When Herald Sun editorial writer Peter Game retired in 1999, his boss Peter Blunden had a sudden thought: are we ready for the day when Dame Elisabeth Murdoch or, heaven forbid, her only son Rupert, passes away?

Incredibly, The Herald & Weekly Times wasn’t ready even though it was the legendary Sir Keith Murdoch who built The Herald and The Sun for more than 20 years through until the untimely death of Rupert’s father in October 1952.

The decision was taken to bring Game out of retirement and prepare comprehensive obituaries for Rupert and Dame Elisabeth.

That was 12 years ago when Rupert was 68. Dame Elisabeth is still going strong at 102 and her youngest of four children and only son, Rupert, turns 80 today.

News Corp insiders say that Rupert is hoping no one notices. He hates talk of succession and executives are advised not to send emails with birthday greetings.

The Rupert plan will be to shuffle off — probably initially moving to non-executive chairman such as Frank Lowy at Westfield — at a time entirely of his choosing when no one is expecting it.

Expect this about 2013 or 2014.

However, such a move will be conditional on one of his adult children stepping up to be News Corp CEO, with youngest son James the current favourite.

Engineering such a feat of nepotism at a company valued at $45 billion and 85% owned by non-Murdoch shareholders will take some doing.

Rupert will need to be firmly in control and supportive of the process because it is debatable whether the independent directors would decide to install a Murdoch at the top in the event of a sudden leadership vacuum emerging.

As to the here and now on this milestone 80th birthday, there is no doubt that Rupert Murdoch is the most remarkable Australian of all.

While no longer the richest Australian, he is definitely the most powerful.

With the possible exception of Queen Elizabeth, there is no other non-politician who has dealt with more global political leaders and celebrities than Rupert during his lifetime.

Equally, there is no public company CEO who has occupied the top job continuously for 57 years.

The milestones continue to flow. For instance, no one else in history gets near Rupert when it comes to being directly responsible for the industrial consumption of trees.

Who else has printed and distributed close to 100 billion newspapers and magazines.

The next question is whether Rupert has made a net-positive contribution to the globe, society and world affairs over the past 80 years?

The boy publisher learnt about tabloid publishing the hard way during the various newspaper wars in the 1960s and 70s against the Packer and Fairfax empires.

This toughened him up for what remains his greatest purchase of all — buying The Sun for £800,000  in 1969.

It was converted to a sensationalist tabloid in what was then an overly stodgy and serious British newspaper market and the profits ran into the billions over subsequent decades.

While Rupert still quite happily debauches British society with topless women on page three every day, The Sun generated enough cash to fund his move into America, global television and the big screen.

Twentieth Century Fox and BSkyB were arguably the two most important developments that The Sun helped finance, along with the consolidation of the fourth American television network throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

BSkyB was also a big factor in the 1990 debt crisis, which almost sent Rupert to the wall.

ASIC, under the early leadership of Tony Hartnell during the Hawke-Keating years, arguably should have thrown the book at Rupert for some questionable dealings during this debt crisis, but he did manage to save the empire when fellow Australian media entrepreneurs such as Alan Bond, Christopher Skase and Robert Holmes a Court were dropping like nine pins.

The post debt-crisis period has been marked by two distinct features: the use of non-voting shares as takeover currency and the push into pay-TV.

Fox News is now News Corp’s biggest earner and represents Rupert’s most politically partisan contribution to journalism.

For a man who once backed Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Tony Blair, the blind faith support of George W Bush, especially the folly of Iraq, reflected a substantial leap to the right.

Sure, Rupert also backed Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s but her key policies were more about privatisation and industrial relations — something News Corp pioneered during the Wapping dispute, which News Corp’s former President Peter Chernin once described as the most important dispute between labour and capital in the 20th century.

Rupert’s family life has also increasingly become a soap opera. He paid his three older sisters about $600 million through the 1990s to take control of the family’s stake in News Corp, but at the same time had to deal with the commercial implications of his second divorce, a third marriage to Wendi Deng and the aspirations of his four adult children.

While the Murdoch family fortune now comprises about $6 billion worth of News Corp shares with no debt, anyone who bought News Corp shares over the past 18 years has badly underperformed the market.

If life is about money and power, then Rupert has plenty of both — but it has been his often controversial global contribution to democracy, politics, wars and cultural  trends that has been far more noteworthy than the billions of dollars he has amassed along the way.

We don’t mind annoying Rupert, so happy birthday old boy and look forward to catching up at the AGM in New York this October.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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