Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia, joins the podcast as Alan and Lionel analyse the potential implications of Murdoch’s handover for media and politics in the US, the UK and Australia. Turnbull says that Murdoch Sr has done “enormous damage to the democratic world”. American journalist Michael Wolff also provides insight as his new book, The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty hits the shelves.
Alan and Lionel also consider the media angles around the allegations facing Russell Brand, all of which he denies.
Follow us on X/Twitter: @MediaConfPod
Media Confidential is a podcast from Prospect Magazine.
Below is a full transcript of the episode. Please check against delivery:
Alan Rusbridger: Hello and welcome to Media Confidential, the new weekly podcast from Prospect Magazine. I’m Alan Rusbridger.
Lionel Barber: I’m Lionel Barber. We take you inside the hugely important world of media to analyse who and what drives it, what do they get right and what do they get wrong.
Rusbridger: Today, Media Confidential focuses on Rupert Murdoch, a man who’s driven some of the world’s key media organisations for decades. We’ve both had dealings with this Australian billionaire and we’ll tell you some of those tales later in the episode.
Barber: Murdoch has announced he’ll become chairman emeritus of Fox and News Corp, handing control of the two corporations to his eldest son Lachlan, but what does that mean for media and politics in the US, the UK, and Australia?
Rusbridger: We’ll analyse that, reflect on Rupert’s career and legacy and also consider whether the Murdoch family succession, we had to get that reference in, is now done and dusted.
Barber: We’ve got not one but two great guests, don’t we?
Rusbridger: Yeah. Not bad to start a new podcast with a prime minister as your first interview, and earlier today, I spoke to the former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has strong opinions about the impact of his countryman.
Malcolm Turnbull: His legacy is a very dark one. He has, in my view, done more to damage American democracy than any other individual alive today.
That’s pretty strong stuff, and we’re going to hear more from Malcolm Turnbull in a few minutes time. He’s got very strong views about Murdoch’s influence on Brexit, on Trump, on Iraq, and climate change.
We’ll also hear from the American journalist and author, Michael Wolff, who after three books about Donald Trump has returned to the subject of Rupert Murdoch for his latest. It’s called The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty.
So Lionel, in case people don’t know our CVs off by heart, shall we reintroduce ourselves?
I’m Lionel Barber. I worked for 35 years at the Financial Times, 14 years as editor where I led the digital transformation of the FT.
Do you want to confess your working relationship with Rupert Murdoch as well? We’ll get all our skeletons out on the table.
I can hear them tumbling on now. Yes, I did indeed work for Rupert Murdoch for almost four years in the early 1980s as a business reporter at The Sunday Times.
... and lived to tell the tale. I’m Alan Rusbridger, and I edit Prospect Magazine, and for 20 years I edited the Guardian.
So that’s why you can expect plenty of insider analysis from Alan and I. To make sure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to Media Confidential wherever you get your podcasts.
Don’t forget to follow us on, I still can’t say this, on X or what the rest of the world calls Twitter. Find us there, @mediaconfpod. That’s a terrible name, but you’ll get used to it.
Now, that big announcement from Rupert Murdoch came after another huge media story in the UK prompted by investigations by two of Murdoch’s newspapers, The Times and Sunday Times, alongside Channel 4’s Dispatches programme.
He’s grabbing at my underwear, pulling it to the side. I’m telling him to get off me and he won’t get off, like holding me up against the wall, pushing himself in me.
Rusbridger: Brand faces allegations including rape and sexual assault, all of which he denies, saying his relationships have, quotes, “been always consensual,” quotes.
Barber: Brand’s career morphed from comedy, TV, and films into high profile commentary on politics in society. More recently, Brand has built a large online audience posting videos often about conspiracy theories.
Russell Brand: The corporatist state and global media war against Free speech is in full swing.
Rusbridger: One of these stories, Lionel, which is broken in the media, and I have to say it was great reporting from The Times, The Sunday Times and Channel 4, but it’s in a sense, it’s a meta story about the media because Brand has morphed from being a big character on mainstream media and lots of people are questioning his behaviour on the BBC and whether the BBC did enough about it at the time, but of course, he’s now a megastar on, what do we call it, on alternative media, on YouTube and Rumble. I was reading the comments underneath his videos there and I had to say his following, which is anywhere between six and 10 million, they’re not buying it.
He’s, in a way, groomed them to believe that the attacks on him are orchestrated, but I don’t think they need much grooming. They think this is mainstream media stroke Bill Gates, stroke lizard man, stroke George Soros, stroke Anthony Fauci. All the people lived at Davos Brigade, they say, “This is what happens when you attack somebody.” So I’m guessing his six million supporters are going to take a lot of convincing because they live in an alternative world.
Barber: Yeah, it’s a story in two parts in my view. The first is really about celebrity culture and he was a TV celebrity. He had a large audience then. Frankly, I think he was indulged, particularly by the BBC. Anyone, and I know this is a family podcast, but who urinates in a cup in the studio? What was the producer doing? Why did that not go up the line? He wasn’t kept in check. They didn’t know how to handle him. He got away with a lot. Then when he finally did move on, he rather cleverly invented himself as an alternative voice in a world which by this time and where we’re talking in the teens slightly pre Donald Trump, in a world where we have alternative facts. Now, there’s always been rumour conspiracy. Newspapers often reported that, but the difference with Russell Brand, as you say, is he’s made a real living, a fortune out of peddling alternative facts and conspiracy theory, particularly about COVID, vaccination, et cetera.
