Powerful publisher, billionaire businessman, but above all a charming figure: Rupert Murdoch is celebrating his 90th birthday. As one of the last of the old school media tycoons, Murdoch still has a huge impact on politics, not just in his adopted country of America. Its titles and stations are notorious and feared – above all the right-wing conservative network Fox News.
Make the puppets dance
Murdoch retains himself largely from the public in old age, but remains active as an agitator in the background. After selling large parts of his entertainment company to Walt Disney, Murdoch’s empire has shrunk significantly. But with his Fox stations and the News Corp publisher, which includes gossip papers such as the “New York Post”, but also more dignified newspapers such as the “Wall Street Journal”, Murdoch continues to lead a great power in matters of agenda-setting and opinion-making. This has not changed after Donald Trump was voted out of office as US President, with whom Murdoch quickly entered into an alliance of convenience despite initial skepticism.
“Rupert Murdoch is the most dangerous immigrant in America,” said US policy advisor Stuart Stevens recently about the native Australian. Stevens is a longtime Republican strategist who opposed Trump and sees whisperers like Murdoch as a major threat to his own party. Murdoch’s skill in harnessing the political elite for his interests is legendary. “Republicans originally thought that Fox was working for us. Now we are finding that we work for Fox,” said David Frum, speechwriter for former US President George W. Bush.
Feared and scandalous
How did the media mogul get so powerful that even other conservative pullers fear his influence so much? At 22, Murdoch took over his first newspaper in his native Australia, and it became the basis for a media empire that still spans almost the entire English-speaking part of the world. With revolver papers like “The Sun” he uncompromisingly relied on sensational journalism, with stations like Fox News on political opinion-making, which is repeatedly pushed to the limits of manipulation and propaganda, mainly due to the aggravated views of some talk show hosts.
The fact that Murdoch and his companies were able to stay at the forefront of the international media business for so long is quite remarkable. For in the meantime he had been thoroughly sidelined by a bugging scandal in his British tabloid “News of the World”. For years, Murdoch’s journalists had spied on the cell phones of crime victims and celebrities and bribed police officers. Murdoch had to testify to a British parliamentary committee at the height of the affair in 2011, what he himself described as the “most humiliating day” of his life.
In Great Britain, where Murdoch bought his first newspaper in 1968, he was considered the dubious gray eminence of the media landscape long before the scandal. When he took over the traditional newspaper “Times” in the 1980s, a deal with then Prime Minister Margret Thatcher is said to have cleared the way for him under antitrust law. His close ties to Thatcher also allegedly helped Murdoch after the takeover to assert himself in a bitter conflict with the unions over the dismissal of thousands of employees.
Murdoch was a stranger to the London elite from the start, which is why he moved to New York relatively early on. Murdoch expanded his media empire to the USA as early as the 1970s. For years he pursued the dream of crowning his life’s work with the creation of the world’s largest entertainment group. But this plan failed in 2014 with the failed takeover of US rival Time Warner, which would have united the legendary Hollywood studios Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox.
Management and shareholders ultimately spoke out against the mega-deal. Instead, Murdoch himself had to continue to dismantle his empire under increasing competitive pressure. In particular, the booming streaming competition, which is chasing away more and more customers from classic cable providers, was increasingly causing Murdoch to create. In 2019 he sold large parts of his media group 21st Century Fox to arch-rival Walt Disney. A decision that should not have been easy for him, because he actually had very different ambitions.
What he was left with after the sale of 21st Century Fox is the right-wing broadcasting group Fox News. Their talk shows served Trump as a clock during his presidency. Whoever wanted to influence him had to place his messages there. At the end of the term of office, however, there was a rift as Fox turned away and did not support the lie of Trump’s supposed election victory.
Quota guarantor Trump
Murdoch’s relationship with Trump is considered close, but purposeful. At first he did not consider him a suitable US president. But if Trump does not let himself be prevented, it would be crazy if the party does not stand behind him, was Murdoch’s pragmatic assessment of the situation in 2016.
For Fox News, Trump’s reality show-style governance was a lucrative rating guarantee. And with all the propensity for political influence – business is just as important to Murdoch. Again and again he made headlines with big deals, but also made terrific flops. In 2005, for example, he could have cooperated with Facebook, instead he bought rival MySpace for $ 580 million, which quickly disappeared again into oblivion. Almost all of the sum had to be written off.
Murdoch’s private life is also often mixed up. Shortly before his 85th birthday, the media tsar married Jerry Hall, 25 years his junior, and former Rolling Stone’s top model and ex-wife Mick Jagger. The couple had only met a few months before. As a family man, Murdoch is just as busy as a businessman – he has a total of six children with three wives. Hall’s predecessor, Wendy Deng, once threw herself into the breach when her husband was pelted with a cake made of shaving cream by an activist.
The friction between Murdoch’s sons James and Lachlan over the succession to the throne also causes a stir. In mid-2015, Murdoch announced that the leadership of 21st Century Fox would be passed on to the next generation. The younger son James was named chief executive officer, while brother Lachlan was allowed to lead the board of directors with his father. De facto, however, only the old master had the say, as was shown at the latest when it was sold to Disney.
The constant family quarrel provides material for Hollywood productions. James is more liberal and rejects, for example, the climate protection line of the Murdoch papers, while Lachlan, like his father, is considered ultra-conservative. There is even a TV series called “Succession” that is supposed to poke fun at the clan.
A three-part documentary about the Murdoch Empire can be seen on Arte.tv until March 17th: