Rupert Murdoch: In his own words

In his first major interview for five years, News Corp's boss shows he's as keen on his work as ever. By Ian Reeves
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The Independent Online

If you're evaluating the past four decades of British journalism, the individual whose career has had the most far-reaching implications for the industry is surely Keith Rupert Murdoch. The global scale of his impact is astonishing, which is one reason that the name still inspires such strong emotions - either of awe or disdain.

Looking back on his acquisition of The Times - which some feel was the single deal that turned Murdoch from being an ordinary proprietor of an ordinary company into the head of a true global media organisation - he describes it simply as "a natural progression", although a difficult one. "It appeared to me to be a risky but a great opportunity. It wasn't the £10m-£12m we paid for it. It was the subsequent £35m we lost, just by trying to get over pigheaded unionism, you know?

"There were unbelievable frustrations, seven days a week. And particularly on The Sunday Times because that was the one they knew was making the money."

The frustrations that Murdoch felt led to the construction of the plant at Wapping, which he planned to free himself of union shackles.

Before Wapping

"What really happened was, through the 1970s, I would go across the street from Bou- verie Street to the Newspaper Publishers Association. And all the heads of the companies would get together. And they would all agree that some demand or other was absolutely impossible and had to be resisted, and they'd all agree that all the other publishers would close down in support of whoever was the target.

"And we agreed this again and again and again. But nobody ever stuck to the agreement. Pretty often the target gave way before we had a chance. Other times other publishers would give in, so there was never any sort of united front.

"The publishers of those days got exactly what they deserved from the unions.

"So I gave up attending or trying to be a part of it. And I looked around, and I remembered a strike that the Mirror had a few years before. They were off the streets for 10 days. And they had come back and hadn't lost any circulation at all. Not one copy.

"And so I figured, if we have strong enough titles and we're big enough, we could face them and do a big showdown. Which was when I started planning for Wapping."

The strike

Twenty years on, how significant does he think the events of 1986-87 were? "Well, the result of it, the unpleasantness of Wapping, completely changed the economic of model of newspapers in Britain. If it hadn't been for that, there would certainly have been casualties by now.

"I was amazed. I thought the unions would immediately go to all the other publishers and say, 'We want lifetime contracts at once.' Or try to set in concrete what they had already won. Instead it was the publishers who went to the unions and said, 'Look, you have to give us these concessions otherwise Murdoch will have a totally unfair economic advantage.'

"So in the end it played right through."

In the year prior to Murdoch's acquisition, The Times had lost a staggering 96 million copies through industrial action, or union go-slows.

"And since that first Sunday when we got The Sunday Times out from Wapping, and the News of the World, I don't think there has been one edition of a national newspaper lost. Before that, there had been losses every day or every week. And there were always crises, and troubles.

"Remember that nobody in the private sector had won a strike of a major nature. And so we took them on and were the first to do it. And although we were abused by all sorts of people, including leading industrialists, who made portentous lectures on the BBC on how this was not the British way, or something, in fact it was a turning point. An absolute turning point for Fleet Street and the whole of the newspaper industry. But also a turning point, although to a slightly lesser extent, for the whole of British industry.

"Although it wasn't pleasant, I'm certainly very, very proud of it. And it'll be part of my legacy.

"It was only 20 years ago, but people are already forgetting it. But that's the way it goes."

Later, I ask him whether he feels he has been fairly or accurately represented in the British media. "No of course not," he says sharply. And does that bother him? "No, because I don't expect to be. I've been, I hope fairly radical, and an agent of change. I've brought in competition in the popular press. My insight, my feeling was that there was room for that. Then there was the turning of the industry upside down at Wapping - to its total benefit - and then dragging The Times into the modern age, and The Sunday Times. It is perfectly natural that people would be a bit paranoid about me.

"But meanwhile, it just pours on, some pour it on harder than others.

"They all hate me because of Sky. It absolutely changed the face of television. And will change it further.

"So there's three or four major benefits that I've done in Britain."

BSkyB and 24/7 news

"Sky put the whole of the broadcasting establishment against me, and particularly the BBC. They had 240 people in their public affairs department at one stage, which did nothing but lobby for legislation against Sky, and was a constant pain. And of course a lot of those same people are now sitting in regulatory positions today, which doesn't make life any easier.

"Sky is doing very well. It will do a lot better. And as it does, the resentment from the establishment forces will only grow stronger."

He admits he has not been watching Sky News and its relaunch closely enough, but believes it has gone "pretty well". "Its strength is still that it has great reporters and consistently breaks big stories. First, and then better.

"I hadn't heard about the BBC putting News 24 at the heart of its new operation. That sounds pretty radical. It's not stupid in some ways. But remember NBC started MSNBC [the cable news channel] - made a tremendous noise about it. And it's not all bad, by any means, but none of the traditional NBC news guys, none of the big stars, will be associated with it. They look down on it, and it's one of the reasons it's failing. And it's running a very bad third; it just can't get the traction.

"So I don't think you put the 24 news at the heart of it, that may be going too far, but you certainly pool all your news resources together. It makes a lot of sense. But that's their business, not mine."

The internet

Does he feel now that his internet strategy is fully formed? "It'll never be fully formed. The internet is changing, very disruptive technology and there are new inventions coming along every month. And one has to stay awake and race to stay up with it, or if you get enough brilliant people around maybe you can get ahead of it.

