit- driven corporations, such as, say, Time Warner, which know that the real money is in entertainment and leave the papers alone as long as they turn a profit.
But all journos are paranoid about the media-savvy proprietor who uses his papers to achieve his own ends. In the old days, Jawaharlal Nehru used to refer to the Indian press as the Jute Press because it was largely owned by jute barons with their own agendas—and because “jute” sounded so much like jhooth (falsehoods). In much of the developed world, the old-style press baron (such as William Randolph Hearst, the model for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane) is dead and gone. But Murdoch combines some of the worst characteristics of the jhooth baron with a feel for the effectiveness of media (unlike the old-style proprietors who were pompous megalomaniacs).
He has never hesitated to use his empire to push his commercial interests. Because so much of what he does exists at the frontiers of regulation—either because it involves new technology or because of the monopoly implications of his empire—he needs more government permissions than most press barons.
In the UK, for instance, his holdings have grown because of his readiness to trade favourable coverage for governmental largesse. His ownership of Times Newspapers had obvious monopoly implications, but the British government broke with precedent to accommodate him because he pledged the support of his empire to Margaret Thatcher. When Harold Evans, then the most respected journalist in the UK, would not toe his line, Murdoch forced him out of his job as editor of the Times.
Similarly, the expansion of Murdoch’s satellite TV empire in the rigidly regulated British market has been facilitated by the need of successive British prime ministers to win the support of his titles (Murdoch is nothing if not ideologically promiscuous, abandoning Thatcher’s Conservatives for Tony Blair’s rising New Labour).
His Asian ambitions have demonstrated the same pragmatism. When I interviewed him, he denied having asked HarperCollins to drop Chris Patton’s Hong Kong memoir for fear of offending his pals in the Chinese government (“I had nothing to do with it”). But he told Time magazine earlier this month, “I was probably in the wrong there. It’s been a long career and I have made some mistakes along the way. We are not all virgins.” Except that his mistakes tend to be profitable ones.
So, will he tamper with the Journal’s character? Oddly enough, I doubt it. Guarantees of editorial independence from men such as Murdoch are worthless. At the Times, he treated the independent directors as a joke. But still there’s something to the claim that he distinguishes between tabloid and serious journalism.
That distinction will work to the Journal’s advantage. Murdoch is not really buying a paper. He is buying a brand. And he is shrewd enough to recognize that if he destroys its credibility, he destroys the brand.
Write to Vir at pursuits@livemint