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Rupert Murdoch was my fiercest competitor He presided over a culture of total war

Will the sun set on The Sun? (Credit: Arthur Edwards/News International via Getty Images)

Will the sun set on The Sun? (Credit: Arthur Edwards/News International via Getty Images)


September 23, 2023   6 mins

“I’m calling to celebrate the demise of Maxwell,” said Rupert Murdoch down the phone to me on the morning Robert Maxwell’s private effects were being auctioned in a bankruptcy sale. I acknowledged that Maxwell had been a frightful scoundrel, but that he was an unforgettable character and I didn’t like to think of him floating around dead in the Bay of Biscay. “I do,” was the reply. Murdoch, as I was often reminded over many years, was a fierce competitor.

Rupert Murdoch, who has retired after 69 years at the head of News Corporation, is indisputably the foremost and boldest media proprietor in history. Lord Northcliffe and William Randolph Hearst would have been contenders for that title in earlier times, but Northcliffe died before the radio, film, and television industries were seriously established, and while Hearst was to some extent a multi-media owner, he was a pioneer only in some aspects of the newspaper business. Both men confined themselves to their native countries. Hearst is better remembered as a fantastic, almost Oriental art collector, builder of the most magnificent residence in the new world, and fabled star of public curiosity, especially as the inspiration for Citizen Kane. Northcliffe, to the extent he is still remembered, (he died nearly a century ago), is chiefly recalled for the madness of his last years; a few months before he died, he phoned the editor of The Times, which he owned, shouted “Are you a shrimp or a brewer?” and hung up without waiting for an answer. Such eccentricities have never been ascribed to Rupert Murdoch.

His father, Sir Keith Murdoch, was a journalist and publisher most famous for his claims that Gallipoli was a bungled British operation in which Australians were sacrificed as cannon-fodder. He died in 1952, and Rupert, then a recent graduate of Oxford, where he was a strenuous supporter of the Labour Party, took over his father’s modest provincial Australian newspaper, The Adelaide News. He raised its profitability, made a number of acquisitions, and followed the path trodden by other Commonwealth figures, particularly Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Thomson, to Fleet Street. Not without controversy, he gained control of the mass circulation Sunday tabloid News of the World and then The Sun, which he converted to a tabloid, in 1969. He quickly demonstrated the flair he had developed in Australia for presenting witty, provocative, and sensational news for a popular readership.

The Sun, a derelict broadsheet, had been offered for sale for a nominal amount by the Mirror Group to spare itself the cost of redundancy payments in shutting it down. This decision by Mirror CEO Hugh Cudlipp was one of the most catastrophic misjudgments in the history of the British newspaper industry. On seeing the first copy of The Sun under new ownership, Cudlipp confidently stated that The Mirror had nothing to fear. Murdoch produced a much more flamboyant tabloid morning national newspaper with a populist, low tax and somewhat libertarian flavour that resonated more strongly than the socialistic class antagonism of The Mirror.

The Sun eclipsed The Mirror in circulation in nine years, reaching and for a long time remaining at about five million daily — the Western world’s largest daily newspaper circulation. It was a renowned source of humorous headlines and stories; page 3 featured a sexy naked or scantily clad young woman. In advising against voting for the Labour Party in 1992, The Sun warned that, if it were elected, for the next four years “the page 3 girl will look like this”: an under-dressed woman of approximately 300 pounds on a bicycle. When a summer strike in the French ports for the cross-Channel ferries effectively stopped traffic to France other than by air, The Sun headline was: “BLOODY FROGS SCUTTLE OUR HOLS.” During the Falklands War, Private Eye spoofed that The Sun was offering a mini-metro automobile to any British soldier who “killed an Argie”. It did not seem implausible.

Murdoch became the tabloid king of the English-speaking world after buying the New York Post in 1975, America’s oldest daily newspaper, which he has gradually built up to be the leading and liveliest American tabloid newspaper. He bought the money-losing Times and the profitable Sunday Times from Thomson in 1981, after The Times had taken and lost a prolonged strike. One of his greatest and boldest initiatives was building a state-of-the-art printing facility at Wapping. It remained unoccupied for months as he tried to negotiate demanning arrangements with the printing and pre-press unions. The unions took no notice of the less tolerant regime for illegal work stoppages that the Thatcher government imposed, and when the unionised workforce struck, illegally, but as had been their custom, Murdoch fired them and replaced them at once with a smaller, carefully assembled workforce.

