BOOK REVIEW / Into a potty world with Rupert unbared: Chris Horrie on William Shawcross's definitive but unexciting biography of Rupert Murdoch. 'Murdoch' - WIlliam Shawcross: Chatto & Windus, 18.99 pounds
Saturday 26 September 1992
In the same year William Shawcross published Sideshow, his devastating account of Henry Kissinger's secret war in Cambodia. As a piece of sustained investigative reporting the book has rarely been bettered. It deservedly made Shawcross's name as one of the country's most dogged and able journalists.
But times change, and gloomy investigative reporting is out of fashion. The standard set by the Sun in 1978 has proved the more durable. Since then, its vast profits have provided most of Murdoch's working capital for more than a decade and have financed the expansion of his empire into the United States.
The reason is simple enough: people want to be amused and entertained. And Rupert Murdoch has been happy to oblige. This has left Shawcross, and journalists like him, in an interesting position. Do they adapt to the new entertainment-led agenda, or do they ignore it and press on regardless? Must they give up all together?
This mammoth biography of Rupert Murdoch (cut from 1,200 to 700 pages at the editing stage) is not investigative. There are no revelations that would cause much trouble for its subject; at least nothing on the scale of the stink that followed the publication of Sideshow and similar work in the 1970s.
But, at the same time, Shawcross has failed to readjust to the New Age to join the entertainment-led 'Information Circus' that, according to the author, Murdoch controls as Ringmaster.
By the 'info-tainment' standards of the Murdoch press and television stations, this book must be judged a failure. There are no faked diaries or flamed up kiss'n'tell confessions, and far too few drooling descriptions of the interior decor of the Murdochs' many mansions.
Accounts of the Estonian Anna Murdoch's gorgeous frocks are thin on the ground, and no attempt was made to follow her around with a concealed camcorder in the hope that she might be attacked on live television (as on the many imitators of Murdochvision's top-rated police 'reality' show, America's Most Wanted).
Even the basics have been ignored. Shawcross has not even bothered to steal Murdoch's dustbins Sunday Times-style, in order to discover his breakfast cereal preferences. The book has pictures; but where are the telephoto shots of 'Sad Rupert' weeping at a funeral or embracing a cancer-stricken relative?
Murdoch, we are told, missed his own father's funeral. But the last rites of his good friend and financial adviser, Maxwell Newton, in 1990 might have provided a suitable substitute photo-opportunity. Newton, Shawcross reveals, was an alcoholic former brothel keeper, pimp, hardcore pornographer and condom wholesaler. He was so dedicated to the new religion of responsible hedonism and free markets that he was buried with his platinum credit card, 'just in case'.
Instead, the author has relied on the old-fashioned ploy of talking to as many people involved in the story as possible, meticulously compiling and checking facts, and then delivering them in strict chronological order. More than 500 sources are given as evidence of the author's four years of interviewing, research and writing.
New material comes mainly from Murdoch associates and, most importantly, from a series of interviews with the mogul himself. Much of this deals with Murdoch's early life, revealing, for example, that the infant publishing genius hated school and lived in a house with eucalyptus trees lining the drive.
There is much speculation on the psychological traits Murdoch may have inherited from his parents and grandparents, and repeated references to ancestral influences coming to the fore at crucial moments during his later career. Potty training and related matters certainly seem to have had an enduring influence.
The wish to honour the memory of his father Keith is given as the explanation of a rare example of sentiment coming before profit. Keith covered Gallipoli as a young reporter during the First World War. In the 1980s Murdoch paid for the production of a financially unpromising feature film about the campaign. The subject matter was so obscure to most Americans that it was apologetically sub- titled: 'From a place you've never heard of; a story you'll never forget.'
Beyond this, Shawcross paints the familiar picture of Murdoch as a colonial outsider and underdog who pitted himself the British Establishment (a group of people that appears to stretch from the Royal Family to Nupe members and primary school teachers united mainly by the fact that they do not work for Rupert Murdoch).
The Murdoch we see as a young man at Worcester College, Oxford, was already determined not to be a loser. We learn that he displayed a bust of Lenin on his mantlepiece and was blackballed from the cricket team. He lost an election for the secretaryship of the Oxford University Labour Club to Gerald Kaufman, whom Murdoch still remembers as a 'fucking greasy know-all'.
Underpinning the book is an intellectual thesis that casts Murdoch as only a bit player in a dawning Information Age where everyone from Timbuctoo to China will watch TV constantly, while interactive fibre optic cables beam messages around the world in nanoseconds.
To describe the New Order, Shawcross revives the 1960s notion of a shrinking Global Village, and uses it as a location for parts of his narrative. So when Murdoch is thinking about Sky TV he is located, according to Shawcross, in The Village. (Robert Maxwell, meanwhile, appears in a minor role as a sort of Global Village idiot.)
Shawcross's book is not the first biography of Rupert Murdoch, and it may not be the last. The tycoon's own version was ghost-written by an American journalist last year. But, according to Shawcross, Murdoch was so preoccupied with his debts that he returned his dollars 1m advance to the US publishers Random House and shelved the manuscript.
Nevertheless, unless Murdoch changes his mind and produces the info-tainment version, this book will remain the definitive account of his life.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
life + styleClarissa Baldwin is the brains behind the slogan 'A Dog is for Life not just for Christmas'
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