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Bill Hagerty

“I don't do it for the money” – Rupert Murdoch

British Journalism Review
Vol. 10, No. 4, 1999, pages 7-17

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Bill Hagerty is a former Deputy Editor of the Daily Mirror and subsequently Editor of The People. He is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

Contents - Vol 10, No. 4, 1999

Editorial - See you on the moon...

Bill Hagerty - The BJR Interview - Rupert Murdoch

Michael Leapman - A decade of withered hopes

Peter Hill - Newsmen on the net

Michael Molloy - We could have stopped Maxwell

Philip Cass - Tuning into the coconut wireless

Judy McGregor - Spin and the Scottish devolution poll

BOOK REVIEWS
Joy Johnson on Alastair Campbell

Robert Edwards on Old Fleet Street

Cal McCrystal on The spy trade

J. O. Baylen on Appeasement people

  When Rupert Murdoch looks in the mirror each morning he sees "someone a lot less powerful than his reputation". When he reads descriptions of himself as one of the most powerful men in the world, he thinks they are "just rubbish". The greatest media mogul of them all is, he says, an idealist who believes in God, is trying to improve the world and is convinced his editors and most of their staffs share his vision. "Certainly we have responsibilities and influence," declares Rupert Murdoch. "Can we change the world? No, but hell we can all try."

The man whose media octopus of companies has tentacles stretching around the globe invited me into his London office, in less than salubrious Wapping, only a short time after a long interview published in Vanity Fair had been extracted, dissected and microscopically examined by the part of the British press he does not control. That this is not a larger body of organs is testimony to the success of the then unknown brazen Australian who in 1969 snaffled the News of the World from under the nose of Robert Maxwell to gain a foothold in the British newspaper market. His worldwide newspaper and television networks, plus other sundry interests which include 20th Century Fox films and the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club, give the chairman of News Corporation more muscle than any other media giant in history. No wonder controversy tracks him like a bloodhound. But some of what was reported in Vanity Fair makes one suspect that he and controversy are not uneasy bedfellows. Surely he anticipated that his remarks about the Dalai Lama, for example ("I have heard cynics who say he's a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes"), would attract flak?

"No, I didn't. As far as the Dalai Lama goes, I was actually quoting a conversation from a director of the Telegraph," he said intriguingly. "I won't say more than that. I don't take it back, either. It didn't make headlines anywhere else in the world and only in one or two papers here, who like to beat up on me about anything. I'm sure you'll get something out of this interview they're going to beat up on me. They're a little paranoid here"

But did not his observations, which appeared to condone the Chinese occupation of Tibet, add strength to suggestions that he panders to the Chinese for business reasons and even instructed HarperCollins, News Corp's book publishing arm, to cancel their contract to publish the memoirs of former Hong Kong governor, Chris Patten? "No. I was never asked to back out of the Patten deal. As far as I know, they [the Chinese] didn't know he was writing a book. It was done very clumsily by HarperCollins. They were told a year earlier about it. That's a piece of history," he said with finality. I had not asked if he was requested to withdraw from the Patten deal and his reply leaves his relationship with the Chinese – "Maybe I'm falling for their propaganda," he had confessed in the Vanity Fair interview – as clear as a bowl of chicken and sweetcorn soup. Whether or not some newspapers will beat up on Mr Murdoch over these remarks remains to be seen, but his subsequent attendance at all three important functions held to welcome Chinese president Jiang Zemin to London will keep eyebrows permanently raised.

In white shirt and red tie and with a retractable ball point pen clutched in a fist, Rupert Murdoch looked rumpled but affable. Before our talk began he asked if I minded Les Hinton, executive chairman of News International, London publishers of Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World sitting in – "He can jump on me when I'm about to make myself hostage to fortune." I know Les Hinton and did not mind. He did not, it transpired, have to jump on Murdoch, which may be a good thing for Les Hinton. Murdoch, I soon discovered, sometimes pauses to formulate his replies to questions and occasionally these pauses are so long that one might wonder if he has forgotten the question, although one of course knows better. Also, sometimes he grimaces when thinking and initially it is easy to mistake this grimace for a smile. Indeed, so does it resemble his smile that only when his reply emerges can one be certain which it is, which must be particularly disconcerting for any employee summoned to his presence. The clicking of his pen as he extended and retracted it punctuated these pauses.

