Ambition knows no age. Rupert Murdoch is 76 but is on the cusp of realising an ambition he has harbored for well over a decade: ownership of the Wall Street Journal.

Now is the moment before the moment. Anticipation is much better than realisation and it must have been with a sense of anticipation that Mr Murdoch told Reuters news agency “everything is done. We are just waiting for a final approval of the Bancroft family.”

Murdoch is currently in Warsaw — favoured destination for conquerors past and present — and reportedly told journalists there that the Bancrofts’ approval would be forthcoming in two to three weeks “or not at all”.

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The caveat has left some wondering if Murdoch, who has ruled out increasing his bid for the Journal’s parent Dow Jones, will walk away from the deal should the Bancrofts vacillate. However, the Wall Street Journal itself reports that the comment was not meant as an ultimatum.

Whether it was or not, some members of the Bancroft family are still privately expressing misgivings about the takeover according to the UK Press Gazette. There are precedents for their concern.

Parties from Dow Jones and News Corporation have agreed to an in principle deal to ensure the Journal‘s editorial independence. A similar deal was struck when Murdoch acquired The Times of London in 1981 but that did not stop him forcing the retirement of editor Harry Evans in 1982. An excerpt from a Time magazine story published on 29 March 1982 may have some cyclical relevance:

Technically, Evans resigned; under the terms of purchase, Murdoch cannot sack the top editor without approval of a majority of the paper’s national directors. But Murdoch’s intent became plain during a four-day farce after the owner announced that Evans had resigned (for an undisclosed buy-out reported to be about $450,000), while Evans kept insisting he was still editor.

Evans wrote a book, Good Times, Bad Times, which alleged various instances of editorial interference from Murdoch. Current Times editor Robert Thomson sings from a different hymnbook. “I’ve had absolutely no interference and a lot of investment in a loss-making newspaper, for which Rupert Murdoch gets no credit”, Thomson told the New York Times.

For the Bancroft family, the key phrase here may be “a lot of investment”. Murdoch’s bid, worth USD$5 billion, will strengthen the Wall Street Journal’s position in the market, particularly in regard to its multimedia ambitions. 

In the end, the cash might just win out over concerns about niceties like editorial independence.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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