Rusbridger: You can see people wondering what to do about this. There was a slightly embarrassing letter written by the Chair of the Culture Media and Sport Committee, Dame Caroline Dinenage, to YouTube and Rumble, which was trying to put the heavy arm on them, trying to suggest that they should demonetise, cut off any attempts that Brand could have to monetise, and she got the brush off in pretty firm order suddenly from Rumble.
It was a rather good column, I thought, by Hugo Rifkind in The Times this morning saying, “Actually, if we’re liberals, we have to believe in free speech. He’s not been arrested, he’s not been charged with anything yet. So trying to cut off his support is not very liberal.” I think there’s another point about these six million plus people, which is I think we have to understand why it is that they don’t believe in mainstream media, they don’t believe in the facts that we believe in. For years, liberal media were lectured about how we didn’t understand Trump, and Trump took us completely by surprise. I think that the same is true of Brand supporters. It’s not enough to condemn them. What is it that has driven them into this parallel universe of reality?
Barber: Well, a confession here, Alan, when I was editing the Financial Times, frankly, we missed Brexit, we missed a whole swathe of the population that basically didn’t care about the economic arguments against leaving the European Union. We’re now seeing these in spades, but at the time, we applied pure rational arguments when actually there were irrational important other arguments, fears of people about immigration, et cetera. I think we should have done a better job. Obviously, after that result, we did change the way we were reporting, put more people out of London, et cetera.
I think there’s another point about the Brand case, just to wrap up here, is I think The Sunday Times and The Times, Channel 4 Dispatches did a great job in persuading these. We obviously recognise that Brand denies all allegations, but still, a number of women claim they were assaulted, sexual assault. This has been the shoe waiting to drop for a long time. However, it makes me somewhat uneasy to see Brand being tried in the court of public opinion. These women, apart from one, have been anonymous. They didn’t go through to the police. Brand will struggle to have a fair case in court. So I think there’s some quite difficult questions for editors about when to grant anonymity and how to deal with these allegations.
Rusbridger: Now, there is a Murdoch link here, and I think it’s a case that shows Murdoch has the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good bit is the great work by The Times and Sunday Times in unearthing the story. The bad bit is we now forget that The Sun three times, if not more, nominated Russell Brand, Shagger of the Year. There was a joke about Brand and his relationships with women. The ugly bit, of course, is Fox News and Dominion, we’ll come onto that, that the lies, the knowing lies that the Fox News told.
So when you ask why is it that these six million people distrust mainstream media, well, Rupert Murdoch is part of that story, as well as being the person who owned The Times and The Sunday Times. It’s one of the reasons why Rupert Murdoch is such a complex and absorbing figure.
Barber: Brilliant segue, Alan, to the big announcement.
News clip: Breaking news, and that is that media tycoon Rupert Murdoch has announced he’s going to be stepping down as chairman of Fox and News Corp.
Barber: Rupert Murdoch, 92, he’s handed control of Fox and News Corp to his eldest son Lachlan. This is a move that could have very serious implications for media and politics around the world.
Rusbridger: Are we going to call him Lachlan or Lachlan?
Barber: Well, it depends what part of Scotland you come from. I’m telling you.
Rusbridger: No, I’m sure you’re right.
Barber: I’ll go for Lachlan, even though I said Lachlan-
Rusbridger: When I interviewed Malcolm Turnbull, I called him Lachlan, but he corrected me to Lachlan. Anyway, we are going to agree on Lachlan. I hate to disagree with you on anything as you know, Lionel.
Barber: I think we’ll go with Lachlan.
Rusbridger: I suppose the big question is, why does it matter? I think in a way, and we’re going to hear Malcolm Turnbull in a minute, but you’ve heard Nigel Farage saying Brexit really wouldn’t have happened without Murdoch. I think Kelvin MacKenzie is on record. I think Paul Dacre is on record with the levels of inquiry of saying that Iraq would never have happened, the invasion of Iraq would never have happened without Rupert Murdoch. He says Brexit, Iraq. Donald Trump arguably wouldn’t have happened without Rupert Murdoch, and Turnbull certainly makes the case that we would’ve got on with climate change much quicker. So I think that’s the significance of Murdoch, that he has been such a player with influence on three continents.
Barber: He loves getting close to power. He’s actually about power more than, if you like, policy or party politics. He loves gossip. He’s very good at manipulating people, but I want to just pick up on something, which is I think a really important part of his legacy, and this is his record as an entrepreneur and a risk-taker and a businessman. Frankly, you and I wouldn’t have become editors or at least our newspapers would’ve been in a lot more trouble had Rupert Murdoch not taken on the trade unions in the 1980s and ushered in a new era of printing digitally, reducing the number of people involved in the production of newspapers.
