Profile: Murdoch's core, or taking the pith

The Real ... Rupert Murdoch C4
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The Independent Culture
It was always unlikely that Rupert Murdoch would let himself be stitched up. That he participated in last night's profile, The Real ... Rupert Murdoch (C4), gave it a taint of official approval. Anything newsworthy he said was reported two weeks ago: that he "might regret" some of the past excesses of his papers, and that he thinks he's made "a worthwhile contribution to the world". The programme makers promised to unravel "the paradox at Rupert Murdoch's core", but this was impossible. I'm not sure there is a paradox at Murdoch's core. I'm not sure there's anything at Murdoch's core.

Superficially there were many paradoxes. He was one of the few socialist students at Oxford who had his own car. He combines, according to the commentary, a gambler's love of risk with a puritan work ethic. He smiles a lot, but he also sacks people a lot.

Along with an interview with Murdoch himself, there were comments from family members. His mother reprised her occasional sigh of "Oh, Rupert, no!" to demonstrate how she feels about some of the stories in her son's newspapers. She wasn't specific, but I will always associate her resigned distaste with a Sun headline that flashed by in a montage: "Totty Botty Drives Them Potty". Bet she said "Oh Rupert, no!" that day.

The programme traces Murdoch's rise, a CV familiar to admirers, detractors, employees and conspiracy theorists. Murdoch started out running the Adelaide News, a small paper owned by his father. He sacked its editor, a family friend, over an editorial campaign against executing an aborigine accused of murder. He broke into Adelaide television, but lost out on a broadcasting monopoly due to his paper's criticism of the then Australian prime minister, Robert Menzies. From this he learned a lesson: "not to go and suck up to politicians, but that you just had to cover your political bases". Not sucking up has served him well ever since in Britain, America and China.

It is strange to remember that Murdoch came to Fleet Street as a "white knight" to help the Carr family fight off Robert Maxwell's bid for the News Of The World. He soon saw off the Carr family as well. Then he bought the Sun, a broadsheet, trade-union paper, for pounds 250,000, relaunched it as a tabloid, bought the Times, broke the unions, launched a satellite and started an American TV network. And now he wants to take over Manchester United.

Interviews with former employees, Kelvin MacKenzie and Andrew Neill included, hinted that sucking up to a tyrant wasn't always pleasant, but there was also an effort to look back with amusement, as if it were all rather fun. Old footage of him bollocking some Times editors showed him to be a bully of ordinary magnitude. Maybe off-camera his hectoring was more thrilling.

While The Real ... Rupert Murdoch undermines the "demonisation" of Murdoch, which may explain why he participated, it offers in its place a dull picture of a driven, lonely man who spends nearly 24 hours a day talking on the phone, and who doesn't see the point of a global media empire beyond having it and making it bigger. What does he want it for? What does Murdoch believe in? Well he's "egalitarian", in a media tycoon sort of way, and he believes in offering people "choice", an empty buzz word. He doesn't seem to care about much else, or maybe he just doesn't want to let on. Normally, faced with such a difficult subject, profiles fall back on telling detail, but here there doesn't seem to be any. Does he have pets, favourite sports, annoying habits? Does he like cheese? Does he take sugar? Ultimately profiles of moguls like Murdoch or Bill Gates, however in-depth, can never really tell you what they're like, because they live in an unknowable world. They build business empires with a combination of enormous risk, ceaseless toil, ruthlessness and dumb luck. We don't want to know how they do it, we want to know why they do it. One wonders if they know themselves.