I have watched Rupert Murdoch’s career with admiration, irritation and, sometimes, horror.
His besetting sin is that he goes too far. The fault that has landed Fox News settling with Dominion Voting Systems for $787.5 million isn’t new in the Murdoch experience.
He is a publishing and television genius. But like many geniuses, his success keeps running away with him — and then he must pay up. He does so without apology and without discernible contrition. Those who know him well tell me he treats his losses with a philosophical shrug.
Murdoch’s talent reaches into many aspects of journalism. He has nerves of titanium in business and a fine ability to challenge the rules — and, if he can, to bend them.
As an employer, he is ruthless and, at times, generous and indulgent. I know many who have worked for Murdoch, and they speak about the contradictions of his ruthlessness and his generosity, particularly to those who have borne the battle of public humiliation for him. Check out the salaries at Fox News and the London Sun.
The Murdoch story begins, as most know, when he inherited a newspaper from his father. He quickly formed a mini-news empire in Australia.
But Murdoch had his sights set — as many in the former British possessions do — on London and the big time there. While at Oxford, he was hired as a sub-editor at The Daily Express, then owned by another colonial, the formidable Lord Beaverbrook.
In 1968, Murdoch bought The News of the World, a crime-centric Sunday paper. The following year, he bought the avowedly left-wing Sun.
Here Murdoch showed his genius at knowing the makeup of the audience and what it wanted: He flipped The Sun from left politics to the extreme right and, for good measure, stripped the pinups of their bras.
That was a hit with men, and the politics were a revelation: Murdoch had defined a conservative, loyalist and anti-European vein in the British newspaper readership that hadn’t been mined. He went for it and soon had the largest circulation paper in Britain.
After he bought the redoubtable Times and Sunday Times, the Murdoch invasion was complete. He had also been instrumental in the launch of Sky News. Money rolled in and political power and prestige with it — although there is no evidence that he sought formal preferment, like a peerage.
On to New York and U.S. newspapers.
Here, the formula of sex and nationalism foundered. Murdoch didn’t succeed as an American newspaper proprietor except for deftly keeping The Wall Street Journal a prestige publication.
However, he brilliantly — with several bold moves — built a television network. Then, in the cable division, he applied the British formula: Give the punters what they want.
In Britain, it was sex and nationalism. In America, it was far-right jingoism.
Murdoch gave it to Americans just as he had given it to the British: in large helpings of conspiracy, paranoia and nationalism.
Royal and celebrity gossip was the mainstay in his tabloids after right-wing Euro-bashing and breast-baring. He paid well for sensationalism, and that attracted a seedy kind of private investigator-journalist, prepared to go further and deeper than his or her colleagues. Corruption of the police was the next step, along with telephone bugging and other egregious transgressions.
Eventually, it all came tumbling down. Murdoch had to appear before a parliamentary committee, fire people and, in a strange move, close The News of the World as though the inanimate newspaper had been breaking the law without anyone knowing.
In fact, he had gone too far. The joyful music of the cash register had led to a wilder and wilder dance. He damaged his legend, his papers and all of Britain’s journalism. He also lost the opportunity to buy control of Sky News.
But Fox was a joy. Oh, the sweet music and the wild dance! Give them what they want all day and all night. Give them their heroes untrammeled and their own facts. And finally, the election results they, the punters, wanted to believe, not the ones that the polls posted.
You can see the two-tiered approach that has worked so well for Murdoch working again here. Some respectable publications and some vulgar moneymakers, like his respected The Australian and his raucous big-city tabloids; in Britain, the respected Times and Sunday Times and the ultra-sensational Sun; in America, the respected Wall Street Journal and the disreputable Fox Cable News and his other remaining newspaper, the scalawag New York Post.
For a remarkably gifted man, Murdoch can do some appalling things and has genius without bounds.