There were none, however, when we discussed whether or not there is a point beyond circulation to national newspapers. "Of course there's a point," he said. "Absolutely. We are not here just to sell newspapers, but if we look upon our role in the most idealistic light, that we are here to improve the world, you can't improve the world without having readers. What I'm saying is, you are clearly going to go for circulation. There isn't an editor in Fleet Street who doesn't look at circulation as being important to his paper's survival, to the extent of his influence, to everything. [But] I don't think idealism is disappearing at all. I hope not. In this place I, particularly, and, I think, my editors and the vast majority of the staff look upon our role as playing a very important part in society. And [they] take an idealistic view. They see the newspapers for which they work having an influence at all levels, whether it be socially or politically or even in sports. And they take that influence very seriously. Sometimes they may over-estimate it, just as I believe politicians vastly over-estimate our influence. Nevertheless, they're aware of there being a certain influence and want to do good with it." I asked if his own idealism remains intact. "Absolutely. As strongly as ever."


Politicians

It is presumably the influence he has outlined that causes governments to court him as passionately as Romeo pursued Juliet? "Well, they've never courted me personally, nor in any business fashion, in spite of allegations to the contrary. As for the editors and publishers, I do not think the editor of a daily newspaper would find it hard to get a minister to go to lunch or dinner with him once or twice a year. Politicians want to sell their policies and they want to use our newspapers, or somebody else's newspapers. I would think there is a lot more courting of television reporters than there is of newspaper reporters – there's not a politician who won't give his right arms to get his face on television. They are much more interested in a newspaper telling their story, what they're doing with the Health Service or with the trains or with schools, than they are concerned with what's said in editorials. Some of them are paranoid about the editorials, too, but I think they are probably wasting a lot of emotional energy on that."

This apparent distancing of himself from politicians may be seen as disingenuous bearing in mind Murdoch's reportedly close contacts with the Prime Minister, but he described Tony Blair as a "friendly acquaintance" – "We have never had an unpleasant meeting, but we have had very few meetings" – while refuting the rumour that they were together in Tuscany during the summer: "No, we were not, actually. I think I left the day before he went there." The Blair Government, he feels, has not been radical enough during its two-and-a-half years in office: "They love the word radical and I think a lot of what they have done has been very good, but are they being radical enough with schools, are they being radical enough with the Health Service? No, I think not. They've got a long way to go yet."

The one thing that distinguishes one leader from another and his influence on the world is his character, Mr Murdoch had said in the past. He may be comfortable with Mr Blair, but where does this leave the Leader of the Opposition? "I don't know Mr Hague," he said, "and I certainly don't know enough about his character to make that judgement." Not knowing Murdoch, I felt, might be a mistake on William Hague's part, but it was soon rectified: subsequently Mr Hague and Mr Murdoch met privately in what was described as a "very friendly" atmosphere. Tony Blair should take note. Doubtless the Prime Minister has long hoped that News International's papers would shift from their basically anti-Europe stance and even begin to look favourably upon the Euro. I put it to Murdoch that the expansion of his television interests through News Corp Europe (subsequently confirmed by him at the News Corp annual meeting in Adelaide) might suggest support for closer British ties with Europe. "No." And the Euro? "Ask the editors, [but] as far as we are concerned, we think the Euro's a great mistake. That's our conviction and it is certainly not going to be influenced by our pocket books."

Murdoch had previously stated, also, that those who want to lead nations must be prepared to have their characters examined by the press on behalf of those people who want to vote for them. "Yes, [but] I guess you draw the line somewhere on that. But I feel that if you are going to vote for them you want to be able to feel you can trust them, whether you vote for them as town mayor or MP or, particularly, if you vote for them as prime minister or president. And I am not saying that people are not very forgiving, but they expect honesty about faults. I think that if people are lying about who they are or what they are, their faults should be revealed.