These were people. The trade unions were saboteurs. A lot of the time through the ‘70s and early ‘80s I was out on the street when I was on The Sunday Times. It was impossible to produce a newspaper. So I think that move to whopping was very, very important. He also changed the face of British television with the launch of BSkyB as a satellite TV broadcaster. Admittedly, this was all about anti-BBC, but it was also creating competition, choice, et cetera. So I think his legacy in that respect, and we’ll come on to Fox, the launch of Fox TV in America, is really a very healthy one. It’s what happened in the last few years where things went bad.
Rusbridger: I agree with you. Probably for our younger listeners, we just have to explain what whopping, the shorthand whopping means. I think it’s hard to understand what stranglehold the print unions had when we knew that you could produce newspapers much more cheaply using computers. It was simply impossible. Up to 1986, I think whopping was, when without anybody knowing Rupert Murdoch had built a printing plot and a newsroom in whopping. One Friday evening, the staff on all these papers were told not to turn up where they were working, but to turn up at whopping. There was a huge ... I think it went on for nearly a year with pitch battles as the printing unions who knew that really this felt the end for them tried to prevent this from happening. I think in hindsight, you have to hand it to Murdoch that somebody had to take that stand.
Barber: We had a clue, one lunch at The Sunday Times in 1984 where I was probably the last little seat at the end of the table with anywhere the senior editors and Rupert Murdoch asked two questions. One was, “Who do you think is going to win? Is it Walter Mondale or Ronald Reagan?” One senior Sunday Times editor very foolishly said, “Walter Mondale.” Couldn’t get much wrong than that. The other question he asked was, “Why can’t The Sunday Times be as big as the New York Times on a Sunday? I want a big newspaper just slamming down on the porch,” and somebody said, “We can only produce 64 pages, maximum 72,” and he looked and said, “Well, we got to change that,” and that was the hint.
Rusbridger: So I wanted to get a reaction from somebody who’s known Rupert Murdoch for decades, who’s dealt with him, his media titles, who’s been a politician at the receiving end of some of Murdoch’s titles abuse at the highest levels of public life. So this morning, I spoke to Malcolm Turnbull. He was Australia’s prime minister from 2015 to 2018, and I started by asking him what he thought his fellow Aussies legacy would be.
Turnbull: Alan, in the business pages, he’ll be remembered as the young man who inherited a small newspaper in Adelaide and built it up into a global media empire. He’s certainly the most influential Australian businessman on the world stage, but that heroic achievement aside, his legacy is a very dark one. He has, in my view, done more to damage American democracy than any other individual alive today. He’s done enormous damage to politics in this country and indeed in yours in the UK, but perhaps in the United States where his impact has been most deadly, and that is by building up a media group, in particular Fox News, whose business model is to create a climate of anger, resentment, division. It’s really angertainment. It’s been a compelling one and obviously successful commercially, but it’s left America more divided than it’s ever been, at least since the Civil War. Now, he’s not alone in that increasingly crazy right wing media ecosystem, but he’s by far the biggest player and the most influential.
Rusbridger: We might just come back to America, but in Australia, you mentioned that he was hugely successful in building up an enormous empire, and I think he ended up owning 70 per cent of the Australian press. What was the impact on Australian democracy? How did he use that power?
Turnbull: Well, he’s a political player. News Corporation is a very potent political player. He has, over the years I’ve known him, which is nearly 50 years, has gone from being, I would say centre right to increasingly far right. He’s adopted a populist political stance, which he just completely disingenuously portrays as being anti-elitist. The idea that Rupert Murdoch is anything other than the platinum member of the elite is ludicrous, but so he gaslights people talking about standing up for the little man and being anti-elitist, but the issues on which he has faced so much political force have been ones that are profoundly destructive.
Whether that is embracing Donald Trump in the United States and indeed spreading the stolen election lie, which created the environment that enabled January 6th to happen or in Australia as in everywhere where he operates, being the loudest and most influential voice seeking to deny the reality of global warming and delay or obstruct actions taken to address it.
Rusbridger: You rose to be prime minister. When you’re operating at those levels in politics, do you feel pressure on you to bow your policies to the things that he wants?
Turnbull: You certainly have to recognise that he is a player, and when I say he, I mean his organisation. He’s created it in his image, and Rupert, as you know, doesn’t need to tell his editors what to do every day because they know what to do. There’s a company line which they fall in with. Every politician has to take into account the likely reaction of the media. The Murdoch Media empire in Australia is the largest, although I think its influence overall has diminished, but, and this is a parallel with the United States, its influence over the centre right and right wing of politics has increased.
So the right wing of politics increasingly is operating in a media ecosystem. The largest component of which in Australia is the Murdoch Media, and that includes his newspapers and in particular Sky News, which in Australia is wholly owned by Rupert and is really a local version of Fox.
Rusbridger: So your people who have followed you into a Australian politics feel that they have to keep him on board. It’s a present and active element in Australian politics.