"The point is the ease of entry. If someone has a good idea on the net, the cost of entry is zero. We're going to have many, many more voices.

"We now have one billion people - not with broadband - but access to net, and computer literate. In 20 years, 30 years it's not going to be one billion, it'll be six billion.

"It's going to be a huge force for good, but also a force for change in many ways that we can't foresee."

Except that foresight is precisely what the media industry expects. "He doesn't just see over the next hill. He sees over the whole Himalayas," a former broadsheet editor told me. The ruthlessness with which he has kept his companies at the forefront of the media world for so long means he is hardly going to surrender to the digital onslaught without a good scrap. The recent acquisitions of the community website and broadband provider Easynet signal that the battle may have started in earnest.

I wonder what Murdoch made of the WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell's suggestion last month that the spree smacked of "panic buying" and that Murdoch's preoccupation with it meant he was willing to buy companies "willy nilly".

Murdoch is dismissive. "I spoke to him about it - he's a friend of mine - and actually he told me, 'I didn't really say that.' I think he made a speech, and just threw in some words.

"There's no panic, and there was certainly no overpayment. It was a very careful strategy to go for the two biggest community sites for people under 30. If you take the number of page views in the US, we are the third-biggest presence on the internet already. Now we're not the most profitable - we have a huge amount of work ahead of us to get that whole thing right. And we're working very, very hard to keep improving."

Murdoch has also said this month that he's watching carefully the bidding for AOL, as its parent company Time Warner considers a sale. So it's clear how seriously he's taking things at a corporate level. But how does that integrate, if at all, with his existing newspapers?

"With the Times Online, we're very sure where we're going. But with things like The Sun, and a lot of the other papers out there, there are a lot of plans, although I'd have to be honest and say some of them are experimental."

Given all this activity, how fearful does he think traditional journalists have to be for their futures?

"Not at all," he says. "Great journalism will always be needed, but the product of their work may not always be on paper - it may ultimately just be electronically transmitted. But for many, many, many years to come it will be disseminated on both.

"There will always be room for good journalism - and good reporting. And a need for it, to get the truth out."

The British press

In Britain he thinks journalism is in as healthy a state as it has ever been. "Maybe better. There's some great writing taking place - certainly in our newspapers, the Times, Sun, Sunday Times, and we don't have a monopoly on it. I do think there's a tendency in some papers to be very hectoring in some stories - particularly when they're trying to have a feud with the Government. But I don't think that's any different to what has been in the past.

"And it doesn't matter because there are so many to choose from. The people of Britain are uniquely lucky to have such a great choice of newspapers and news, whereas in America you don't."

But he admits he thinks the daily papers are all overpriced. "With Saturday and Sunday papers, people have a lot more time to read, and so the price there is a lot less sensitive. But for the dailies, it's important that the purchase of a newspaper should be insignificant as a price. And I guess I'm just a bit out of a date on this feeling, but 35p, 40p is a high price ... a lot more than what it was 10 or 15 years ago." He believes, though, that more price wars are not on the agenda.

One trend he dislikes is the offering of DVDs to boost sales. "It doesn't matter that it was the Mail on Sunday who started it, or anyone else," he says. "The fact is, the sales go up for a day. And are right back to where they were the following day.

"The most recent example of that is The Sunday Telegraph when they tried to relaunch two weeks ago. And they had a great sale - up 190,000 or 200,000. And the following Sunday they were back exactly where they were two weeks before. People grab it, tear the DVD off and throw away the paper. They've got to learn. That's got to stop."

The Tories and Blair

On British domestic politics, he won't be drawn. "David Davis and David Cameron, we're very neutral. At least I am. I don't know about Rebekah, you'd better ask her. But we're in for some very interesting politics, with a new Tory front bench, a stronger one. And with Blair having to carry his party with him on what are some pretty big - highly desirable reforms - for which he has plenty of opponents in his own party. The real question is, can he tame that? It's hard to use your popularity with the country, when you've already announced you're not going to be there.

"We could back any party at a general election. I have no idea about that. It's four years away. A long way away. We don't know what the state of the parties, or the country, will be then. It's too early to say."

His early years

Does he remember the moment when he knew that newspapers would be the love of his life? "Yeah. Well, I don't recall a precise moment because I never thought I'd do anything else. Life at home was always so exciting and so involved in what was going on around the world, so it was the most natural thing.

"I don't think I've heard of any heir to a newspaper company who ever wanted to walk away from it. Children of major media people - generally, I wouldn't say it was universally - want to be part of it."

Newspaper editors

Looking back at the editors he has most admired, he says: "At The Times we have had editors with long regimes - like Charles Douglas-Home, Peter Stothard - who for their times were absolutely perfect. And gathered good people. Now, I think Robert Thomson is doing a fantastic job. I don't want to decry anybody else's efforts but I think that those three are and were the most important editors of The Times in our fightback to relevancy. When we bought it, its circulation was under 300,000. Look at it now."

Last month's Times was above 703,000. Does he have any targets, or is there a ceiling for that circulation?

"We don't see any ceiling. I mean there may be one somewhere, but whatever it is, we're absolutely nowhere near it.

"Fleet Street is going through a period of very, very feverish competition. And the people who are gaining from it are the readers."

Would he be prepared to say which of the many editors he has worked with he considers to have been the best?

Eventually, the voice growls his answer. "Larry Lamb. For the first two years of the Sun launch, he was pretty much a genius."

This interview appears in the current issue of 'Press Gazette'