Absolutely

Mention of the Office of Fair Trading's censure of News International earlier this year for predatory price-cutting, following complaints from other titles, provoked a smile, or perhaps a grimace, from Rupert Murdoch. "It was the 10p [to which weekday copies of The Times were reduced] that upset them. It didn't upset them when the Mirror did it for a whole year in Scotland and it didn't upset them when the Sunday Telegraph sells miles under cost in Scotland. These things are only directed at us. It's very simple. All the publishers had been pushing up the prices far too aggressively. I think circulations were all going down slightly and the fact is we believed we had The Times better than it had ever been, but were stuck with a circulation which was quite uneconomic. We had to break through, so we cut the price and it worked wonderfully. Now our price is up to a more normal price and we are holding at about double the circulation it was before we did it. It was a public service – what's wrong with letting the public have a great newspaper at a lower price? It might upset some people, but it's certainly pleased the readers. And it has made The Times now solidly viable. At 30p we are doing very nicely, thank you. If we keep adding more sections, as Mr Hinton would have us do, we might have to review this policy [the price has now been raised to 35p], but no objective person - not that there are many objective people anywhere in this business - could possibly look at The Times today and compare it with five or 10 or 15 years ago and not say it is an infinitely better paper at every level."


Mistakes

There have been hiccups, however, at The Sun, where editor David Yelland's front page asking if Blair was the most dangerous man in Britain was considered by many an aberration and his decision to publish pictures of a topless Countess of Wessex was described by the proprietor as a "terrible and inexplicable" mistake. "Editors make mistakes," said Murdoch with a shrug. "I make mistakes, you make mistakes, we all make mistakes in life. We just try and learn from them." Yes, I concurred, but editors more often than not pay for their mistakes. "It depends how many mistakes they make." How many are they allowed – is it an infinite number? "No," said Murdoch, laughing, "it's a finite number. I think if an editor is producing a paper you are basically pleased with and proud of and that is viable and doing well, then he is very safe in his job. If an editor is producing a paper which is clearly failing, turning the community against it, then you have to make changes. I've been in that position once or twice and been criticised for being ruthless in changing editors, but the people who'll be ruthless are the shareholders, who'll get rid of me if the papers go bust."

One of his former editors, Andrew Neil, painted a less than wholly flattering portrait of Murdoch is his book, Full Disclosure, claiming that Murdoch hates the idea of members of staff resigning before he can fire them – "Leave on your own terms and you risk his emnity," wrote Neil – and another former executive, John D'Arcy, observed after he had been sacked that the boss "prefers executives who never question him". "No that's absolute nonsense," said Murdoch. "I encourage people to stand up to me and argue with me. Even though I may show a bit of irritation at times, I certainly need people around me to question me. If you do so much, you've got to be slowed down and made to think twice about moves." And if an executive quits? "Kelvin [MacKenzie] left me and the man's a very good friend and I value any time I can get half-an-hour with him. I thought Andrew and I left [each other] on very good terms, but he got it into his head to write a book in which, I think, not only did he portray me wrongly but went out of his way to show no gratitude or memory of the times I stuck by him through periods of terrible embarrassment. And times of bad editorial mistakes when I stood by him. I think he is a very able and brilliant man in many ways. We are in different parts of the world, so we don't get to see each other, but I certainly don't avoid him."

Murdoch served a journalistic apprenticeship which included a stint in London on the Daily Express. Is he a frustrated editor? He laughed again: "Oh, certainly. There's nothing I enjoy more than spending time with newspaper editors and in the newsroom and in the newsrooms of television stations." Does he consider he would be a good editor? "It's hard to look back," he said and then followed the longest pause. "Yeah, a lot better than some I know, but a lot worse than others I know. I think I have the right sensitivity for it in many ways. I think I can still judge what's an interesting story from a boring one."

The constant barrage of criticism levelled in this country at Murdoch, his newspapers and the financially muscular BSkyB Television appears to cause no more than minor irritation, atlhough the attitudes of some at the BBC still appear to rankle: "I think the relationships between the executives of Sky and the executives of the BBC are good working relationships, but at a different level at the BBC there is an incredible effort to do down Sky. They have about 240 people there who are basically lobbyists – God knows what they do all day – who try to lobby for regulations to hurt Sky Television or to limit it. There are people who resent the existence of Sky, which to a broad extent changed the status quo. There are a lot of people who enjoyed the status quo, particularly the sort of self-appointed elite, who saw themselves as elite and were able to project themselves as elite, and who hate anything happening that changes Britain."