Turnbull: Well, I think you’ve got to be alert to that. The Murdoch media is quite capable of running vendettas against individual politicians as you’ve seen right around the world. They certainly regularly campaigned against me very personally because I wasn’t satisfactorily deferential or right wing, I guess, but I’ve said plenty of other examples too. So they do intimidate politicians, but we have the advantage in Australia of having a national public broadcaster, the ABC, the BBC, and we also have compulsory voting and preferential voting, which means our politics tends to operate more at the centre.
Where Murdoch’s voice was most influential politically during my time as a leader of the centre right party and prime minister was with my colleagues and with the members and rusted on supporters of the centre right party, the liberal party, which as you know is effectively the equivalent of the Conservative party in Australia.
Rusbridger: You must know Lachlan Murdoch, who’s now the heir and successor. Would you imagine that things will be very different under him or more of the same?
Turnbull: No, I don’t think so. Lachlan, in my experience and observation over many decades, is, well, I will not say many decades, probably over 38 years, is that he is more ideological than his father. You can see that. One of his first decisions was to appoint Tony Abbott to the Board of Fox. Now, Abbott’s not there because of any business or corporate or financial experience. He’s there because he is a absolutely hard right culture warrior and close to Lachlan. He’s not an Australian equivalent of Paul Ryan, who’s also on the Fox Board, who’s the former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. Tony’s a fan of Viktor Orbán. He’s famous for saying the science of climate change has settled as crap, and he’s right out there on the right very much so.
Rusbridger: Despite that, do you think that the overall influence of newspapers and what they think and how they report the news is declining in an environment in which people have got much more choice in how they get their news?
Turnbull: It is and it isn’t. The influence of newspapers as a form, as a format is obviously declined, but newspapers are not all on paper as you know very well. The Guardian in Australia has been very, very successful, and it’s been digital from the outset. So you can’t buy a paper copy of the Australian edition of the Guardian even if you wanted to. In the increasingly self-directed media stew of which a large part is social media. The voices of curated media, mainstream media remain very, very influential.
Essentially, the model, the Fox model, which Sky News operates with here is one that is basically designed. The business model is to rile people up, to make them angry, and to turn people against each other, and this drives ratings. Rupert would say, “Well, that’s just an incidental consequence of what turns out to be a very winning formula,” but he’s got to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions. There are very few people, particularly in the US, that would not say that Fox’s impact on American politics has been quite toxic. Of course, it’s created an environment that has seen the increasing polarisation of politics, and that’s done enormous damage.
Rusbridger: Final question. There’s been talk, and I think you’re an active supporter of a royal commission into the power of Murdoch. Is that going to go anywhere?
Turnbull: It needs, obviously, the government, federal government to do it, and the labour government seems very reluctant to do so. They obviously don’t want to pick a fight foot with him, but I think it is important that Murdoch and these media group are held to account politically and, of course, that means by other media.
There was a tendency for, as you know, for the media to lay off each other, a bit of a keep off the grass approach, but News Corporation is a political, and Fox are political organisations. They are as political and operation, if not more so than any of the political parties. They wield enormous political power. They should be subject to considerable scrutiny, but, of course, they’re quite unaccountable. The Murdochs very rarely give interviews to anyone except their own journalists, and even that very rarely. It is extremely unaccountable power and it’s been exercised in a way that, on any view, well, just about any view, has done enormous damage. It should be a matter of real public concern that an organisation with a track record like that wield so much influence.
Rusbridger: So that was Malcolm Turnbull. Always interesting, and as I say as somebody who’s been at the receiving end of quite a lot of abuse from Murdoch’s titles, although we had to remember Turnbull is, in British terms, a conservative. He’s a centre right conservative, and as I think he suggests there that Murdoch has moved so far to the right, that centre right politicians like Turnbull no longer carry favour.
Barber: Well, I’m very interested in the way Rupert Murdoch constantly talks about being anti-elitist. His father was a distinguished war correspondent, first World War, so Keith Murdoch. He went to Oxford. Yes, he did have a Lenin bust on his mantlepiece at Worcester College, but Rupert’s pretty platinum elite. So where does this come from? Well, I think it is a bit of the Aussie outsider. He doesn’t like the establishment. I always remember when I did a book on Reuters and he actually kindly agreed to two interviews and I asked him about the two proprietors of Fleet Street. Well, one was Lord Rothermere, the other Lord Hartwell at the Daily Telegraph, and without hesitation he said, “The worst form of jumped up English aristocrats,” and that came from the heart.
Rusbridger: I have a feeling this is ... I have no evidence of this at all. This is just supposition that at some level, I think, Murdoch hates this country. I suspect that was Oxford. He came here in the 1950s as a raw Australian, and I can imagine he was patronised and looked down on and sneered up by toffee-nosed Oxford undergraduates, and he just had a visceral loathing of the English establishment ever since. I don’t think he’s any big fan of the royal family, and I think you’d have to get him on the couch, obviously, and get a good psychoanalyst to confirm my suspicion, but that’s, I suspect, is where it all came from.
