Borat blunder: Has Murdoch lost the plot?

Media tycoon is forced to back down (again) after insisting he had signed up Baron Cohen for sequel
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It is a rare thing when Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire spans newspapers, the internet, television and film, stands corrected, particularly when it is his own people stuffing his words back into his mouth. But he is not as young as he used to be: is a mis-statement here and there to be expected?

The gaffe that has industry insiders puzzling came when Mr Murdoch, attending a media conference here last week, began scattering opinions on topics ranging from the state of his company, News Corporation, to whom he would most like to see running for the US presidency. He delivered back-handed compliments to Hillary Clinton and fingered China as a country too tough to do much business in.

He also asserted that his movie studio, 20th Century Fox, had signed a sequel deal with the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen to follow up Borat, his massive mockumentary hit of last year. Except that it hadn't.

No sooner had news outlets seized upon this share-moving nugget of intelligence than Fox publicists in Los Angeles were rushing to contradict it. "We're eager to work with Sacha again, and we've had casual discussions about a sequel ... but at this point, it remains too preliminary to discuss," said Chris Petrikin, a spokesman for the studio.

Mr Murdoch himself drew attention to his advancing age this month, when he revealed he was distributing shares worth $100m (£50m ) to each of his six children, sparking renewed speculation over his succession plans. The tycoon, due to turn 76 next month, has made no secret of his desire to keep control and leadership of the company in family hands when he dies.

Since the departure from News Corp daily operations in 2005 of his eldest son, Lachlan, 35 (though he remains on the board), speculation has centred on James, 34, the head of BskyB, based in London. Asked about James, he said only: "There are other good members of the family." Presumably his youngest, Grace and Chloe, five and three respectively, are not yet in the frame, but there is always their Chinese-born mother and Mr Murdoch's wife since 1999 to consider, Wendi Deng.

When China became the target of Mr Murdoch's loose tongue last week, the complaint was about the regime's media restrictions. "China has not opened up yet... We'll just wait," he said, while revealing enthusiasm for investing in India. As for the US presidency, he said he would like to meet Barack Obama and wishes the former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, would throw his hat in the ring.

But he threw ice over recent chatter about his closeness to Hillary Clinton and ex-president Bill. He said a fund-raiser that he hosted for her last year had been the idea of "some people" in his office. While praising her competence as she makes her bid for the White House, he said she was "divisive" and "calculating".

In departing from the script on Borat, Mr Murdoch was also treading on sensitive ground. The film cost Fox only $18m and grossed $248m worldwide. But it was rival Universal Pictures, not Fox, that snagged Baron Cohen for his next film project.

Had he been misinformed by someone at Fox about Cohen, or was he indulging in public wishful thinking? Or was he obliquely taking a swipe at his studio underlings, precisely because they had not pinned down a deal?

Even if it was an inadvertent slip, that is not sufficient evidence to declare the old man is losing his grip. Nor was there good news for anyone waiting to step into his shoes. "I just want to live for ever," he remarked. "I enjoy myself too much."

From surefooted to gaffe-prone

OJ'S BOOK: Only after much dithering did Murdoch axe the "hypothetical" book, If I Did It, and a TV interview with O J Simpson on the murder of his wife and her friend. He eventually sacked Judith Regan, who instigated the project, described in a survey as the worst business blunder of 2006.

THE INTERNET: After ignoring the web for years, he admitted in April 2005: "I didn't do as much as I should." Four months later he bought MySpace for $580m.

CHINA: Dumped Chris Patten's memoirs and dropped BBC World from Star satellite service to appease Beijing - but now risks causing offence by saying it's tough to do business there.