Despite prolonged and violent demonstrations, these workers were successfully brought in and out of the new plant in armoured buses and under heavy police protection until a severance settlement was reached. This was a glorious victory over the notoriously capricious Fleet Street shop stewards who for decades had delighted in taking newspapers down for frivolous reasons, insisting on hugely inflated numbers of employees and cash payments to phantom workers. He revolutionised the London newspaper industry and all of the other publishers followed him to new printing facilities and higher profits, (though I was the only one who publicly recognised our debt to him — I had bought control of the Telegraph Group in 1986).

His next pioneering initiative was buying up independent television stations in the United States, putting them together as a network, and buying the Twentieth Century Fox film studio and engaging in systematic integration by doing much of his own programming. At approximately the same time, he set up a relatively unregulated satellite telecaster in Britain and, after a good deal of skirmishing, merged with his chief competitor and became the controlling shareholder of British Sky Broadcasting, which after heavy start-up costs, became another enormous profit centre. Here again he was a pioneer and was one of the world’s greatest satellite television operators.

He outlined to television veteran Roger Ailes his idea of a conservative American cable news network, to compete with the relentlessly leftist CNN and MSNBC, both owned by huge media conglomerates. In one of the most famous exchanges of modern media industry history, Ailes said that this could work; Murdoch asked how much it would cost and when the response came, “$800 million”, Murdoch replied: “What are you waiting for?”

Fox News was an overwhelming success from the start and has vastly outperformed its chief rivals. He has also persisted in the newspaper business and has been instrumental in developing digital subscriptions as a formula for rebuilding newspaper circulation. In 2007, he bought Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and has transformed it into a general interest newspaper that has severely challenged and somewhat displaced The New York Times as the country’s most influential newspaper.

Not everything has been a success. In unleashing cover price wars in the British national newspaper market in the Nineties, he damaged the economics of that industry without significantly improving his position in the quality newspaper market. Turning the Times into a tabloid is hard to justify. He lost over $500 million on the Internet site Myspace, and was probably taken for more than $2 billion on TV Guide by the venerable Walter Annenberg. He built his company on debt and had a severe financial crisis in the late Eighties. He has since sold most of his assets except for the newspapers and Fox News and the book publisher Harper Collins and now has a fairly conservative balance sheet, despite the recent loss of an astounding $787 million defamation action over the 2020 US election.

For a long time, most of his editors and close collaborators seemed to leave his employ involuntarily and often, as with Harry Evans (Times) and Andrew Neil (Sunday Times and Sky), acrimoniously. In the end, after receiving many favours from her, he deserted Margaret Thatcher, and except for Ronald Reagan, most other political leaders in all the countries where he has been active.

Having known him intermittently for over 40 years, and competed with him in Britain and Australia, I’ve never had the impression that he is much interested in politics, other than in how they affect him, or culture, or hobbies, except perhaps motor-sailing. His company is his passion, occupation, and pastime. Although he has known an enormous number of prominent people, he is not socially ambitious, declined a seat in the House of Lords, and though well-educated, knowledgeable and always astute and perceptive, he never tries to impress anyone and is not prepossessing. He has a laconic sense of humour.

I have always thought him a cynic, and while he was not directly implicated in the hacking scandal over a decade ago in England, he is responsible for the News Corp culture of entitlement to do almost anything in pursuit of the corporate interest. A culture of total war and take no prisoners. But when I told him that I thought the animated Fox Television series, The Simpsons in which the family is a caricature of proletarian philistinism and the politician in the series is corrupt, was representative of his views, he strenuously denied it.

He is affable and courteous but not gregarious, and never pretentious or verbose; one of the few thoroughly ruthless and unsentimental people I have known. But he is a straight-forward businessman whose word is reliable. All four of his marriages have ended in divorce, but without serious indiscretions and no one knows what goes on in another person’s marriage and family. He is in excellent health and continues as the controlling shareholder of his companies. This is no time for anything remotely like an obituary.


Conrad Black is a former newspaper publisher, businessman and writer

ConradMBlack

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David McKee
David McKee
9 months ago

What a splendid piece this is! Fair, perceptive and informative, I learned something new about Mr. Murdoch.

Good for Unherd – this is quite a coup.

Beaverbrook, Black, Murdoch: they were despised by the British establishment for being jumped-up little nobodies from the colonies who, irritatingly, knew how to run media empires. And they did not even have the decency to be lefties – disgraceful! They will never be forgiven for that.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

Conrad Black is also a serious historian.