Barber: What better way to get your revenge against the establishment than first to buy the News of the World, the news of the screws, the most salacious newspaper in Britain, now defunct, and the other, to transform The Sun into a top selling tabloid because The Sun was going nowhere in the 1960s. Then of course, he did launch, I was talking about this earlier, satellite broadcasting in the UK and took on the BBC. Now, he really does think that the BBC and his newspapers have said the same throughout the years, the worst form of jumped up liberal self-satisfied, smug establishment. He’s not entirely wrong about that, but he also doesn’t recognise, I think, the important role of public broadcasting in this country.
Rusbridger: There’s a fascinating pattern to what he does on three continents. He has a tabloid in each continent. In Australia, more than one tabloid, and then he has The Times, The Australian, the Wall Street Journal, the posh paper which gives them the credibility and opens the doors for him. Then he has the moneymaking bit, which is the TV station. There’s a nice phrase in the Michael Wolff book where he talks about the tabloids as the dirt business, getting dirt on people, and for 40, 50, nearly 60 years, Murdoch’s papers have been getting the dirt, some of it through criminal means, and that has given him amazing power so that he dines at the highest tables and he shakes the prime minister’s hands, and prime ministers believe that they can’t get elected without him, but at the bottom of it all is the dirt business.
Barber: Well, footnote to history here, Alan, he did have a tilt at the Financial Times in the late ‘80s.
Rusbridger: I didn’t know that.
Barber: He started buying some shares and, of course, in those days, the Financial Times was owned by Pearson, famous for Madame Tussauds and Château Latour wine, very much the premium brands, and he wanted to get his hands on the Financial Times. I was in Washington at the time, but we managed to escape his clutches. So for the next 20 years, essentially, he thought, “The one newspaper I want to buy in the world is the Wall Street Journal,” which he finally did in 2007 or so, and for five and a half billion dollars. Unfortunately, he decided to use the Wall Street Journal to batter the New York Times that complacent smug establishment liberal newspaper in New York, and he didn’t train his guns on the FT as a global news organisation, which is why I’m still sitting here today.
Rusbridger: The interesting thing and, again, it would be interesting to know what Michael Wolff makes with this, but essentially, he’s whittled down a vast media empire to just two divisions now, one is Fox and the other is he’s bundled all his newspapers in Australia, the US, and the UK, plus his publishing interest, Harper Collins, into one company. I imagine that’s going to be quite a difficult company. People still buy newspapers for prestige reasons, but if you’re looking for that to be a steady earner into the future, that’s quite a tough ask.
Barber: I think it is, and this is why the future of Fox broadcasting, the company that’s making really all the money is really at the heart of the matter. I think that and, obviously, we’ll be hearing from Michael about this, that Lachlan Murdoch ... I almost said Lachlan. Lachlan Murdoch is probably the one most close to Rupert and his political views. He’s definitely a conservative, fairly uppercase C, and he wanted to put his person, finally decided after years of playing around with the succession who was going in and out, that Lachlan was the man to run that company.
Rusbridger: Well, of course, according to Malcolm Turnbull, he’s ideologically to the right of Murdoch. You could say of Murdoch that his views have been quite pliable. We always remember he backed Tony Blair in 1997, whereas Lachlan Murdoch’s first action on becoming CEO was to appoint Tony Abbott, and that’s not for his expertise in broadcasting or, indeed, business. It’s just because he’s of the ideological right that at the moment holds sway in America.
Barber: He’d never have backed Blair unless Blair had essentially said the Thatcher revolution remains intact.
Rusbridger: You’ve had more to do with Rupert himself than I have. I only met him once, and I have to say he was charming. My main experience of that organisation was when we spent, whatever it was, two, three, four years landing that phone hacking story properly. I have to say it was a horrible organisation to deal with. They twisted, they turned, they lied, they prevaricated, they attacked back, and the truth had to be really forced out of them. I must say it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Barber: Phone hacking was essential to their business model, wasn’t it? The tabloids. There were others involved. They were not alone in phone hacking, but as the Guardian exposed, they were really the tip of the spear.
Rusbridger: They were, and it explained Murdoch’s power because when we did that, you remember this because the FT and to some extent The Independent were really the only papers who were prepared to join in and report on what by any standards was a major corporate story, but I could see the look in the eyes of MPs, even the police. Do you remember the police announced an investigation and then came back later that afternoon and said, “We’ve had the investigation. There’s nothing to find here”? The regulator, the press regulator, which subsequently closed because they had done such a bad job of holding them to account. This was a man people were frightened of. It goes back to the dirt business, and nobody really wanted to take him on or his organisation. That was with 40 per cent of the British press at that time, and Australia owned 70 per cent of the press. It’s a big warning about the dangers of monopoly and why in any healthy democracy you have to have a variety of not only owners, but also types of media.
Barber: We turn now to the American journalist and author Michael Wolff, whose subject has more recently been Donald Trump in books like Fire and Fury, but it was now written for a second time about Rupert Murdoch. The new book is called The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty, and it’s out just now.
Rusbridger: So Michael Wolff, welcome and congratulations on a highly readable book. I read it in more or less in one sitting, but I suppose my first question is the timing of this book is exquisite because Rupert Murdoch has, quotes, “retired”, but has he really retired? His statement had this curious sentence about, “When I visit your countries and companies, you can expect me to see in the office late on a Friday afternoon.” That reminded me very much of Logan Roy’s final speech where he said, “I’m going to be spending a lot of time here with you because I fucking love it here. So anyone who believes I’m getting out, please shove the bunting up your ass.” Do you believe he’s retired?
