Rupert’s historic 60 years of power: an anniversary to reflect
Exactly 60 years ago, at just 22 years old, Rupert Murdoch joined the board of the Adelaide-based newspaper company, News Limited, and set about creating a powerful media company, and more recently he made a second, in which he continues to play a central role. Murdoch has been in charge of News almost as long as Queen Elizabeth II has ruled, and his 60-year stint as director might well be a world record. With a personal fortune of $11.2 billion, he is now the 91st ranked billionaire on Earth.
Murdoch didn’t immediately assume executive power at News Limited, but he quickly began exercising control of the company he’d inherited following the death of his father, Sir Keith Murdoch. By the end of 1954, according to Sir Norman Young, a News Limited director at the time, his dominance of the board was complete. Five years later, writes Young in his memoirs, Rupert displayed good business ability but also “a touch of arrogance”. He was reluctant to work in committee style, and wanted “good henchmen who would obey his orders on major issues without question”.
From the beginning, Murdoch was intent on expanding. His most important early move beyond Adelaide was to purchase the Sydney Daily Mirror. In fierce competition with Fairfax’s Sun, this racy afternoon paper helped Murdoch hone his tabloid skills and marketing strategies. In 1964 he began the national daily, The Australian, aimed for the opposite end of the market, immediately lifted the standard of Australian journalism, and yet struggled to make a profit.
Although he continued to expand in Australia, from 1968 Murdoch’s main action was in England. That year, he bought the News of the World, the highest-selling Sunday newspaper in the English-speaking world, and the following year he launched a new tabloid daily, The Sun, whose success was the basis for all his future expansion. Supplemented by clever marketing and television advertising, The Sun beat the other English tabloids at their own sensationalist game. In less than a decade it had become the biggest selling daily in Britain, a position it has held ever since.
In 1973, aged 42, he made his home in New York, which has been his headquarters almost continuously since. His most important acquisition there was The New York Post, which he sought to re-model along the lines of the London Sun, improving its circulation somewhat, arousing more controversy — a “force for evil”, thought the Columbia Journalism Review — but never making a profit.
In 1981, just shy of his 50th birthday, he bought London paper The Times. Until this time he had been mainly concerned with newspapers, and the crude political bias of his newspaper campaigns and the sensationalism of his tabloids had already created more controversy than any other contemporary media mogul. If Murdoch had retired at that point, however, his career would have been considered a great business success.
But his most tumultuous and manic decade, in a business sense, was just beginning. During his 50s the centre of gravity of his business operations moved decisively from Britain and Australia to the United States and from print into television and film. Having become an American citizen in 1985, he started a fourth TV network to challenge the three established American networks, and acquired the Twentieth Century Fox film studios.
But while Murdoch’s moves during this period could be called bold, that boldness several times crossed into recklessness. As The Australian Financial Review’s Neil Chenoweth has documented, in late 1990, just months before Murdoch’s 6oth birthday, News had to reschedule a breathtaking $7.6 billion in loans from 146 institutions. If an amount of this magnitude had been owed to one bank, it is likely that Murdoch would have gone bust, or at least his empire would have been radically reduced. But the long-term value of his assets and the very complexity of his arrangements saved him. The banks entered into a new settlement that rescued him from this debt crisis.
Murdoch’s greatest successes in the 1990s, when he was in his 60s, were his ventures into subscription and especially satellite television, and particularly BSkyB in Britain and Star TV in Asia. Although he also made bold conquests in established media territories, it was in these new markets that he was a genuine visionary and gained first-mover advantages. He took great risks and reaped great rewards.
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