Catalyst

He probably has grown used to censure: Murdoch bashing dates back to when he first arrived from Australia to hi-jack the News of the World, a massive monolith of a paper as vulgar as Blackpool but seen as very much a British institution. He rejects the suggestion that his hostile reception was in any way xenophobic: "No, let's face it, who made Fleet Street? Welshmen and Beaverbook [a Canadian]. It wasn't social, either. They may have considered me a rough-edged Australian, but it was what we were doing, taking the opportunities that arose," he recalled. "I remember my competitors and people who were acquaintances of mine at the old Newspaper Publishers' Association patting me on the head and saying, 'It's great having you here', and 'You'll do well in this country' and so on. When we started to do well [with The Sun] their feelings changed. There was only one real tabloid in the country and that was the Daily Mirror and we were laughed at until we started to take their circulation away from them. Then there were very bitter feelings. I don't resent it [criticism], but I think when you're a catalyst for change The whole Wapping situation was a huge catalyst for change in the industry. We all forget what it was like getting a newspaper out. If you wanted to change a column width in The Times it would take you three months of negotiation and 10 pounds a day or a week to everybody in the plant. And in the meantime, having to put up with 100 typos on page one every second day if people felt they had a bad liver or something. But since we've been through Wapping there's not been one edition of a national newspaper missed in 13 years to my knowledge and that's a tremendous achievement. It has allowed The Independent to exist, it has allowed other newspapers which might have fallen by the wayside by now to live. And it has brought prosperity to the national press. But it caused huge resentment. Not amongst the unions – an awful lot of them accepted that those rackets couldn't last – but among my fellow publishers. I think the only one who ever stood up and said we'd made life possible for him was Conrad Black at the Telegraph. The Daily Telegraph would not be in existence today if we hadn't had Wapping and they hadn't been able to make economies and become an efficient organisation.

"That in turn freed up a lot of money for journalism on all papers. Compare the papers today with those of 15 years ago, in size and in quality, in pay to journalists and good writers. It's all come out of Wapping. We certainly spend and I think the Telegraph does. The Mirror does now. From what I hear the Express is an exception, but the Mail spends and across the Street editorial budgets are up enormously in relation to total revenue." This is undoubtedly true, although in many cases the money filtered through no faster than poured treacle – the Mirror Group made money for shareholders and directors by savage cost-cutting in all areas after David Montgomery took control – and even now the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs have been asked for five per cent budget cuts as a result of the fierce price-cutting competition instigated by Murdoch.

The future of the press will be determined by the Internet, he believes. "I don't know where the Internet begins and ends or where it is just a matter of electronic communication, but there's a technologicial revolution happening, no question," he said. "With the Internet there is the ability to deliver all sorts of services to the public which we now deliver in print. We have to realise that this is both a threat and an opportunity. We've got to find new ways to do things better on the Internet than we do in print and we've got to find ways, also, maybe, to defend things we do in print against the Internet. Or if they are not defensible, at least to be in those areas in the Internet in an equally profitable way. I don't think there's any doubt that the Internet is going to improve out of sight when we get better telephone services. It is going to be used more for information and entertainment. It is going to affect newspapers, it is going to affect television, but, you know, we have survived as newspapers pretty well the onslaught of radio and the onslaught of television, neither of which have ever been more powerful than they are today in terms of just showering everybody with news at no charge.

"Provided they don't price themselves out, I don't think there is any worry about newspapers finding a very large audience and people still reading them. Daily papers will be affected more than weekend newspapers. Life is getting more complicated. Women are working. It's harder to find time for a daily paper, certainly a big one, and the Internet will contribute to that. The economics of some newspapers will change and might be difficult. The Internet will be a great magnet for classified advertising. Will that be as a complement to newspapers or as an alternative? We don't know yet, but I think what we have to say is that the Internet can be a huge opportunity to start new businesses off the side of it. For instance, what we are doing with the Times Educational Supplement, in starting Internet services to help parents help their children with homework, tied in with the school syllabuses, is a whole opportunity for a vertically integrated business of special book publishing to collections of data. We're taking a health television network that's pretty embryonic and merging it into a big Internet service which we are going to take around the world. Everything will come from that, from being able to supply prescription drugs, ordered on the Internet, to popular health books about modern medicine. It's not what you might call traditional media, but there are a lot of media-related things we could do and obvious ways one could tie some of these services to the readership of a newspaper."