Wolff: No, it’s preposterous. He actually, in some sense, literally can’t retire except by death. He holds all the power. The votes are in his hands. He controls the board. He controls who sits as the CEO, Lachlan, his son Lachlan in this case or for the moment, and he’s a meddlesome son of a bitch. So he’s going to go on doing what he does. I would say, really, has anything changed? Probably not. Well, I was going to say that my theory about why he is doing this is this is a Murdoch ploy. He doesn’t want to testify in the Smartmatic $2.7 billion lawsuit.
Rusbridger: We should just explain that that’s the follow up to the Dominion case.
Wolff: I don’t think that if you play this out, this would be successful. I think that he’ll have to testify unless you go into court with doctors and say he’s non-compos mentis, which I don’t think he would let even Rupert even to avoid another billion dollars would not let that happen, but this will delay things and help bring this to settlement discussions.
Barber: Michael, you have many vivid character portraits in this book. I love what you write about Roger Ailes, the inspirational force behind Fox News, for example, and you portray the brothers and sisters well too, but there’s Lachlan, the man in place. My question is, do you think he’s really up to it?
Wolff: No, I think he’s a cypher. I think he always has been ... His entire career has been marked by this unusual for a Murdoch ambivalence. He’s always running away. Matter of fact, in 2017, they basically made the decision that he could not run a vast diversified multinational company, and they sold off most of the assets, in fact, all of the entertainment assets, leaving him with this rump piece.
During the pandemic, he picked up one... Fox News is entirely based in the US, but during the pandemic, he picked up one night and moved his entire family to Australia, and then they began to say things, “Well, he was going to still be on the job because he would stay up all night.” I think that he has seen his role all along as being there to please his father. So I don’t see that as changing overnight.
Barber: So why has he got the job?
Wolff: There’s nobody else. There’s nobody else named Murdoch to take this job unless Rupert wanted to give it to James, and that would mean a radical overhaul of virtually everything, and also probably cutting the profits of Fox down by $2 billion a year to, I don’t know, maybe CNN size, $600m, $700m a year. Would Rupert take that? I’m not so sure. Plus, James is always yelling at Rupert.
Barber: The youngest brother, yeah.
Wolff: Yes. I suppose he could have put his daughter Elizabeth in charge, which might have been the smartest Moodle, but she’s a girl.
Rusbridger: The book begins and ends rather daringly with a death notice and the obituary of Murdoch. From your knowledge, what health is he in? You portray him as somebody who increasingly finds it difficult to focus. You repeatedly emphasise his age is 92. You say that he effectively lost control of Fox. What state is he in?
Wolff: Well, he’s a 92-year-old. My understanding is sometimes some days are pretty good, other days not so good. In other words, I think all you have to do is imagine that we’ve all known 92-year-olds, and the thing that they all have in common is that they don’t run significant public companies and he runs two significant public companies.
Rusbridger: So when that day happens, you’ve got a company’s worth about 30 billion with a newspaper company and the Fox Company, what happens in the days following his death?
Wolff: There’s a lot of lawyers in New York start to rack up very significant billing hours. So technically, what happens after his death is his shares are divided equally among his children, all who now have equal shares. His four oldest children, they each have a vote. There’s no tie breaking mechanism, and they have to agree. They hold the power to decide what’s going on. Nobody else holds the power.
What happens when they can’t agree and they can’t... The two brothers are implacably, almost mortally opposed to one another. The sister Elizabeth herself is a rather successful media professional, holds a midpoint, a less fraught point of view, but at the same time, she is not a right winger, not a Trumper in any way. She has her own issues about what Fox has become, about how that has damaged the legacy of the family.
Then actually, there’s this other sub wrinkle because there are two other children, and those children do not have what they call a political participation in the trust. They have no vote, but the trust has a fiduciary duty to them. So they’re inevitably going to have lawyers. Also, remember, each of these children has $2 billion in their pocket from the previous sale of Murdoch family assets, so they can pay for a lot of lawyers. So in some, I think you would have to say this is going to be a mess.
Barber: Michael, let’s turn to politics in America and the role of Fox News. I think it was Charles Krauthammer, the columnist who said that Rupert Murdoch, and by implication also Roger Ailes, discovered a niche market in American television, half the American public. This is the sort of silent majority, if you like, those of a conservative bent. Fox News did a brilliant job in tapping that market with memorable slogans like, “We Report, you decide.” What do you think will happen after Rupert leaves to Fox News?
Wolff: I think something is already happening. Fox News is cable television, and cable television is undergoing a significant transformation from a high growth business to a low or no growth or negative growth business. So despite everything that’s happening in the Murdoch family, Fox is going to undergo a transformation. It is no longer going to be as important as it once was because it’s cable television.
