The Murdoch pragmatists

Mar 6, 2023
Glass globe on newspapers. Media

Anyone who has worked closely with media mogul Rupert Murdoch comes away with two abiding impressions.

The first, is that Murdoch is one of the most impressive business leaders one will ever encounter. His boundless energy, intelligence and innate charm, his ability to look around corners and see opportunities where his rivals see none, a gut feeling for “what the punters really want” and a seeming indifference to criticism – no matter how vile or hateful – makes him a standout from any of his contemporary peers.

The second impression is Murdoch’s ruthless pragmatism.

“Never get between Rupert and a dollar bill,” a former Murdoch associate once told me.

“You have to understand, It’s not about ideology or power, it’s just business. The empire, the deal at hand, comes first – and everything else a distant second”.

In business circles, that steely pragmatism is not necessarily a character flaw. It is how a great and powerful media empire – whose tentacles at its height reached around the globe – was built from humble beginnings from a small afternoon newspaper in downtown Adelaide. But amongst those elements which run a distant second, Murdoch’s critics might argue, include a moral conscience and the greater good of the people.

Take for example, the 91-year-old media mogul’s deposition recently in the defamation suit filed by Dominion Voting Systems in relation to Donald Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 US Presidential elections were “stolen”. In his own words, Murdoch concedes that in his view “the numbers were the numbers” and that he “doubted the claims of voter fraud from the beginning”.

Yet in the case of Fox News – the most watched cable news channel in the country, rather than call out the Trump lies and defend the attacks on American democracy, Murdoch acknowledges that in talks with his son and co-chairman Lachlan, the main concerns were how to stop the bleeding of viewers from his channels who were turning to more conservative news outlets that supported the stolen election conspiracy theories. The chosen line by the ever pragmatic Murdochs’ saw a number of high profile Fox News anchors continue to espouse and promote the Trump falsehoods and many would argue, assist the undermining of American democracy.

Asked by a Dominion lawyer if he could have prevented Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani from continuing to spread falsehoods about the election on air, Murdoch responded, “I could have. But I didn’t.”

Rupert and Lachlan can justifiably show cause (and certainly Lachlan may well do so in his contentious defamation suit against Crikey) that they collectively came under enormous pressure from the highest levels to do more to openly support Trump – but resisted. Indeed, the other major Murdoch media outlets in the United States – the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post both come out strongly to condemn Trump and his falsehoods.

Nevertheless, Fox News is the most powerful conservative news organization in America and by far the Murdoch’s biggest cash cow. In the final wash-up, it was not the greater good and American democracy that was deserving of Murdoch’s protection – instead it was the rivers of gold that derive from Fox News’ conservative advertising and subscription base that received their undivided attention.

Truth be told, Rupert Murdoch never got into the media business because he was interested in good journalism. He got into journalism, because for a very long time – certainly before the disruption brought upon it by digital technologies, the media business was a nice little earner – and for a while at least – brought with it great political influence.

And even in exerting that influence, Murdoch has flipped and flopped between political parties – variously expressing support for Coalition or Labor in Australia, the Conservatives or Labour in the United Kingdom for example – not for any ideological reasons but because he was seeking favour, benefits or due care and attention from the victors. And for decades – or at least until social media began to undermine the electoral influence of traditional media, it paid dividends. Prime Ministers and Presidents around the world came to him on bended knee seeking his blessing.

It was like the old adage about General Motors, Murdoch was of the view that what was good for News Corporation was good for the country – whichever country. In the US, he even went so far to throw his – and certainly Fox News’ support – behind Donald Trump. A man he privately disdained as an idiot – but who nevertheless – was good for business.

It was the same with the phone-hacking scandal in the UK tied to the now defunct News of the World and other British newspapers owned by Murdoch. Perhaps a bit too ingenuously, the newspaper proprietor claimed he didn’t know about the conspiracy to hack the phone of private citizens and that somehow, his most senior executives who were also amongst his closest confidants had kept it from him. In fact, Murdoch didn’t really want to know the source of the so-called scoops – so long as the titles were selling copies and making money, it really did not matter how they did it. It’s not principles but profit that matters.

In the end, Murdoch’s ruthless pragmatism proved even too much for the one-time rival contenders to the media mogul’s throne – daughter Elisabeth and son James. Both elevated to the very top of the media conglomerate, along with eldest son, Lachlan – Murdoch senior played one against the other to determine his heir apparent – until Elisabeth and James walked away – privately letting it be known they could no longer support the direction of the company – particularly Fox News – nor in good faith, could they any longer sacrifice their personal principles for profit – and the greater good.

The catalyst for their departures was the sale of Twenty First Century Fox’s mostly entertainment assets – including the Hollywood studios, SKY UK and its successful India operations to Disney for $90 billion in 2017. The sale left the Murdoch empire a company now focussed on news and sports – both close to Lachlan’s heart – but a vastly slimmed down operation consisting of primarily the Fox New and Fox Sports operations in the US and the News Corporation mastheads – including the Wall Street Journal and New York Post, The Times and The Sunday Times in the UK and The Australian and its tabloid sisters in Australia.

So, it has been left to Lachlan, the anointed one, to continue in his father’s footsteps and do his best to preserve what is left of the family dynasty – no small task in an industry heavily disrupted by new digital technologies and a host of behemoth streaming content platforms like Netflix and Amazon amongst others.

And to date, the younger Murdoch gives every indication of having inherited both his father’s steely business pragmatism and passion for his right-leaning news empire. And at the centre of that legacy, is Fox News – for without its extraordinary rich subscription and advertising revenues – the rest of the empire would be floundering. No surprise then, that the recent Dominion court dispositions show Lachlan ready to meddle in the minutiae of the broadcasters news operations in order to preserve its precious audience of right wing conservative and Trump conspiracists.

In Australia, where Lachlan now resides much of the time with his family, he has determined that the best prospects for his ailing Australian mastheads, is also well right of centre. Again, it’s a business proposition that makes perfect sense given the left of centre media space is heavily contested by outlets such as the ABC, Nine (Fairfax), The Guardian, Crikey, The Saturday Paper etc. The other end of the pool is scarce of competition and is decidedly where Lachlan believes the future of both his Australian newspapers – and Sky News reside. There lies uncontested, fertile ground for advertisers and subscribers.

Does it explain the strident climate change scepticism, the frenzied anti-China rhetoric, the pro-Coalition, anti-Labor bias, vehement ABC criticism, the anti-union, pro capitalist free market stance and all the other associated right wing grievances? Do those views actually reflect Lachlan’s own? Maybe – but for the Murdochs, it is seemingly “not personal, it’s just business”.

The quandary for the Murdoch detractors, is that take away Fox News and some of the right wing political bias and the loopy conspiratorial columnists, and the fact is Rupert and Lachlan still underwrite some of the best investigative journalism, perceptive comment and analysis, finest feature writing and arts coverage in all media – as evidenced in the best of the Wall Street Journal, Times and Sunday Times, The Australian and even occasionally the State-based tabloids. The Fox News rivers of gold, subsidize some very good journalism elsewhere in the empire.

It is perhaps as Oscar Wild once put it “that sometimes you have to do something bad to do something good”.

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