Life with Murdoch

2 Jun

by Les Hinton

Rupert Murdoch’s longest-serving lieutenant staggers under the weight of books written about his old boss

(Published September 2015 in the British Journalism Review @BJR.org.uk )

More than half a century ago, as an eager and ignorant 15-year-old copy boy struggling to get along at a small Adelaide newspaper, I began collecting books about the news business. The first of them still sits old and frail on my shelves; the newest are hidden in a Kindle and allegedly indestructible. I love the old volumes – they lit my way out of the bucolic comfort zone of South Australia with rousing yarns of faraway places and the glamour and dark side of newspapers: the genius and madness of Northcliffe and Beaverbrook; the yellow press wars between Pulitzer and Hearst; and how the press was born when printing technology was as miraculous as the internet would seem centuries later.

Once they were published in a steady and varied flow. Now these books seem to be about one man only – the kid proprietor of my old Adelaide newspaper. This is no fun for me, being familiar with the story. In 1959, when he was a 28-year-old with hair, chunky cheeks and a cigarette, no one cared enough about Rupert Murdoch to write a book. Now he is a publishing obsession. Before long, there will be more books about him than any media mogul, dead or alive. It might have happened already.

These books are never flattering. They tell far-fetched tales of scabrous, plundering, capitalist, debasing cultures across the globe. Their titles say it all: Dial M For Murdoch; Murdoch’s Politics: How One Man’s Thirst For Wealth and Power Shapes Our World; Sex, Lies and the Murdoch Succession; Murdoch’s Pirates. Books by wishful thinkers are a staple – Murdoch: the Decline of an Empire; The Fall of the House of Murdoch; Rise and Fall of the Murdoch Empire.

Welcome to the angry world of AntiMurdochMania.

A beginner today must think he is the first awkward media tycoon; others know it isn’t so. William Connor – Cassandra of the Mirror – writes in his volume of collected columns about the mortality of editors and almighty power of owners. “Editors! I seen ’em come. And I seen ’em go. But way up on the mountain overshadowing Fleet Street the Abominable Snowman goes on for ever.”

No Murdoch editor suffered more than Arthur Christiansen in his 24 years at the Daily Express. In Headlines All My Life, he writes: “The telephone constantly rang. Wherever Beaverbrook went, the telephone followed.” When he cracked under the pressure, a dodgy Harley Street doctor injected Christiansen for 12 days with a preparation of strychnine, iron and arsenic. This treatment restored his broken confidence but seemed a little extreme to me. Reading this story as a teenager, I resolved never to work at close quarters with an overbearing proprietor. Not everything works out in life.

The modern works of Satan

Nor did Murdoch invent the troublesome redtop. In Publish and Be Damned, Hugh Cudlipp writes of the Daily Mirror: “Millions swear by (it), regard it as their daily Bible; others loathe it, curse it, reject its news and views as the modern works of Satan … some politicians who have flayed it in public have enjoyed, or sought in private, its approbation.”

I heard the echo of these words years later when I became executive chairman of News International and The Sun had deposed the Mirror as the newspaper to love or hate.

I know about Murdoch books. They often mention me, but low in the cast of characters, like a spearcarrier.

I was on the spot at the distant dawn of the AntiMurdochMania industry but have kept it quiet until now. Michael Leapman was an old friend; we worked on The Sun in its broadsheet days. When he arrived in Boston in the early 1980s with a biography to write and nowhere to stay, Leapman camped at my home. Murdoch was the new owner of the Boston Herald and I was its deputy editor.

I told Leapman he was 10 years too soon, but he couldn’t wait. When his book appeared in 1984, I was glad not to have confessed my hospitality to anyone. Leapman called his UK edition Barefaced Cheek, but the American publishers didn’t think that packed enough punch and renamed it Arrogant Aussie.

Writers who followed him divide into three groups: jobbing authors, unhappy former employees and zealots. Almost all jobbing authors work without Murdoch’s help, although some employees can’t resist the lure of seeing their words in print, if not their names. I know only three authors who were “officially” helped.

In the early 1990s, Murdoch hired Peter Brimelow, a business writer from Cheshire, when he felt a rare urge to tell his side of the story. Unfortunately for Brimelow, this urge passed, leaving him with months of research and nothing he could write.

William Shawcross was helped, and critics derided his 1992 book as a paean. Murdoch didn’t like it either, although I don’t think he read it all, or any book about him. It is harsh and unsparing in parts, but its sin among loathers is balance, including as it does such outlandish claims as “Murdoch succeeded because he dared” and asserting his move to Wapping liberated British newspapers, “yet their praise for him was grudging”.

Michael Wolff’s 2008 The Man Who Owns the News was written around the acquisition of the Wall Street Journal. I had moved back to New York from London to become Dow Jones’ chief executive. It was a turbulent time. When Murdoch, Robert Thomson and I headed up to address the newsroom, we felt like the barbarians in the elevator.

Wolff is a wonderful writer but a flamethrower journalist. It’s his brand, but no one figured that out until it was too late, after letting Wolff into the hen house. Company advocates of this project urged us to speak to him. After 45 minutes with Wolff, I knew it would not end well. His book is a 400-page roast.

Wolff does manage backhanded compliments: “Murdoch is a troublemaker – one of the last great troublemakers in the holier-than-thou, ethically straitjacketed news business.” He also acknowledges the Wall Street Journal might be better under its new ownership but only “arguably”.