Barber: Let’s talk about Donald Trump. You’ve written a memorable book, Fire and Fury. I consumed that one, by the way, in 24 hours too. What do you think Donald Trump’s view is of Rupert Murdoch and what do you think Rupert Murdoch’s view of Donald Trump? You’ve got some rather choice epithets of he thinks he’s an oath and an idiot, but what about Trump’s view of Murdoch?
Wolff: He was up until the past year and a half, two years, really after the midterm elections, Trump would make a lot of excuses for Murdoch. He might get mad at Fox, but Murdoch was Murdoch. He was a billionaire. He had achieved what he had achieved, and Trump was always very impressed by this and carved out a safe space for Rupert. You could say nothing about Rupert. Then as the DeSantis bubble went on, Trump became angrier and angrier and realised that it was not only Fox that was his enemy, it was Rupert that was his enemy.
Barber: Rupert was going ... He thought that Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, was going to be a serious challenger for the nomination and it’s not just happened. Michael, I want to go back to an assertion you make at two points in the book, which I was a little surprised by, but obviously you’ve got different sources, but you say that Rupert Murdoch directed Roger Ailes to tilt towards Hillary in the summer of 2016 because essentially he said, “Trump’s a loser. We don’t want to be backing Trump.” Now, I had lunch with Rupert Murdoch in June 2016 in London, and I can remember him very clearly being pretty anti-Hillary, and I was surprised by that, that you claim that to be the case.
Wolff: Well, that’s from Roger Ailes and he was pretty vivid in his description of this to me, and including saying that this was really one of the few times that he had ever gotten a directive from Rupert. So I’m inclined to believe. I think that probably Rupert certainly had no love for Hillary, but in the end, and remember at this point in time, it was inconceivable, inconceivable that Trump would win and Rupert doesn’t back a loser.
Barber: That’s for sure. You don’t think that Jerry Hall was whispering sweet nothings about Hillary in his ear?
Wolff: I do think she was, yes, and I think his children were also saying things. I think he was surrounded by people who were telling him that they had to do something.
Rusbridger: This is why I find your book so fascinating and why Murdoch is so fascinating that in a sense this is a channel, Fox News, I think you used the phrase something like it reported to its audience, and I suppose this comes down to Murdoch’s motivation. He had contempt for Trump, and yet he knew that his channel had to back Trump. So in the end, was he more interested in the money or was he more interested in the power or what was good for America?
Wolff: Well, I think in the end he’s caught between Iraq and a hard place on this. He is all in and has been all in for Ron DeSantis, and as that fails, he’s been casting about for a new candidate, but at the same time insisting that everybody maintain their ratings, insisting that Fox still be number one, that from a business standpoint, the game has not changed in the least, and that’s a fairly precarious position to be in when your audience is effectively the Trump base when you are trying to do everything to keep Trump off of your air and then getting into the situation where Trump is refusing to come on your air. This week is the second debate, which Trump is snubbing the Fox sponsored debate.
Rusbridger: This is going to continue after his death, isn’t it? Your chapter’s on James Murdoch has this repeated phrase that Murdoch wants to make Fox a force for good, and he wants to purge the toxic legacy of the Murdoch name, but if he did that, he must know that if he tried to effectively turn Fox into CNN, it would destroy the value of the business. So is James Murdoch more interested in the money or is he more interested about the health of the US democracy and what the name Murdoch means?
Wolff: I think the latter. Curiously from his point of view, if you break this down, the money structurally doesn’t mean that much to him because while they control the voting power of the company, they actually have a relatively small amount of the equity in this company. So James, who, remember, already has $2 billion in his pocket can take over this company, change this company, and literally what would he personally lose? He would not feel what he was losing.
Barber: Michael, this would be an exorcism of the century to try and change Fox News into something which is more mainstream, somewhat liberal. It just can’t happen, can it, without destroying the old entity?
Wolff: No, I don’t think it can happen. I don’t think ... In the end, I don’t think his siblings will let that happen. We can consider the shareholder suits that would ensue if he did that. No, I would say no, that they’re going to get to the point where they’re going to say, “Our only alternative is to sell the sucker.”
Barber: Now, I know you’re not a gambling man, and I know that you artfully constructed the end of this book to leave the reader hanging as to who is actually going to come out on top, but do you have a private bet on who you think will come out
Barber: Well, there we have it. I think that’s what we call an exclusive from Michael Wolff. I have a question though about the way you’ve written this book, Michael, and you do, and I’m sure many have told you, you write an extraordinarily engaging way and you get right into character. You explain motivation so you feel you are living within the characters. On the other hand, of course, there are no footnotes, and a lot of this is as if you’re a fly on the wall and you, obviously, weren’t in in all the meetings. So how do you get around that fact of, well, has he maybe shaded some of this? Has he let his imagination run right?
Wolff: At some level you have to trust me or you have to just accept that other people will write other books. What do you get from this approach? You get something from this approach that you would not get from another approach. Why should you trust me? Well, I think you have to read the book, judge for yourself whether there’s some internal consistency here that makes sense, whether this comports with what is happening. It helps that I said this is the end, and then Rupert Murdoch steps down.
Barber: That’s a very good artistic device, a theatrical device, the way you set it up at the beginning and the end. Is there anybody who didn’t talk to you that you really regret not having in the book?
