If Rupert Murdoch had his way you wouldn’t be reading these words. Three decades ago he instigated a vicious newspaper price war with the obvious aim of driving The Independent out of his business, selling his product for a mere 10p. He saw a successful new entrant to the quality paper market and used his comparative commercial advantage to attempt to destroy it.
Anyway, we’re still around, thanks to our readers. The first episode of The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty (BBC Two) tells us that while we might all think we know about Murdoch, “his story is rarely told”. Apart from a rare interview clip with Murdoch’s second wife Anna, where she calls him “very gentle and highly idealistic”, this is the one claim in the documentary that is demonstrably untrue.
We’re all familiar with the Dirty Digger’s relentless rise from small-time Aussie newspaperman to media titan as the owner of The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times, the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Fox News, as well as for the phone-hacking scandal at the now-defunct News of the World, and his political influence. We even know plenty about his private life, his four wives, and six kids of the Murdoch “dynasty”.
The mogul has occasionally been happy to let the cameras in, though not this time. The programme’s producers, therefore, had to rely on quite a lot of archive material, but it was shrewdly chosen. Thus we are treated to the younger jet-set era Murdoch bustling around newsrooms; fag in gob. We see him frolicking in the pool with his family, including the time when teenage Elisabeth playfully attempts to drown the old monster.
There is an extraordinary interview with himself and a pregnant Wendi Deng, who he met while she was an intern, discussing what language their progeny will speak and some absurd footage of the dotard boxing. It all speaks to a man who seems at once extraordinarily ordinary but also has a nasty streak of vanity to complement his other unattractive qualities. As with media titles, he seems to enjoy collecting vices. That’s not news, though. This documentary tells a familiar story, but it’s an enthralling portrait of a man for whom the world is never enough.
Still, there was plenty of fresh material in the first of the three episodes of biography, including candid contributions from his various editors, including Andrew Neil, Piers Morgan, and David Yelland, plus other accomplished raconteurs who encountered him along the way. The best insight was from Les Hinton, his right-hand man from 1959 to 2011, the longest association with Murdoch anyone has enjoyed. Hinton explains how four days after one of Murdoch’s weddings he was called up to organise a business conference at the honeymoon villa: “His best friend is the business. That’s his life’s devotion. He never stops working. I don’t think ever in his mind Rupert could distinguish between being off duty or on duty”.
Murdoch enjoys being Murdoch far too much ever to retire. He plainly wants to live forever. I wouldn’t put it past him, frankly.
Much of the show was taken up with the close and unhealthy relationship between the Murdoch organisation and the Blair government, which is well documented. I enjoyed Alastair Campbell’s re-telling of what Murdoch said to him about the pair being like two porcupines nervously making love (though the original language might have been earthier). Campbell himself viewed Murdoch as a big dangerous dog in the corner of the room you want to keep quiet, which is about right.
Neil “Wolfman” Wallis, once deputy editor of The Sun, also gives the lie to the notion that Murdoch never directly told his titles what to do, the proprietor telling the cowed Wallis early in the 1997 election: “Hated your paper this morning ... you’re getting this wrong. You’ve got this totally wrong. We are not just backing Tony Blair. We are gonna back the Labour Party and everything it does in this campaign 200 per cent. And you’ve gotta get this right.” Blair ended up as godfather to one of Murdoch’s children, but maybe Murdoch doesn’t see Blair in the same light these days.
True, Murdoch’s family has had a bit more success than that of his one-time rival, the late Robert Maxwell (father of Ghislaine), but Prue (his eldest from his first marriage), Elisabeth, Lachlan, James, Grace, and Chloe still live in the shadow of their father and no successor is obvious. According to Neil he liked to play them off against each other. Now, almost 90 years old, Murdoch seems intent on doing so long after he’s put his own very last edition to bed.