Most of the many books about Rupert Murdoch have been written by people who knew him well, such as Harry Evans or Andrew Neil, but fell out with him and were granted no further access. Michael Wolff, the award-winning magazine writer, comes from the opposite direction: although he had met him, he didn't know Murdoch at all yet was granted almost unlimited time. Even more importantly, Murdoch insisted his four elder children also talk to Wolff, and it is these interviews, and his meetings with Wendi Deng, Murdoch's new Chinese wife, which make this a compelling – if flawed – book.
Wolff himself never understood why Murdoch agreed to co-operate. He counted himself among the legions of Rupert-haters in the liberal New York media, and had written nasty pieces about Murdoch's divorce from his wife, Anna, and the millions he spent on the loss-making New York Post (we who work on The Independent don't consider that support for a loss-making paper is necessarily such a bad thing).
The immediate question the family asked was: "Why is he doing this?" Wolff himself never quite figured it out. The chances are Rupert, with his complete lack of introspection or self-analysis, never figured it out either. As with all things in his life, he just did it.
Whatever his motive, he must be regretting it now. Murdoch should have known that Wolff had not come to praise him, and he doesn't. But he doesn't bury him either. What he does do is deflate him, describing in unflattering terms, which Rupert will hate, a wizened old man who mumbles a lot, can't remember what he had for breakfast, and is so vain he insists on secretly dying his hair himself (very badly).
Wolff takes as his central theme the story – as the New York establishment would have it – of the anti-Christ, Evil Incarnate, managing to outwit and humiliate the establishment but dysfunctional Bancroft family and gain control of his ultimate prize, The Wall Street Journal. For the purposes of his tale, tailored for an American audience, that works well. As a historical analysis of Murdoch's life and times, it's a load of cobblers.
There have been many "ultimate prizes" in Rupert's career, many more important to him than the Journal, and there will probably be a few more before this recession – and the 77-year-old Rupert – is done. But if you happen to live in a particular circle in New York, Murdoch taking over the Journal is the biggest thing since 9/11 – and about as bad.
Life and career are sub-themes, told succinctly in a series of flashbacks. Wolff takes the view that we have read more than enough about childhood in Australia, life in Oxford, the launch of the Sun, the creation of Sky TV or Wapping (a seminal event for Murdoch which came within an inch of destroying him, but which barely merits a mention). So, he says, let's get up to date and look at the old man today.
That man, according to Wolff, is rather nicer than expected – but, he says, don't be fooled by that. He fully deserves his reputation as ruthless, nasty and scheming. He finds him strictly one-dimensional – no interest in art, music, history, entirely focused on his business.
Although Rupert is legendarily indiscreet, he is incapable of talking about himself or events from his past – they bore the hell out of him. But Wolff can bore too and, amid the gossip and swordplay, he forces out a genuine scoop, which single-handedly retrieves his book, as he concentrates on a far-from-united family.
This raises the endlessly absorbing issue of what happens to News Corporation après Murdoch senior. News Corporation, worth over $50bn at the market peak ($20bn today), is an eclectic collection of assets which Rupert has opportunistically picked off and jammed together as a media conglomerate which only he understands. He is obsessed by his own immortality and often says, only half jokingly, that he is determined to live, like his mother, Dame Elizabeth, past 100.
But one day he will die, and there will probably be war. All his life, he has wanted to create a family dynasty, pushing first his daughter Elizabeth, then his eldest son Lachlan, as his chosen heirs. Both disappointed him by leaving to do their own thing, but his younger son James, running Wapping, now seems to fit the bill. However, there is clear friction and division in the family which has caused – and does cause – Murdoch extreme discomfort.
Anna, as part of her divorce settlement, forced Murdoch to set up a trust which would give his four eldest children (three by Anna) equal votes in the future of the company. Wolff discovered that, in the event of a two-two division (and they seem to be dividing that way), there will be "absolute deadlock in the affairs of one of the world's largest companies". There's trouble brewing there.
But there's more: forced by Wendi to acknowledge the equal financial rights of her two youngest children, which meant going back on his agreement with Anna, Rupert agreed, as a gesture towards peace, to give each of the four eldest $150m each. Wolff forced an uncomfortable Rupert into admitting that Wendi's two children might also have a vote. "There are four votes now," he mumbled, "but when my little kids grow up, they will get votes when they are 25 or 30 or something." That was the first a shocked family heard of it.
These are the best bits of the book, which contains too many irritating errors. Wolff states that Murdoch lost £1bn on the acquisition of The Times and Sunday Times, whereas in fact he made a profit of about that amount. (I once went over the sums with him and can vouch for them.) And I can think of half a dozen other deals which would rank above the Journal, including the acquisition of the Melbourne Herald, a bit of revenge for the way that company treated his father who ran it for years.
For British readers, the book could have benefited from a proof-read by one of the many UK sources Wolff interviewed. But these are quibbles. It's an enthralling tale about one of the most powerful men in the world, who turns out to be human after all.
Ivan Fallon is the UK chief executive of Independent News and Media and a former deputy editor of the Sunday Times
Life in brief: Rupert Murdoch
Born in Melbourne in 1931, Rupert Murdoch went into the media mogul business after returning from his studies at Oxford University, when he inherited his father's shares and became managing director of News Limited. His News Corp empire includes 'The Sun', 'The Times', Sky TV, Fox News... He is the 109th richest person in the world, worth $8.3bn (£5.6bn), according to the Forbes 400. "You can't be an outsider and be successful over 30 years without leaving a certain amount of scar tissue," he once said.Reuse content