Murdoch unmasked: Meeting a media mogul
He dyes his hair, drinks coconut water, and outraged his mother when he got divorced. A new biography paints the most revealing portrait yet of the most powerful man in the media
Thursday 04 September 2008
Rupert Murdoch's biographer got an up-close-and-personal look at the media mogul over nine months of interviews, but there was one thing that Michael Wolff couldn't quite pin down. Just what colour was that hair? At 77, it is surely grey – there are photos that suggest as much. And yet, one afternoon it might be "flaming orange", then "sometimes aubergine".
It took a trip to Mr Murdoch's daughter, Prudence MacLeod, in the newspaperman's native Australia to get the scoop. "I've said to him, 'Dad, I understand about dyeing the hair and the age thing' – he never wants to die – 'but just go somewhere proper.' But he insists on doing it over the sink because he doesn't want anybody to know. Well, hello! Look in the mirror."
Such is the interest in Wolff's semi-authorised biography that its publisher, Random House, has brought forward the release to December to grab a chunk of the Christmas gift sales. And this week, Vanity Fair, the US magazine to which Wolff contributes, has offered a sneak peek of what was learnt in 56 hours of interviews with Mr Murdoch and countless more with friends, relatives and enemies.
Wolff has only just delivered his manuscript, which sets out what motivates Mr Murdoch and majors on the machinations which won him control of The Wall Street Journal, the most powerful conservative voice in US newspapers. But Random House editors are working furiously to get the book out. They are confident that The Man Who Owns The News: Inside The Secret World Of Rupert Murdoch provides the first truly intimate portrait of a man whose pungent right-wing views and powerful media empire – spanning The Sun, The Times and BSkyB in Britain, the Fox News channel in the US, Star TV in Asia and now the MySpace social networking site – has made him a bogeyman for liberals the world over.
If we are to believe hints in the Vanity Fair article, published tomorrow, Wolff has no shortage of anecdotes to make Mr Murdoch's liberal critics blanche. "He remains a militant free-marketeer and is still pro-war (grudgingly, he's retreated a bit)," the author says. "And there was the moment, one afternoon, when over a glass of his favorite coconut water (meant to increase electrolytes) he was propounding the genetic theory that the basic problem of the Muslim people was that they married their cousins."
With an energy that belies his years, Mr Murdoch is as involved as ever in the newspapers he runs and still pursues gossip about his rivals and enemies with that famous glee, most recently spreading rumours that a senior Hillary Clinton staffer had a stake in a porn company. And his advances to Barack Obama – until recently repeatedly rebuffed – are cast by Wolff in a cynical light. Advising his biographer to choose the upstart candidate over Mrs Clinton, he says: "Obama – he'll sell more papers."
Mr Murdoch has invested heavily in the US, transferring his citizenship and the ownership of his News Corp empire from Australia, and controls one of the country's biggest television networks – Fox – and one of its biggest film studios – 20th-Century Fox. Meanwhile, the unapologetically right-wing Fox News has entirely upended American cable news in little more than a decade.
And yet nothing prepared the US media establishment for Murdoch's coup de grâce last year, when he wrested control of the WSJ from the feuding Bancroft family that had been its guardian for more than 100 years with a $5bn offer that was 60 per cent higher than the company was worth. The paper's journalists came close to revolt, fearing a slide downmarket and editorial meddling to further their proprietor's numerous business interests. They have since been largely quieted by promises of more resources, but Mr Murdoch complained at the time that he got the sort of press coverage normally reserved for "a genocidal tyrant".
The close co-operation he has given Wolff and the access he has afforded the author to his wife, Wendi Deng, and his children is testimony to his desire to paint a more rounded picture. It is also, says Wolff, because Mr Murdoch is "as pleased as Punch with himself". The Murdoch family fortune is these days put at $8.3bn, putting him just outside the top 100 richest people in the world, according to Forbes magazine, the official arbiter of these things.
While all about him are losing their appetite for the newspaper business, the irrepressible mogul is doubling-up in the industry. Just months after taking on the WSJ, he made an ultimately unsuccessful tilt at Newsday, a Long Island paper he hoped to merge with his ballsy tabloid, the New York Post.
Newspapers are a trade he learnt at his father's knee, as Sir Keith Murdoch built a mini-empire around the afternoon daily, The News, in Adelaide. In his will in 1952, Sir Keith told his trustees that Rupert should begin his career proper at The News "if they consider him worthy of support". They did, satisfying a natural instinct for the gossip of news, the poetry of headlines and the art of design that stays with him today.
Mr Murdoch will have to wait until final publication of Wolff's book to find out whether flinging open the doors of the family's homes will prove the right decision. For the time being, there are tantalising glimpses of the tensions that run through the dynasty, even as it remains on largely friendly terms. Most intriguing of all, Wolff says that the mogul's mother – Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, 99, and still running about her award-winning garden in Australia in a golf buggy – continues to smart about the break-up of her son's marriage to Anna, his second wife, in 1999 after 32 years, a union which brought them three children. Dame Elisabeth told him: "I remember saying to Rupert, 'Rupert, you're going to be very, very lonely and the first desiring female who comes along will snap you up.' He said, 'Don't be ridiculous, mum, I'm far too old for that.' That's exactly what happened. Never mind." Friends have long said that Mr Murdoch's marriage to the Star TV executive, Wendi Deng, less than three weeks after his divorce was finalised, has given him a new zest for life, sending him to the gym and pitching him into a new, more liberal cocktail party circuit. These days he is as likely to be hobnobbing with new media moguls such as the founders of Facebook, MySpace and Google as he is with dour conservative politicians. The Man Who Owns The News is likely to tell her story, too, and Wolff has boasted of how he got on well with Ms Deng, who helped arrange an interview for him with the British former prime minister, Tony Blair.
Ms Deng, born in Shandong province in China, is 38 years younger than her husband. She came to the US to study, working in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant before she could fully speak English, then attended the Yale School of Management and worked her way through the ranks of Murdoch's Star TV in Hong Kong, where the couple met. These days she is a kind of roving ambassador to Asia for the News Corp machine, advising most recently on a Chinese launch for MySpace. She has given to her husband the trappings of her glamour, persuading him to don designer suits, to trade up their Manhattan apartment and to take a little more care of himself – for the sake of their young daughters. Mr Murdoch, for his part, is said to be "captivated by her ambition".
Now, though, Wolff's Vanity Fair article is sowing seeds that may grow into family discord, in a passage that has caught the attention of News Corp insiders worried about the succession. Mr Murdoch's eldest son, Lachlan, stormed out of the company in 2005 amid a dispute over how the mogul's two young daughters – Grace, six, and Chloe, five – would share in the family trust that controls News Corp. After handing $1.5m in cash to his four adult children, it was agreed that all six offspring would take an equal financial share, but only the four oldest would have voting rights. If Wolff is correct, it is an agreement that might not stand.
"His attitude about this is now curious, or alarming or crafty," he writes. "Although his older children happily spell out the terms of the trust, as does Mr Murdoch's long-time lawyer, Arthur Siskind, Murdoch himself baldly denies that what is, is. All his children will participate equally, he says flatly."
The author adds: "This is a broken synapse or his way of dealing with his lack of control, or it's what he's telling his wife or it's Murdochian principle that everything can be renegotiated."
And who would bet against him getting what he wants? After all, Murdoch got his sit-down meeting with Barack Obama and the Democratic presidential nominee has just agreed to his first grilling by Fox News. Mr Murdoch got the WSJ and now fantasises about adding the financial data company Bloomberg, or even The New York Times to his empire. But has he got the biography he hoped for? We'll see.
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