Rupert Murdoch is the one man who really fits the media mogul mould, made famous by Evelyn Waugh’s fictional press baron Lord Copper in the 1938 novel Scoop. As proprietor of The Daily Beast, the great Lord Copper was so fearsome that none of his employees ever dared disagree with him.
The closest they ever came to “No” was to tell him bravely: “Up to a point, Lord Copper, up to a point.”
At 80, the Sun King is much the same. He still flies into Australia to sack his right-hand man, rip apart the front pages and terrify his editors, and they hang on every word, in case they should fail to catch a passing wish.
Meanwhile, his 175 newspapers around the world dutifully spout his views — on the Iraq War at least — and back whatever political leader he decides to endorse, be it George W Bush, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, John Howard or even Kevin Rudd.
Most recently, in Australia, several of his papers have been striking fear into the Labor government by declaring “jihad” on Gillard and running “a campaign of regime change”, as communications minister Stephen Conroy (who will be No. 1 in our list) has described it. We have no doubt the old man has given it his blessing.
Eventually, Rupert must slow down or die, but if he lives as long as his mother, Dame Elisabeth, he’ll have at least another 22 years to rule the roost, unless the News of the World hacking scandal knocks him off his perch. And word is he was looking fitter and sharper on his recent trip Down Under than he has for many years.
Back in 2008, Michael Wolff’s seminal biography The Man who Owns the News portrayed Murdoch as a deaf, doddery old man who can’t keep up with the conversation, is remarkably ignorant about modern technology, and makes increasingly bad decisions, like paying US$5.7 billion for The Wall Street Journal, $2.8 billion of which had to be written off within two years. Yet his board and top executives apparently still think he’s a genius who sees things they cannot.
Many stockmarket analysts, meanwhile, view him as an old man with a fixation for newspapers, who can’t stop buying things, and whose departure could only push up the share price.
Yet Murdoch still publishes two-thirds of the daily newspapers sold in this country, and enjoys using his media might to get what he wants. In Australia, he has recently installed himself as News Limited chairman to keep an eye on newly-appointed CEO Kim Williams, so it will be interesting to see who wins the battle for colonial supremacy. But ultimately there’s no doubt that the power flows down from Rupert and his family, who control around 40% of the votes in the international media empire. And they won’t be vacating their throne in a hurry, however hot things get with that UK hacking inquiry.
So how much influence does Murdoch have on what we read in Australia?
The simple answer is, “a huge amount”. As one senior News Ltd insider told The Power Index recently: “It’s a family company. No one thinks they don’t work for Rupert.” And as John Hartigan just discovered, even the most trusted executive can get the bullet any time.
What this means is that Rupert doesn’t have to tell everyone exactly what to do, because his editors — who are an incredibly loyal bunch — are constantly trying to second-guess him and keep him sweet.
The Iraq War is a case in point. Out of Murdoch’s 175 newspapers around the world, only the Hobart Mercury failed to get the message (or pick up the signals) that Rupert wanted his papers to support George W Bush’s war, which he believed would cut the oil price to $20 a barrel. Naturally, the The Mercury was soon told when it stepped out of line.
Similarly, The Power Index doesn’t believe for a moment that Murdoch actually tells Chris Mitchell or Paul Whittaker what to put on the front page of The Australian or The Daily Telegraph. But we’re damn sure the old fella looks at those papers regularly and knows exactly what they’re doing. And we’re sure they wouldn’t be doing it if they thought Murdoch would disapprove, or if he did.