Could Murdoch really be planning to sell 'The Times'?

Michael Wolff, Murdoch's biographer and the man who started the rumour, scents a schism
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The Independent Online

The pity of a biography of a living person is that the story may continue dramatically after the book is done. William Shawcross published his Rupert Murdoch biography in 1993 when his subject was 62 – the most significant parts of Murdoch's career and the most compelling twists in his life were yet to come. I felt a little safer. Murdoch turned 78 shortly after mine came out last year.

But I am not sure I will get a better deal than Shawcross.

When my book closed, Murdoch, having fulfilled a near lifelong dream of acquiring The Wall Street Journal, was sitting on top of the world. But months later – partly the result of the recession, and partly the result of vast and sudden changes in the media industry – there were few parts of his empire not in financial and existential straits. What's more, as the old man aged, the generational push-pull and power-jockeying within the company was becoming ever more dicey.

I reported last weekend via Twitter – a technology which Murdoch, militant in his dismissal of such things, cannot comprehend – that bankers in London were talking about rumours of a sale of The Times and The Sunday Times. It is a shame Murdoch does not Twitter because it is exactly the sort of gossip on which he has based so many business moves. Many times I have witnessed him deconstruct such fuzzy reports and interpret their true (or proximate) meanings.

I'd estimate that 20 per cent of Murdoch's time is occupied by bankers bringing him sketchy news. Each report would entail an assessment of the standing of the banker and hence the standing of the rumour. In the case of the Times rumours, in my estimation, what he would conclude is that, at the very least, a conversation about a sale had occurred. It would not have been at the highest levels. The conversation would not, for example, have involved Rupert himself, that would be at a strict Omerta level – no one would be talking.

But the possible sale of The Times group, if you are thinking about raising cash, or stemming losses, or having any kind of strategic conversation whatsoever, would be an obvious option to put on the table. It might have been put there by a banker who has a buyer or who is confident he can do a deal. Murdoch would understand that, in a company with myriad financial problems and philosophical conflicts like his own, a rumour like this would be a sign of strategising or contingency planning among people whose job it is to anticipate and solve problems.

While Rupert might be adamantly opposed to such a sale – as he is adamantly opposed to selling any newspaper – there are other voices in his company. This rumour, spread by reputable bankers, quite likely means those voices are getting louder – expressing growing power or growing anxiety.

Here's another story that recently went through media circles (I tweeted this too): at a screening of Fox's Avatar in London, Murdoch fell asleep within minutes. He has always been a poor audience, but the point of this rumour was his age. Rupert's age (79 next month) is the thing you're not allowed to talk about at News Corp. But it's the hand-wringing subtext of all discussions about his nearly messianic obsession with newspapers and his personal war with the digital technology that he believes is killing them.

What is to be done? Is the angst-filled question at News Corp, partly about all these newspapers, but partly about Rupert himself (or at least his obsession with them).

His two children who live in London – James, a ranking executive at News, and Elisabeth, who runs one of the world's largest independent television production companies – are each moving to declare their distance from the papers. James, the former chief executive of Sky, always makes it clear his expertise and interest is television. Elisabeth, issued a paean the other day to all the technologies her father decries, suggesting that aspects of digital piracy may be good for business.

This is another thing about rumours. They are about conflict. Many of the rumours around News Corp are barometers of the rising power of the Murdoch children and the factionalisation of the company – the recent attack by Elisabeth's husband, Matthew Freud, on Fox News chief Roger Ailes was yet another aspect of that Kremlinology.

Rumours are measure of motion – the tremors of upheaval to come.

The facts are stark. Rupert is old. He has hitched the company to a business that virtually no sentient being believes has a future. And the people around him – the people closest to him – are more than just a little concerned. That's how rumours get started.

The paperback edition of Michael Wolff's The Man Who Owns the News will be out shortly