The risible wizard of Oz

He's one of the most famous and successful media magnates in history. So how did Rupert Murdoch end up the subject of a biography with such a wickedly sharp sense of his ridiculousness?
February 28, 2009
Image: David Shankbone

The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdochby Michael Wolff (Bodley Head, £20)

Is Rupert Murdoch losing his marbles? First, perhaps under the influence of his third wife, he exhibits liberal tendencies; next he spends $5bn to buy the Wall Street Journal, ignoring the damage the deal will inflict on his own company's share price; finally he tells his family and employees to talk to the American media writer Michael Wolff, the better to inform this book.

If he was looking for the biographical monument to which a man of his age and achievement might feel entitled, it's no wonder he's said to be cross about some of the stuff in here. Much of it is in the tone. For years, Murdoch has been impervious to the moralising attacks of the bien pensant establishment. So Wolff goes for him with a deadlier weapon. He turns the media mogul, along with his third wife, those powerful children and sycophantic henchmen, into the stuff of comic drama. We get the hair dye: "obviously and vainly orange—or, occasionally, aubergine;" the "ever present singlet" worn under white shirts; and the determination of nervous staff to pretend he's not really going deaf.

Here's our mischievous narrator quoting the young Chinese wife Wendi Deng, verbatim, on her husband's parsimony: "His whole family like this. They so cheap." And here he is reducing those mighty young Murdochs to the status of children as he is told "sometimes in a cold fury, or cold sweat, about their place in the Murdoch world." With ironic detachment, he conveys the yearning of Murdoch's news lieutenants not only to protect their boss's privacy but also to be seen doing as he does: "At News Corp, his break-up and remarriage were treated with a level of sensitivity, graciousness and respect as hardly exists in human nature and certainly does not exist on the gossip pages of his own newspapers. Indeed, several of his closest executives shortly followed suit and left their wives."

I imagine some of those executives instructed by Murdoch to talk to Wolff are scratching their heads at the result. "He never seems to be surrounded by the brightest bulbs, the A team," we read. "He tends to hire people who are grateful for the chance." Rebekah Wade, the editor of the Sun, makes an appearance only to consider from all angles the secret of her boss. "Her conclusion was that he was 'a genius.'"

It reminds me of the time the chief executive of the Telegraph group—under a previous regime—asked me why a journalist had written such naughty things about the business in a rival newspaper. To which the only answer was: because he can. Wolff does one of those things that journalists can still do. He speaks truth to power. At least, he speaks the truth as identified by a smartypants liberal New York writer. Even the world's greatest media network, supported by an adroit PR operation—including Murdoch's son-in-law Matthew Freud—can't make Wolff use those hours and hours of their time to inform a book that treats the empire with respect.

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Wolff constructs his biography around Murdoch's acquisition of the Wall Street Journal from the Bancrofts—a family as dysfunctional as Murdoch's own, but nothing like as bright. Narrative shifts trace the story of Murdoch's ascent across four continents. We see the power that he comes to wield, typified by Tony Blair's eager courtship, though Barack Obama is less inclined to bend the knee.

The man that emerges is pretty much the man we thought: a manic deal maker, shrewd user of debt and monomaniac newspaper enthusiast who is capable of temporary and disarming charm. But there's a surprise in the underlying thesis, particularly for all of us who have drawn contemplatively on a pint in Fleet Street and announced: "Say what you like, but Murdoch knows what he's doing." Perhaps he doesn't. Wolff tells us that the explanation for the purchase of the Wall Street Journal—that it gave Murdoch the key to financial information in the digital world—was a post hoc construct developed by the former Times editor Robert Thomson to explain why News Corp was spending so much on a dying newspaper. The real reason, if we are to believe Wolff, is that Murdoch really, really loves newspapers. And really, really wants to screw the New York Times.

Now we have to take some of these assertions on trust, for Wolff presents his narrative through the kind of personal, knowing prism that makes his work for Vanity Fair so engaging. He names a lot of sources at the front of the book, but there aren't too many direct quotes. And I am not sure I would trust many of those named to have total and disinterested recall of events.

But if some of it is highly impressionistic, he writes with such verve, identifies the calculated brutality of newspaper managements, nails the madnesses of the media world and is generally so confident that we can't help but be swept along. Naturally, too, Murdoch confirms the theatrical thesis that villains are the most interesting characters: those pages on which he appears in person are by far the most engaging.

Murdoch will not be alone in being unhappy with this book. His detractors will look in vain for a forensic analysis of his businesses. His supporters—and their ranks extend beyond those who work for him—will see terrible lèse-majesté. The rest of us, however, may take comfort from regarding the old monster in a new light. It's not visualising Rupert Murdoch naked that does it for me; it's that old man's vest and orange hair.