Sarah Sands: Murdoch, like any commander, is the master of surprise

With one bound, he and his lieutenant were free – for now. Our writer on a tactic that never fails
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The Independent Online

Naturally, when Rupert Murdoch was in a corner, he looked to China for inspiration. Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War: "Open confrontation will trigger overpowering resistance. Thus the key to victory is the ability to use surprise tactics."

The decision to fold the News of the World was audacious, hard-headed and romantic all at once. He was asked to sacrifice his chief executive, but preferred to close down the business. Was this scorched earth policy for love of Rebekah, or because he saw that giving her up would not end the witch hunt? The game was up.

At a party to celebrate 60 years of the National Council for the Training of Journalists – was ever a body more needed? – on Wednesday, old hands predicted outcomes. Ms Brooks was on borrowed time. Was she going down or could she be spirited out of the country and reinvent herself in America? I tested out on a colleague an argument that her change of surname on marriage was an existential baptism. Rebekah Wade, who had presided over the brothel ethics in her years at the News of the World, was a different creature from Rebekah Brooks, pillar of Chipping Norton, friend of the prime minister, and avenging angel at News Corp.

Perhaps news channels asking how Brooks could investigate herself were missing the point: Brooks was investigating Wade! Then, as Rebekah became the story, Murdoch staged an illusion out of the Penn and Teller book of stagecraft. We were looking one way, he was going another. It was as if we had, from the window, spotted an elderly tycoon and red-haired femme fatale waving from the cockpit of a departing plane, leaving the unexpected figure of Murdoch's son James to explain the trick that had left us winded on the sidelines.

"Can he do that? Close a newspaper?" people gasped. Just watch him. Maybe he will next pull the plug on little England and watch us all swirling beneath the water. Is it significant that James speaks in an American accent, as if events here were of only distant interest?

You want a scalp? Take two hundred, whinging poms, the lot of them. No wonder the older Murdoch is said to have been so disdainful of David Cameron and his lack of "balls". Murdoch is a businessman who works on brilliant hunches, and his eye is always on the future prize. His surprise move to Wapping in 1986 left the disruptive print unions sitting impotently in their old works. Now it's clear how much the BSkyB deal means to him: he will do anything to clinch it.

For years, in every argument about Murdoch, someone has piped up: say what you like, but he loves newspapers. He loved his second wife, too, but it didn't stop him leaving her for another one. Even that looked like a chess move. Wendi Deng is not only young and beautiful, she is also a symbol of the new global superpower. I wonder if Murdoch's heart is shaped like a map of the world. The journalists who argue that you don't close a famous newspaper that is 168 years old, mistake Murdoch for a man who cares about tradition.

Similarly, the old codes of honour that say the person in charge takes the rap are easily upended. If Murdoch likes and values his CEO, why should he lose her? Get the little people! And the pinkos and royals and the idiotic politicians airing their consciences! The scapegoating has been breathtaking: war widows and murdered children had their phones hacked, but the real villain, as far as Brooks was concerned, was The Guardian, for pursuing the story.

So while everyone was asking where was the line in the sand in the hacking scandal, Murdoch threw sand in all our faces. The closure of the News of the World proved a distraction to the ongoing police investigation and dramatic new arrests. It also changed the mood. Despite protests from News International that this was a few rotten apples, all journalists had became reviled. The paper's closure restored these loathed creatures to human beings again, men and women with children and mortgages, thrown out of work because of wrongdoing in a previous regime. There was a kind of hushed respect for Murdoch. On Newsnight, liberal journalists Alan Rusbridger and Rosie Boycott agreed with William Shawcross's proposition that British papers would not be in business at all were it not for Wapping.

Military historians will recognise Murdoch's tactics from every successful conflict through history: he might have planted the horse at Troy, ridden with Hannibal over the Alps, shelped mastermind D-Day. It is impossible to keep the military analogies out of modern-day business, and the crop-haired James Murdoch's air of contained violence owes something to the Marines. We talked of the Wapping bunker, but the Murdoch gang might have named it the Situation Room, planning the daring rescue of hostage Brooks. As the American confederate commander Thomas J Jackson taught: "Always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy."

Military commanders use the light, the weather, camouflage, the time of day to confound the enemy. In Macbeth, Malcolm ordered his soldiers to disguise themselves in the branches of Birnam Wood. The timing and conditions of the Wapping announcement were similarly planned for maximum effect. Brooks was there, and then as suddenly she was gone.

Murdoch understands too the psychology of warfare and business: you cannot blink. Critics thought they had the Murdochs on the run, but the family was preparing, like Julius Caesar, to cross the Rubicon.

The art of surprise extends beyond the battlefield. This is a government founded on surprise. Nobody voted for a coalition, but David Cameron audaciously announced a "historic and seismic shift" in British politics. It felt so new and exciting; it took months before the public cottoned on to the fact that this was an old-fashioned political stitch-up.

Great politicians use surprise as a ruthless tactic. George Osborne's announcement out of the blue that he was abolishing inheritance tax so unnerved Gordon Brown that he fatally delayed his election plans. Brown's first act when he and Tony Blair came to power was to make the Bank of England independent – a bold flourish that emphasised the fresh and vigorous nature of the government. The first 100 days of any government or business demands a sleight of hand. Alpha leaders like to say "doing nothing is not an option", although it is.

The model for an action-packed start is the founding of Rome as described breezily by Robert Hughes: the king is decided by an omen of a flight of birds of prey. Romulus wins over his twin brother Remus, whom he murders. The city's history is one of "ambition, parricide, fratricide, betrayal and obsessive ambition". It is only what goes on in any office.

Charles de Gaulle said: "A true leader always keeps an element of surprise up his sleeve." It is why Blair was reluctant to give Brown a date for his departure. Deciding when to leave a job is a valuable card that you should not give up lightly. Rebekah Brooks is giving nothing away.

The media particularly thrives on surprise – it is the essence of news. The closure of the News of the World is not the first time that journalists have been unaware of what is happening beneath their noses. The Evening Standard and The Independent are owned by the Lebedevs, who are masters of the grand surprise. Their purchase of the London Evening Standard stunned everybody. I remember my excitement at hearing the news, and trying to phone a fellow journalist, Geordie Greig, to tell him. Unbeknownst to even his friends, he had been behind the deal.

The art of surprise demands absolute discretion, which is why most journalists are very bad at it. It also demands nerve and showmanship. There is growing excitement about the opening ceremony for the Olympics, because we have no idea what Danny Boyle will conjure.

The temperament of masters of surprise has to be out of the ordinary. Human Resources departments can be wary of these characters. The qualities of leadership are not dissimilar to the characteristics of a psychopath. Risk-takers invent businesses but they can also destroy them. How do you prevent a Bob Diamond becoming a Dick Fuld? I have heard more than one leader in their field muse on a teacher's report predicting greatness – or jail. The Murdoch team might have to get used to the idea of both.





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