My verdict on the life and times of Rupert Murdoch

  • 18 October, 2012
  • Politics

Rupert Murdoch put up a typically robust performance this week as he defeated a move to dilute his powers at News Corporation’s annual meeting in Los Angeles.

It means Mr Murdoch continues at the helm of the company that he founded, remaining as both its chairman and chief executive. After seeing off moves by rebel shareholders to reduce his influence, Mr Murdoch, 81, dismissed the concerns of those critical of his company’s lack of accountability. “There are plenty of media stocks to buy if they don’t like this one,” he said dryly.

The titles of two books on Mr Murdoch, published just four years apart, tell their own story of his recent and on-going difficulties.

In 2008, Michael Wolff, who was given rare access to Mr Murdoch and his closest aides, wrote a biography of him called The Man Who Owns the News. Yet earlier this year another journalist, John Lisners, wrote a book entitled The Rise and Fall of the Murdoch Empire.

Book titles can, of course, be misleading: Mr Murdoch did not possess a monopoly of the news in 2008 any more than, unless I have missed something, his media empire collapsed in 2012. However, the most recent years have, undoubtedly, been troubled ones for the Australian-born tycoon and many of his opponents have enjoyed witnessing his pain.

Today, the wolves are circling Mr Murdoch: those who were not brave enough to attack him at the height of his power feel able to snipe at him now in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, the closure of the News of the World and the fact that so many of his former senior staff are facing serious criminal charges.

Those who have long harboured a grudge against Mr Murdoch or one of his newspapers are now amongst his most vociferous critics and they feel safety in numbers. There is an old Arabic proverb: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And Mr Murdoch, like most people who have been involved in the cut and thrust world of big business for well over half a century, has inevitably made a few enemies along the way.

Anyone who knows a bit about my past might feel that I am entitled to a place amongst the grudge-bearers, the critics and the enemies: for in 1999, one of Mr Murdoch’s newspapers, from his News International stable, conducted a prolonged and misguided campaign against me.

Under the editorship of Peter Stothard, The Times, which had decided to support New Labour, carried out a smear campaign against me when I was Treasurer of the Conservative Party under William Hague’s leadership.

The Times’s relentless – though, ultimately, failed – campaign caused me some personal embarrassment and (because there are always those who will believe there is “no smoke without fire”) some of my businesses were considerably inconvenienced. It was also an unwanted distraction for the party.

If, as they say, revenge is a dish best served cold, then now is my chance to settle some old scores with Mr Murdoch, while he is still licking his wounds.

However, the truth is that the more I see of Mr Murdoch, from afar, the more I respect him.

To start with, as a self-made businessman myself, I have an overwhelming admiration for the remarkable global media empire that he has created.

He was initially able to turn the success of a single newspaper, the Adelaide News, into a flourishing newspaper business in Australia and New Zealand. Not content with being a big fish in a relatively small pond, he soon broadened his horizons.

He made his first acquisition in the UK (the News of the World) in 1969 and his first acquisition in the US (the San Antonio Express-News) in 1973. Since then, he has built up a worldwide media empire currently estimated to be worth more than $60 billion. Over the years, he has owned almost 200 newspapers.

At times, his expansion has been anything but plain sailing. In 1986, he had the courage to take on the mighty, but utterly corrupt, print unions, secretly consolidating his operations in Wapping and prompting one of the most bitter industrial disputes of the last century. Today, with falling circulations and crumbling advertising revenues, British newspapers would be on their knees if Mr Murdoch had not won the day and restored some common sense, and pride, to the newspaper industry.

Mr Murdoch is as shrewd as he is courageous. Realising that newspaper circulations were in an irreversible decline, he turned some of his energies to Sky Television, the pay tv broadcaster, which he set up in 1989. Even after its merger with British Satellite Broadcasting the next year, the company suffered massive losses for several years.

However, Mr Murdoch persevered with his new BSkyB venture, instinctively knowing that he could eventually turn around its fortunes. Today it makes pre-tax profits of more than £1 billion a year – and even subsidises some of the newspapers that once propped it up in its fledgling years.

I thought, too, that Mr Murdoch dealt with the phone hacking scandal wisely and decisively. He acknowledged that one of his newspapers had been responsible for a shocking abuse of power and stunned the industry when he decided to close the News of the World. He described his apology to MPs and the nation, nine days after the News of the World’s final edition, as “the most humble day of my career”.

I have had very few personal dealings with Mr Murdoch but we did meet in person, for the first time, back in December 1999 after I had sued The Times for defamation when it, ludicrously and falsely, tried to suggest that I was under suspicion for drug running and money laundering.

I visited Mr Murdoch at his London apartment and I liked his style. Furthermore, I felt he was a man who could be trusted. As two pragmatic businessmen, it did not take us long to reach an agreement, one that avoided the need for costly and time-consuming legal action: The Times printed a lengthy, front-page retraction, and both sides picked up their own legal costs.

Anyone wanting to know more about my battle with The Timesand my meeting with Mr Murdoch to try to resolve the dispute should read my book, Dirty Politics, Dirty Times.

I am sorry to disappoint those who hoped and expected that this blog would turn into a “hatchet job” on the world’s most powerful media mogul.

For, as I look back on his long career, I see Mr Murdoch as being a force for good in the business world: he is a wealth creator, a jobs’ creator and a brilliant deal maker whose companies have possessed astonishing political and cultural power. And on the very few occasions that I have met him I have enjoyed the company of an astute businessman.

It was Helen Keller, the American author and political activist, who wrote: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Mr Murdoch has lived by those rules for more than eight decades and I like him all the more for doing so.

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