The Murdoch book industry has its own classics, two of them by aggrieved ex-editors. Andrew Neil writes about his 11 years with Murdoch, mostly as editor of The Sunday Times. Neil went through years of withdrawal after leaving Murdoch, diving into every Murdoch row as if he couldn’t let go. For years he was the ready-quote on television and radio. Whatever the Murdoch topic, Neil was reliably disapproving. Perhaps he felt scorned after 11 years producing a top-rate newspaper.

His book, Full Disclosure, is both admiring and despairing. When he’s depressed and angry with his boss, reading it is like looking at an open wound – “I grew to resent that one man could have so much effect on me”. He decries Murdoch’s rough treatment of those who reach their “sell-by date”, then reaches it himself. Murdoch buys a fancy new yacht but “I was no longer flavour of the month and never sailed in it”. Neil’s story can ring true: when he writes about Murdoch’s telephone terrorism, I understand. His consolation and revenge has been to develop the most successful afterlife of any Murdoch editor. Neil believed Murdoch resented the celebrity status he achieved on TV and radio; now he is the BBC’s best political interviewer by far.

Evans still hasn’t let go

Harry Evans hasn’t worked for Murdoch for more than three decades, but still hasn’t let go. Evans must have a condition like malaria; his anti- Murdoch fever ebbs and flows. When fired as editor of The Times after less than a year, he wrote an excoriating book, Good Times, Bad Times, fuming about dirty tricks, lies, betrayals and editorial interference. I don’t know first-hand how accurate these complaints are but people at The Times were not universally happy with his tenure. His 14 years at the Sunday Times were undeniably brilliant, but a daily newspaper is not the same as a Sunday one.

After this book, Evans went quiet. He was happy to see his byline in The Times in 2009 and write for the Wall Street Journal about his favourite books on news reporting. The (Murdoch-owned) Sunday Times praised his “evocative and enjoyable” autobiography, My Paper Chase. One of his successors at The Times, Sir Peter Stothard, described him in the (Murdoch-owned) Times Literary Supplement as “Britain’s greatest post-war editor”. He must be proud of this acclaim; it still appears on his personal website. He presented me with a copy over dinner of My Paper Chase and wrote in it “To Les – the master from Merseyside”. I thought the hyperbole was kind.

When the hacking scandal erupted, Evans went on the rampage again but showed signs of inner conflict. In an updated foreword of Good Times, Bad Times, he writes: “When I came across Murdoch socially in New York I found I was without any residual emotional hostility. I share his romantic affection for newspapers. He is for his part agreeable and sometimes vividly amusing…” But then: “I have to remind myself, as he wheels about the universe of “The Big Deal”, that Lucifer is the most arresting character in Milton’s Paradise Lost.”

The zealots – the true AntiMurdochManiacs – are fascinating. They fill blogs, infest Twitter and pour out hyperventilating books. Their opinions run deep through certain newspapers and websites, and consume particular columnists. I decided Nick Davies might be their patron saint after reading the epilogue of his book Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch.

Davies tells how his doggedness helped uncover hacking. No argument there and he tells his story well. I’d question some of his account and it can be self-aggrandising, but it’s a good cat-and-mouse tale.

What stood out was his curious epilogue. I have read it again and again. It is preposterous. Davies starts: “This was never simply a story about a journalist who broke the law … (a) rogue corporation had been allowed to flourish – and to break the rules and to make comrades of the police and the government – because it had grown up in a wider system which positively encouraged it and other corporations to do all of these things.”

He denounces neoliberalism and “laissez-fair capitalism” for reversing centuries of struggle by labour movements and political campaigners. This movement, he says, had been put into effect in the early 1970s by the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and promoted more than 30 years ago by Reagan and Thatcher – “penetrating by the 1990s even the dark empires of China and the former Soviet Union…” He compares his evildoers to Victorian mining bosses who fought to keep children down the pits.

And here’s the sting: “Like some ideological vanguard, Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants have used their news outlets to shift the centre of power – the centre of thinking – far over to the right.”

Which all goes to show that Murdoch is at the heart of a neoliberal, capitalist plot to destroy the world. Of course he is.

None of Davies’s diatribe is original. It is the bog-standard rant of an anarchist after he’s chucked bricks through a McDonald’s window.

But it did open my eyes to the truth about the militant wing of AntiMurdochMania. The Murdoch they hate doesn’t exist. This view of him is so risible, so nuts, it must be a hallucination. It’s a crowd-sourced apparition, a vessel where these people pour their rage and grief about big business, great power, global inequity and everything else they see wrong with the world. This virtual Murdoch is their devil.

This doesn’t mean the real Murdoch is unblemished. He is a driven businessman with heavy boots who has bruised a lot of people in the last half century. At times he has deserved a kicking. If someone founded a hall of fame for perfect people, I would not raise a petition to induct him. As a boss, he can be hands-off or autocratic, charming or irascible, forgiving or fierce, and sometimes just a comprehensive pain.

And yet – although his record on this is not perfect – the majority of people he employs love working for him. He imbues his companies with a fantastic sense of possibility and gets big results. He has overthrown giants on three continents to become the biggest giant of all. Warts and all, Murdoch is an authentic colossus and his own kind of revolutionary. One day, when his enemies have gone and taken away their wounds and blind fury, a new generation of chroniclers will come along to rethink his history. Perhaps they’ll give him a break.

Les Hinton held a variety of senior posts under Rupert Murdoch, including chief executive officer of Dow Jones, executive chairman of News International and chairman and chief executive of Fox Television Stations He is currently writing his memoir. .@leshinton

 

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