Wolff: Yeah, I actually can think of one person, but let me not say who that is.
Barber: I’m glad you took such a long time to answer that question, Michael.
Rusbridger: Just going back to the answer you gave on Elizabeth because we’ve all watched all the episodes of Succession, and this is the heart of Succession, but your chapter on Elizabeth says that she’s politically in the same neck of the woods as James, and the other sister, Pru, you paint as somebody who’s taken very little interest in the media business and will go with whatever the other two siblings suggest. So for Elizabeth to win, as it were, she’s got to repudiate James. Is that right? That she has to throw in a lot with Lachlan, who in all other respects feels the antithesis of what she stands for?
Wolff: Yes, that’s about it.
Rusbridger: Talking of Succession, do they watch it?
Wolff: They say they don’t.
Rusbridger: What do you suspect?
Wolff: How could they not?
Rusbridger: How could they not?
Wolff: I say I don’t read my reviews.
Rusbridger: This has been an extraordinary life. I think the implication that we pick up from your book is that his legacy has been spoiled by hanging on too long. If he had gone 15, 20 years ago, his legacy might’ve been different. What do you think his final legacy will be?
Wolff: I think it’s a small tragedy in its way. I think it will be Fox and Trump. You won’t be able to tell the Murdoch story without putting that in the lead, and that is a tragedy and a major irony because the truth is that he never was that interested in Fox. It was a business he was happy to collect the money from, but he’s not a television guy, he’s certainly not a television programmer, he’s not a television executive, and Roger Ailes was doing his thing and it was making lots of money so he could turn the blind eye to it and he could buy the Wall Street Journal and think that was going to be his legacy, and I think he got hung on this.
Rusbridger: Michael, thank you for joining us on Media Confidential and good luck with the book.
Barber: Good luck, Michael. It’s a great book.
Wolff: Thanks so much.
Rusbridger: So that was Michael Wolff, whose book about Murdoch comes out today. What did you make of that, Lionel?
Barber: Most interesting thing was how he described the Murdoch story as something of a tragedy, and in response to your question about, well, if he’d maybe stepped away 15 years ago, and by the way, 15 years ago he would’ve been 75, then things would’ve been maybe slightly different, but the legacy of backing Trump, giving Trump a format, calling into question the legitimacy of the election and in effect endorsing Trump’s claims has done tremendous damage, reputational damage, but also financial damage because that settlement with the voting system cost them 800 million and they’re still going to be court.
Rusbridger: That being very strong. For me, I thought it was the prediction that Shiv was going to win, I mean, Elizabeth. When I put it to him how that would happen, the mind games you have to play in order for Shiv to throw in her lot with Roman or whoever, she has to really make an alliance with Lachlan whose politics she bores. So it’s going to be like all these things at the heart of Murdoch, is it about politics? Is it about business? Is it about money? Is it about honour? Strange word to use, but it’s going to be as gripping as anything Jesse Armstrong and their script writers have come up with.
Barber: So busy media week, but what else has been on your cultural radar, Alan?
Rusbridger: I went to see a rather remarkable opera by George Benjamin, who he’s one of those figures who is well-known in this country. He is Sir George Benjamin, but really well-known in Europe. He’s in recent years written four operas. This was at the Small Opera House in the Royal Opera House, the Lindley Auditorium.
I also interviewed him for Prospect, and he was really in mourning for the state of music in this country and the fact that starting in schools and with the recent Arts Council cuts to things like the BBC Singers, BBC Orchestra, lots of little groups around the country in East Anglia and Manchester, music feels as though it’s unloved by this government.
Meanwhile, Lionel, you’ve been moonlighting on our sister podcast.
Barber: Moonlighting. Well, I have a day job, but there we are. Yes, I have because I recently had the privilege of visiting the Bank of England to interview the governor, Andrew Bailey. We sat in his office overlooking the garden and, by the way, it was the hottest day of the year. In our brief and frank conversation, we covered the challenges that he’s faced over recent years as the nation has grappled with the cost-of-living crisis. Then of course, there was that mini budget when Liz Truss was briefly prime minister.
Rusbridger: Here’s a clip of that meeting. Actually, there isn’t a clip of that meeting because it’s a strange rule around the governor of the bank that when you speak to him, you’re in sort or purdah. You know stuff that you can’t tell the nation because it’s market sensitive.
Barber: Well, this is true, Alan, but we could have put it out earlier, but because of the publishing deadlines, we had to wait till the October issue and that, as it happens, and here is the eloquent defence of the Bank of England, it falls in what’s called the quiet period where the MPC will deliberate on interest rate policy.
Rusbridger: It’s the Monetary Policy Committee.
Barber: Yeah, the Monetary Policy Committee, which is tasked with setting interest rates and you can’t have noise around that, and that’s why we are in a quiet period. So it’ll be okay. We’ll hear everything next week.
Rusbridger: Do you want to wink wink at me? Are interest rates going up or down?
Barber: Nod, nod, wink, wink. It’s not a bad interview.
Rusbridger: Can’t wait to hear it.