Eventually, even Rupert Murdoch must slow down or die. But at 81 he shows no sign of doing either.

And, as we wrote recently, if he lives as long as his mother, Dame Elisabeth, he’ll have at least another 22 years to rule the roost, provided he can stop the News of the World hacking scandal from knocking him off his perch.

This week, his new man in Oz, Kim Williams, has been waxing lyrical about the future of his Australian newspapers, promising they, too, will still be flourishing in 2020, and that News Limited and Foxtel can only get stronger. “News knows no other life than in the media,” he told staff in a video address. “It’s what we do and what we believe in. That’s why we’re confident about all forms of media.”

He’d be confident, too, that Rupert is not about to pop his clogs.

Now bald and a cancer survivor, Australia’s (and the world’s) most powerful media magnate has recently been looking fitter and sharper than for many years. Anyone who watched him give evidence to the Leveson inquiry in London’s High Court in April could see he’s whip smart, and as tough as ever. And similar vital signs were visible on his latest trip Down Under last November.

In 2008, in The Man Who Owns the News, Michael Wolff 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. But Rupert has neither lost his marbles nor loosened his grip on the $50 billion global empire he built. And, with 40% of the voting shares in News Corporation, it will take an earthquake to wrest it from his grasp.

Murdoch’s local company, News Ltd, employs close to 3000 journalists and publishes two-thirds of the daily newspapers sold in Australia, and even with the radical surgery (and inevitable job cuts) announced this week, it will continue to wield considerable market and political power. In fact, by mopping up James Packer’s 25% share in Foxtel and 50% of Fox Sports, plus its $30 million takeover of Business Spectator, it is likely to become even more of a dominant force.

In recent times, The Australian and The Daily Telegraph have been hammering away at the Labor government, with relentless attacks on the carbon tax, the mining tax, the Rudd stimulus, the pink batts scheme and, of course, Labor’s allies, the Greens. And you can see the results of this in the polls and in the tone of the national conversation (though we don’t claim that’s all Rupert’s doing).

It’s perfectly possible, of course, that Murdoch didn’t decree the “jihad”, as communication’s minister Stephen Conroy has dubbed it, but it’s inconceivable that it would have survived without his approval. 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 recently discovered, even his most trusted executives can catch a bullet.

What this means is that Murdoch 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. Pleasing the boss is the way to get on.

A more difficult question is what his power brings him nowadays. In 1995, Paul Keating warned Britain’s would-be prime minister Tony Blair that Murdoch was only interested in dealing with governments to advance “his business”. But it seems clear that he also loves being a player, both for the thrill of the game and to propagate his view of the world.

That’s why his 175 newspapers around the globe backed the Iraq War in 2003. It’s also why he was such a supporter of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and (for a time) Blair.

But while Rupert is a free marketer and right-wing conservative, he’s also an opportunist who likes to back winners. He studies the polls, sniffs the air and backs those he thinks will prevail, because he knows that governments can give him access to the corridors of power, while oppositions cannot.

Once there, he uses his opportunities ruthlessly. One of the most shocking revelations from Britain’s Leveson inquiry is the way in which Murdoch’s editors and executives lobbied the British government over News Corp’s $12 billion BSkyB takeover deal in 2010-11, and how enthusiastically the Murdoch bid was backed by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Another is the extraordinary number of high-level meetings between Murdoch’s executives and senior British government ministers. Rupert revealed in his witness statement to Leveson that he met Tony Blair for lunch dinner, tea, drinks or a chat 31 times in nine years. He met Gordon Brown (who was Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming PM) 17 times in 12 years.

Murdoch’s court favourite and ex-CEO, Rebekah Brooks — previously editor of the News of the World and The Sun — confessed to 185 meetings with prime ministers, opposition leaders and cabinet ministers in little more than a decade, including 31 lunches, dinners, drinks and chats with Blair, 17 with Brown, and six with Britain’s current PM, David Cameron.

Cameron, for his part, revealed 31 meetings with Murdoch’s editors and executives in 15 months, including seven with Rupert himself. He also had that famous free flight to Santorini in 2008, before he was elected, to meet Murdoch on his yacht and petition for support.

The fascinating question, of course, is whether anything like this happens in Australia … and if not, why not.

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

Peter Fray

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