Insurance

Although it failed to buy Manchester United, News Corporation will continue to be a major player in the sports field, vowed Murdoch – Sky has obtained the rights to the Champions League in Germany and continues to throw enormous lumps of money at the English Premiership for similar television control – although it no longer harbours ambitions to own a prominent British club. The attempt to gain control of Manchester United was, he said, "an insurance policy" against the present structure of the Premiership being dissolved, which he believes would result in there being "about four very rich football clubs and a lot of pathetic little also-rans. It would be very hard to exist as we know it today, with many thriving clubs. Should that happen, we would have had contr spurious reasons – there's not a lawyer who could possibly agree with it – they [the Department of Trade and Industry] said we couldn't. From a business point of view, frankly, I'm not the least upset. I thought the offer we had on the table was too high, but that's a matter of opinion. Then Granada jumped in and bought recently 10 per cent of Liverpool and lined up all the TV rights – and there wasn't a squeak out of anybody. So we are going to follow that example in one or two places, in case these leagues are broken up. We have a foot in the door in a few places, in the Premiership and elsewhere [Manchester City, for example]. But we don't see the future of News Corporation in owning a lot of sports clubs, nor do we know how to run them." How, then, would they have run Manchester United? "Well, you would have left Alex Ferguson there and prayed that he lived forever."

Mr Murdoch and prayer are, apparently, on more than nodding acquaintance. The Murdoch family trust recently donated $10million towards the building of a new Roman Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles and last year he was awarded a Papal "knighthood", so it seemed legitimate to ask him if he believes in God. "Yes, quite firmly," he replied. "I wouldn't describe myself as being highly religious, but I certainly believe in a supreme being and in the spirituality of man. But am I tied to any one formal religion? No. [But] I have, I hope, a lot of the values of my Calvinistic background. That may sound strange, but it's true, I think."

As might be expected, he is unrepentant about the dynastic structure of News Corporation. Although, at 68 and with mortality determining that he is getting ever nearer to God, he has let it be known that he views president and chief operating officer Peter Chernin as his successor, three of his children are positioned high in the organisation pyramid. He is contemptuous of writer Henry Porter's comparison with the inherited power and wealth of the royal family, which Murdoch despises. "So what?" he barked. "He [Porter] was suggesting that I was being hypocritical? I certainly haven't lived my life the way I have without wanting to keep opportunities open for my children. I think that's natural. They've got to work and they've got to prove that they can do it, which a royal family doesn't have to do." They can work hard in the knowledge that the dynasty is not to be expanded. Does he and new wife Wendy Deng plan to start a family, I asked. "No."

The National Dictionary of Biography entry on Rupert's father, Sir Keith, listed his motives in forging the first national media chain inol of what is the major club by a long, long way. And for totally Australia as profit, power and pulpiteering. Are they, I asked, his motives also? "Yeah, all those things. We certainly don't do it for the money, but the fact is that the thing has out of necessity become a big corporation. It has to make profits. It has the normal disciplines of a public company. Unfortunate, but that's where we are." His mother, I reminded him, apparently does not think her son treads in his father's footsteps, having suggested that whereas Keith was keen to use his newspapers for the things in which he believed – the betterment of the community, education, the improved quality of people's lives – Rupert's mission was "different". "I don't agree with that," he said, somewhat irritably. "My motives are the same as my father's. She's been reading too many opposition newspapers, the old lady."

The affability of the man who says he believes political and religious leaders have "infinitely greater influence" than himself quickly returned, but it was time for him to leave for lunch. "Nice to have met you," said Rupert Murdoch, shaking my hand. Then he thanked me for my work for the News of the World, the title for which I write a weekly column of theatre criticism. It didn't sound like a threat.