BOOK REVIEW / The Digger's Tale: Rupert Murdoch - William Shawcross: Chatto, 18.99

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IN 1990 Random House, the United States publisher, announced that it had acquired the rights to what promised to be one of the more fascinating books of our time: the autobiography of the media billionaire Rupert Murdoch. A contract was drawn up, the first part of a dollars 1m advance was paid, and a ghostwriter was hired. Shortly afterwards, Harold Evans, former editor of the Times and Sunday Times, and Murdoch's most damaging critic, became Random House's new chief executive. 'The wheel of fortune makes me your publisher as you used to be mine,' Evans wrote cheekily to his former boss. 'I think it will be a happier experience for you than it was for me. But please don't pull any punches.' Murdoch did not merely pull punches; he pulled the book. The contract was cancelled. The advance was returned. The ghost dematerialised.

Or did he?

Enter the British author, William Shawcross. Shawcross had already been working on a biography of Murdoch for more than a year, without the co-operation of his subject. Now, with his own project abandoned, Murdoch agreed to talk. He was, notes Shawcross gracefully, 'helpful and courteous', as were Murdoch's mother and wife, his business associates, and even his legendary personal assistant, the formidable Dorothy ('Dot') Wyndoe. 'Because he was most helpful, and never sought to impose any conditions upon me, I sent him a draft of the manuscript,' Shawcross explains. 'He chose to make no comment.'

It would be a harsh critic who blamed any biographer for grasping a helping hand from his subject. Nevertheless, Shawcross was probably ill-advised. There is something about this book - it is not always easy to put your finger on it - but there is something faintly compromised about it. Murdoch, as Shawcross points out, can exercise mesmeric charm when it suits him, and a score of people who should have known better have fallen for it and lived to regret it. Time and again, as Shawcross bends over backwards to give his subject the benefit of the doubt, or fails to draw the obviously damning conclusion from his own Herculean research, or gushes about the wonderful new era of satellites and computers, one feels the shadow of Murdoch falling heavily across the page.

None of this is to deny that Shawcross's biography is by far the best ever written about Murdoch, or that Murdoch himself has qualities which merit respect. In 1960, his company had annual revenues of dollars 5m. By 1991, these had swollen to some dollars 8.5bn. He employs 31,000 people and publishes 60 million papers every week. His BSkyB reaches three million British and Irish homes; 86 million American homes receive the output of his Fox Broadcasting. He owns one of the most famous studios in Hollywood (20th Century Fox) and one of the world's largest publishers (HarperCollins). To build this empire, he has pushed his health to the edge of destruction and his fortune to the brink of bankruptcy. One would have to be pretty mealy-mouthed not to admire the sheer human force and spirit that has gone into such an enterprise.

There is more to be said in his favour. Murdoch has a robust attitude to free speech. He does not sue. He gives space and airtime to journalists with views utterly different from his own (among them, until recently, this reviewer). Many of the vested interests he has fought deserved to be beaten. Shawcross makes a telling point about his famous onslaught at the Edinburgh Television Festival when he denounced British television as an 'integral part of the British disease', snobbish, timid and elitist. 'He had expected hostile questions,' writes Shawcross. 'There were almost none. The British broadcasting establishment was even weaker than he had suggested.' It still is. Unbelievably, the BBC recently helped Sky gain exclusive rights to British football. Its management is now endorsed by the Sunday Times precisely because it shares Murdoch's philosophy; that mass entertainment should be left to the likes of him, while the public sector concentrates on 'quality'. Why does Murdoch need to destroy the BBC when the BBC is doing the job for him?

Shawcross is also good on the Wapping dispute. The Fleet Street print unions were ripe for the taking: 'They had for years made so much money, and had behaved so arrogantly towards fellow unionists as well as towards their employers, that around the country, Sogat and NGA members refused to support their London colleagues by blocking the distribution of Murdoch's papers.' They, too, destroyed themselves. Murdoch was simply cunning and ruthless enough to give them the opportunity. But the point about Murdoch's ruthlessness - which seems on occasion to amount almost to a kind of sadism - is that it is not a tool. It is all-pervasive. It is the heart of the man.

Thus at Wapping he not only broke the stranglehold of the print unions, he also - and quite unnecessarily - humiliated his own journalists. He never once addressed them personally about his plans. His managers simply offered them pounds 2,000 to go to Wapping. If they refused, they would be dismissed. 'I want to go with my head up,' shouted one journalist, 'not on my knees, eating Murdoch shit.'

Ah, but sadly, the consumption of shit is what working for Murdoch usually entails, especially for those who dine at the proprietor's own table. If you cannot swallow it, eventually you must go. Rohan Rivett, his first editor, was sacked by letter and told to clear his desk that very day. Adrian Deamer, editor of the Australian, was fired, and so was Eric Beecher, editor of the Melbourne Herald. ('The basic problem,' said Beecher, 'is that Rupert has contempt for those who work for him.') Other casualties have included Harold Evans, Bruce Matthews, Gerald Long, Barry Diller and, most recently, Murdoch's company chairman (and schoolfriend) Richard Searby, whom he did not even have the grace to sack to his face. Loyalty counts for nothing. To take one tiny example: Andrew Neil, who made the Sunday Times one of Murdoch's most profitable papers and who launched Sky Television, is described by Murdoch to Shawcross as 'a chippy Glaswegian who thinks the whole system is rotten'. That kind of public bad-mouthing is typical of Murdoch's management technique.

All the dark side of Murdoch is in this book; one cannot fault Shawcross's industry or honesty. The problem is that it is left to the reader to fashion it into a coherent psychological whole. Shawcross shies away from the task. Murdoch, we learn, does not read books or listen to music. He has few friends. He cannot relax. He sleeps badly. He does not, according to his wife, have any imagination. Even at home, he is a remote figure. He does not play with his children: 'He'd rumple his tie.' When she first began writing fiction, his criticisms were so 'devastating' and 'mortifying' she had to give up. And so on and so forth.

It is a peculiar biographer who makes no attempt to reconcile the private with the public man. It is even more peculiar that a writer with Shawcross's strong moral sense allowed Murdoch to get away with so much. He solemnly recounts Murdoch's own summation of his life's aims as being to have 'a little smidgen of power' and 'to leave the world a better place'. No wonder Murdoch returned the manuscript without comment. He was probably rendered too helpless by laughter to write anything.

The idea that there is something dangerous in a man like Murdoch acquiring so much power, or that such overweening ambition should naturally make us suspicious, or that scepticism about the powerful is a journalist's job - all this seems alien to Shawcross. On the contrary, he defends him: 'If Murdoch had been running a chemical company and Harold Evans had been a dismissed foreman, his complaints would never have gained such wide currency. Much of the criticism of him by journalists and media experts has been repetitive and uninteresting . . .'

But the whole point is that Murdoch is not running a chemical company. He is seeking to become the most powerful disseminator of opinion and entertainment in the world, and a different standard of judgement must apply. Shawcross is full of bile against Harold Evans, but Evans's famous description of how Murdoch combines menace and charm remains unmatched: 'Every editor, and many a politician who deal with Murdoch, thinks that they're the one who is going really to change him. They're like a woman who goes out with a womaniser. She thinks, 'This time, this time he really means

it . . . ' ' The same lethal charm appears to have been exercised upon the author of this book. Mr Shawcross has been seduced.

(Photograph omitted)