Peter Baldwin
Peter Baldwin
9 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

True. I read his history of FDR. V. interesting.

Simon
Simon
9 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

I completely agree: this is an intelligent appreciation of one of the most extraordinary figures of our time
and it’s warts and all. It is a coup for UnHerd to have got Black’s piece. That’s what makes this site worth coming back to.

Mike Fraser
Mike Fraser
9 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

say what you like about Conrad Black, but he has few equals as a historian and writer.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Fraser

He’s a criminal.
His writing is much like his personality – long winded and tedious.

Jonathan Miller
Jonathan Miller
9 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

I thought it disappointing the glib dismissal of Northcliffe. Perhaps Conrad hasn’t read Andrew Roberts book. Not only did Northcliffe invent tabloid journalism but there are but two degrees of separation between Rupert and Northcliffe – via Rupert’s dad Keith, a confidant and disciple of Northcliffe. Dismissing Northcliffe because he went mad at the end of his life is to overlook the fascinating connection between the original press baron and his ultimate reincarnation in the person of Rupert . Sloppy.

Last edited 9 months ago by Jonathan Miller
UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago

I am so proud of myself…I read the entire article without having to look up a single word…

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Wallowing in the Black books?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Mr Trump ‘pardoned’ him so what is there not to like? To lapse into the vernacular.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago

It was an unpredjudiced reference to Mr/Mrs Reader’s pride!

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Murray
Clare Knight
Clare Knight
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

What does black books mean, please?

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
9 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

even the word ‘William Randolph Hearst’ ?

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
9 months ago

What?

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
9 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

Eh?

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
9 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

That’s a very funny comment and one I can relate to. Honest of you to say that.

Last edited 9 months ago by Clare Knight
Roderick MacDonald
Roderick MacDonald
9 months ago

The Fleet Street unions 40 years ago were nothing less than gangsters. Eddie Shah courageously took them on, in the face of death threats to his children, but it took Murdoch to finish them off. No one will regret the loss, except, of course, all the “Donald Ducks” and “A.N.Onymouses” deprived of their weekly wads of untaxed cash.
Long term Murdoch’s work in broadcasting is even more important. This article doesn’t lay enough stress on the tremendous gamble this was. I thought of investing in Sky but when I saw the accounts I ran a mile. The adverse balances on P & L were almost incredibly large, looking more like the accounts of a nation than a company.
When the gamble came off it allowed Murdoch to change the whole broadcasting scene in the US, breaking the monopoly of the hard left. It has never recovered.

Ray Ward
Ray Ward
9 months ago

What’s P & L?
Eddy Shah, not Eddie.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
9 months ago
Reply to  Ray Ward

Profit and Loss.

Peter Baldwin
Peter Baldwin
9 months ago

It would be worth mentioning Murdoch’s role setting up The Australian newspaper in 1964, which remains this country’s only national newspaper. Ironically, given the persistent demonization of Murdoch by right-thinking lefties, it is the only mainstream publication that takes seriously providing balanced coverage of the debate going on here about the establishment of an indigenous Voice to parliament and the executive government. By contrast the ABC, which is bound by its charter to provide balanced coverage of the debate, acts as little more than a green-left propagada mill.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
9 months ago

Why do some people spit at the mere mention of Rupert Murdoch? Which other media are any better? Likewise the people, some of whom are the same people, who abominate the very name of the BBC. Compared to what, exactly?

Andrew D
Andrew D
9 months ago

I can forgive RM everything except the destruction of The Times

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
9 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

You’re confusing changes necessary for survival with destruction.
Wait and see what happens now if you want destruction. Rupert was a newspaperman in his bones but I doubt Lachlan or James will feel the same way about the remaining legacy titles.

Last edited 9 months ago by nadnadnerb
Andrew D
Andrew D
9 months ago

A quick bullet would have been kinder

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Quite why you’d alter the front page layout, font etc, so that The Times looks likes Tasmania’s second-best newspaper, beats me.

Paul MacDonnell
Paul MacDonnell
9 months ago

A marvellous article.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
9 months ago

A well rounded piece, however one wonders what it must be like to be a man who seems so joyless.

