Rupert and me
Updated: Sep 11
You might well ask.
Rupert Murdoch, that’s who.
I am now going to put at risk a hard-won reputation for being ‘profoundly humane'’ (a critic’s phrase, not mine) by sticking up for Rupert. I don't like the climate change denying editorial stance of his newspapers, and I particularly don't like the lies he promotes daily. With luck his odious US ‘news’ network Fox News is about to crash and burn at the hands of Dominion voting machines. Dominion claims with some justification to have been defamed by the relentless lies spread by the aforementioned Fox News. They are asking for US$1.6 billion in damages. And that’s before the judge and jury get around to assessing punitive damages, which would be in addition to the $1.6 billion asking price.
In the circumstances, why stick up for Rupert? Answer: he has never been other than nice to me. He gave me my first job on his tabloid, the Sydney Daily Mirror. He sent me to London as foreign correspondent for his brand new broadsheet The Australian, thus introducing me to international events and to my wife Roslyn. He was always a good employer.
Let me illustrate with a story. I have no way of proving this, but I suspect I was being groomed for some kind of bigger role within the Murdoch empire. On one of his early trips to London, Rupert asked me to dinner à deux at the Savoy, where he was staying. In the middle of dinner, the dialogue went something like this:
Rupert: You ought to get married, Peter.
Me: I was thinking of doing that, Rupert.
Rupert: Who to?
Me: Roslyn Owen in the bureau. (In those days, News International maintained a bureau in Red Lion Court, off Fleet Street.)
Rupert: What do your parents think?
Me: I haven’t told them yet.
Rupert: Give me your father’s telephone number. I’ll call him when I’m back.
He did, too.
Later I joined the literary agency Curtis Brown. In this capacity I was invited to lunch by David Sanders, then deputy editor of the Sunday Express. Rupert had already bought into Fleet Street, acquiring the News of the World. Now he had acquired The Sun, previously owned and published as the Daily Herald by the TUC, Britain's Trade Union collective. Sanders went straight to the point. ‘You worked for years for Rupert Murdoch,” he said. I agreed that I had.
“What’s his secret?” Sanders asked.
“Television,” I replied. “Rupert treats what’s happening on television as news.”
“Hmmm!” Sanders responded. “We don’t report on television because we don’t want to promote a rival medium that’s taking away our advertising.” And this, gentle reader, is why the Express is a struggling dinosaur to this day while Rupert regularly spends millions buying and selling newspapers, book publishers, TV chains, film studios and the like.
What drives Rupert? And which side is he on politically? I have no personal knowledge to shed light on either question. What follows is simply my guesswork.
On the question of Rupert’s politics, he seems to me to be more an opportunist than an ideologue. He was a member of the Labour Club when he was a university student in Oxford. He backed Harold Wilson in the 1970 election with the Sun headline: 'Why it has to be Labour'. I was actually in the newsroom at the Sunday Mirror in Sydney when Rupert took a phone call from Arthur Caldwell, then leader of the Labour Party in Australia. Caldwell had a fair chance of toppling Bob Menzies’ right wing Liberal Party government in a looming election. I could hear only Rupert’s side of the conversation, but Caldwell appeared to be telling Rupert what he intended to say in a forthcoming speech. “If you say that, we’ll back you,” Rupert responded. Rupert was also fairly even-handed between centre-left Tony Blair and the centre-right John Major in a UK general election. He has a surprising amount of form when it comes to supporting the left in elections.
Nevertheless he pumped out shameless lies and propaganda in support of Maggie Thatcher against Neil Kinnock, and more recently he was even more shameless supporting Donald Trump. (In this last case I suspect Rupert’s views were not unlike Steve Bannon’s, who reputedly saw Trump as both stupid and a crook but nevertheless pliable. In Stalin’s phrase, Trump was Bannon’s — and Rupert’s — ‘useful idiot.’)
So what happened to ‘opportunism’, you ask? In my estimation, that’s what drives Rupert. As his recently uncovered emails show, he is more driven by money and ratings, or newspaper circulation, or book sales, than by ideology, or even integrity. What’s behind it all? Rupert usually has goals, and they are pretty much out in the open. He wants to buy back shares in Sky TV in the UK from non-family shareholders. Or he wants to buy the Financial Times, let’s say. Will he have trouble from the government, given his increasingly monopolistic holdings? If yes, which party is likely to be most helpful (or least obstructive!) to Rupert in getting his way. Okay let’s back that party. For good measure, we could even claim that they would have lost without our support. As The Sun once claimed in big black headlines after a Conservative election victory: IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT.
What will Rupert do now? I have a theory, which the American commentariat seems to have missed, based on his sworn deposition for the Dominion trial. If I’m right … well, you read it here first.
Let me begin by saying that if all the preceding analysis is correct, Rupert’s first concern will be to save the Fox TV chain. That means that he will throw even network stars under the bus if he deems it necessary to protect his business. With that in mind, here are some direct quotes from Rupert’s deposition testimony under oath for the Dominion court case.
Question: In fact you are now aware that Fox endorsed at times the false notion of a stolen election?
Rupert: Not Fox. No. Not Fox. Maybe Lou Dobbs, maybe Maria [Bartiromo], as commentators.
Question: We went through Fox hosts Maria Bartiromo, yes?
Rupert: Yes. C’mon.
Question: Fox host Jeanine Pirro?
Rupert : I think so.
Question: Fox Business host Lou Dobbs?
Rupert: Oh, a lot.
Question: Fox host Sean Hannity?
Rupert: A bit.
Question: About Fox endorsing the narrative of a stolen election; correct?
Rupert: No. Some of our commentators [my emphasis] were endorsing it.
Question: About their endorsement of a stolen election?
Rupert: Yes. They endorsed.
What can it all mean? It strikes me as pretty obvious that Rupert intends to protect Fox by laying all the blame on his stars. It’s a bit like me defaming somebody in a telephone call, and that somebody sues the telephone company instead of me. Except in Rupert’s case that defence won’t work. The difference between Fox and AT&T is surely that Fox controls the content of its broadcasts while AT&T makes no claim to control the content of telephone conversations.
I must say if I was Sean Hannity I’d call my agent and suggest that it’s time for a new job, not with Fox. Maria Bartiromo too. I must say ‘maybe’ and ‘a bit’ are hardly ringing endorsements.
And in early February of this year Fox News announced baldly: 'Lou Dobbs Tonight,' will no longer air on the network. That’s what ‘a lot’ gets you these days in Rupertsville.