Laurence Eyton
Laurence Eyton
9 months ago

If Black was the serious historian some claim, he would have checked his facts. Murdoch never “gained control of the mass circulation Sunday tabloid News of the World” in 1969 because it was a broadsheet until 1984.

j watson
j watson
9 months ago

Intriguing article and appreciated reading that perspective from a long time Business rival who clearly had considerable respect for RM
Whereas unashamedly I don’t. Murdoch is one of the primary reasons political discourse has become so toxic and short-termist. Many of our problems can be traced to the form of news reporting he has promulgated for decades.
And with $737m paid out and $2.7b still pending his support for the lies spouted by Fox shows he’d clearly lost his touch and his eventual comeuppance delightful. Much like it was when he had grovel an apology for allowing all the phone hacking.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
9 months ago
Reply to  j watson

As if CNN and MSNBC have never promulgated ‘lies’? Rachel Maddow banged on nightly for two years on a ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ conspiracy that in the end turned out to be just the hijinks of Hillary Clinton & Co. Great reporting that. And don’t get me going about CNN and it’s truly stupid tale spinner Don Lemon. As fate would have it though, its ratings last weekend, of no higher than 50k, the lowest since 1991 is a well-deserved comeuppance as well,

j watson
j watson
9 months ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Bit of standard ‘what-aboutery’ there CC. Let’s see them in Court then if it’s of any equivalence?
Not the same is it, and being on the hook for $2.7b says it all.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I can’t believe you’re defending CNN and MSNBC. Their business model was Donald Trump. There is no what aboutism? All of them are objectively garbage.

j watson
j watson
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Defending CNN, MSBC ? If pointing out they haven’t lost $700m already, and look like further Billions to come, for pedalling lies, then I guess by implication I may be defending them. The point though was an implied equivalence by CC. Facts do not show any such equivalence.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Let me put it this way, if you are getting your info from Fox News, CNN or MSNBC, you are grossly misinformed from partisan hacks pretending to be journalists. They all suck equally and should be avoided at all costs.

j watson
j watson
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I don’t think the sum awarded against Fox and the damages still being pursued are in dispute.

Rohan Moore
Rohan Moore
9 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Any use of the word ‘whataboutery’ automatically loses the argument. It’s joined any reference to Hitler and the Nazis.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
9 months ago
Reply to  Rohan Moore

Nah.

Gorka Sillero
Gorka Sillero
9 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Extremely disingenuous, as a Blairite would be. Rachel Maddow spreading disinformation on the Covid vaccines and the Russian hoax is not less relevant because there wasn’t any settlement paid. The logic is not there and you know it.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
9 months ago

Test

Jane Davis
Jane Davis
9 months ago

I think the media figure he most resembles is a watered down Joseph Goebbels. Which indeed makes him a suitable figure for appreciation by Conrad Blackshirt. That of course is a reference to the ex mogul’s penchant for monochrome tailoring.

Graeme Creffield
Graeme Creffield
9 months ago
Reply to  Jane Davis

Please elucidate because this looks like a rather fatuous comment at first sight

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
9 months ago

He might be a fine journalist but there is something distasteful about Mr. Black.

David Barnett
David Barnett
9 months ago

Lord Black.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
9 months ago
Reply to  David Barnett

“Lord” haha!

Wesley Dolan
Wesley Dolan
9 months ago

Well his paper did indulge in an endless stream of bigoted anti-Irish invective during his proprietorship. The Telegraph was deeply hostile to Irish Catholics on both sides of the border back in the 90’s. Thankfully it did abate in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement but Black is an example of how Anglophilia can easily curdle into bigotry to countries that have a “complicated” history with the UK.

Philip May
Philip May
9 months ago

Care to be more specific?

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
9 months ago

Well I love his writing. He writes occasional pieces for the National Post and they show a deep knowledge of Canadian history – both recent and past. He is also unafraid to challenge established views on issues like global warming or Indian residential schools in a fearless but well informed and argued way.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Johnson

His wife is a great writer too

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago

Joan Collins?

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
9 months ago

Barbara Amiel

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
9 months ago

Are you joking?!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

They both come from the same stable!

Cristina Bodor
Cristina Bodor
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Johnson

Yes, C Black elevates the National Post to high quality journalism, the kind you wished finding more often. So does Rex Murphy. We are privileged to read them.

Christopher Darlington
Christopher Darlington
9 months ago

Extremely distasteful. He mostly reminds me of Donald Trump tbh. Their both criminals and Black has a prison term to boot.

Graeme Creffield
Graeme Creffield
9 months ago

On trumped up charges. Black’s experience of US justice showed that, in the USA, the legal system provides the real punishment. It has nothing to do with justice