Book Club: Murdoch Seeks To Rewrite His Scandal-Plagued Legacy

Rupert Murdoch arrives at the Twentieth Century Fox & Fox Searchlight Pictures Oscar Party at the LURE on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 in Los Angeles.
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Rupert Murdoch is used to being able to dictate the day’s news and to help influence the course of history in the countries in which he is most active: the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. Yet the reflexively unreflective Murdoch now finds himself confronted by his history in public at almost every turn. And those reminders involve all three phases of his life — the personal life, the political and his beloved papers.

In London, several of his former top tabloid executives face criminal charges of conspiracy to hack into mobile phone voice mail messages, to bribe public officials, and to conceal evidence. (This group has pleaded not guilty, even if three former lower-level editors pleaded guilty to similar charges.)

Those newsrooms’ recklessness and even criminality evolved from the brash sensibility of a single man: Murdoch himself. The scandal has tarred his reputation, cost his son James a shot at running the family-controlled media empire and cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars. That figure seems likely to rise.

Murdoch split his conglomerate into two earlier this year, removing the protective layer of TV profits from his newspaper divisions’ shaky finances. But when he did so, Murdoch announced a new phase to his life — a phase that, it soon transpired, included shedding his third wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch. Rumors abounded of her romantic involvement with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt; in October, Murdoch tweeted “‘Please expose Eric Schmidt, Google, etc’ Just wait!” — and then followed up with “Oops! Better ignore that last tweet.” Not hard to guess the first of the two tweets was a private message that went awry. Not for the first time, his aides winced and wished they could pry his iPad away from him.

Over the past two weekends, the rival tabloid Mail on Sunday published front-page stories that claimed to reveal the strong feelings Rupert’s now former third wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch, held for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Mail’s reports told of overnight stays at one of the couple’s estates as Murdoch traveled, mash notes about a hidden crush (Wendi for Tony), liaisons on David Geffen’s yacht and a fit thrown by the media magnate to prevent the former British leader from appearing at a prestigious media industry summit in Sun Valley, Idaho.

The Mail selected a phrasing to hedge its decision to report rumor as near-fact that’s destined to become a classic: “The Mail on Sunday made it clear last week that we have no evidence of an affair between them. That remains the case.”

The stronger liaison was perhaps between Rupert and Tony: their fortunes had been intertwined for more than a decade. Murdoch supported Blair for election three times, devoting the pages of his four major British papers to the cause; Blair served as godfather to one of Rupert and Wendi’s young daughter as she was baptized on the banks of the River Jordan, at a site where Jesus Christ is said to have been baptized.

For nearly a year, people with ties to Rupert Murdoch and his adult children have talked up Wendi Deng Murdoch’s entanglements with a verve that was not displayed in 2000, when the pre-Rupert Wall Street Journal revealed her social ambitions in her path to become Murdoch’s legal partner. At that time, Murdoch’s surrogates denounced the piece. The 13-year-old story is freely available to the public outside the Journal’s paywall.

Meanwhile, criticism is building in the UK over delays in the publication of a report detailing the Blair cabinet’s activities in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, for which the U.K. served as a primary ally. The former British diplomat running the inquiry has been delayed by the U.K. government’s refusal to hand over a welter of key documents. No policy mattered more to Murdoch than the invasion of Iraq, save perhaps his successful campaign against the British joining the Euro. Roy Greenslade, the media critic of the Guardian and Evening Standard, once reported that of the more than 175 newspapers Murdoch owned at the dawn of the invasion, only one opposed it. From Fox News to the Sun to the Australian to the New York Post to the Weekly Standard, Murdoch’s outlets embraced and fueled a fever for war and dismissed those who questioned the consequences. As the Australian academic David McKnight has written, Murdoch helped to subsidize think tanks that served as the intellectual basis of the war as well.

British Murdoch-watchers believe some of those records, if released publicly, will document just how tightly he gripped Blair during that crucial period.

I spoke with a former Murdoch aide and a top former Murdoch editor about the Mail’s coverage. One could not believe the 82-year-old media mogul wanted anything to do with dredging up allegations over his wife’s behavior. Amid the peak of the hacking scandal, Murdoch fired Les Hinton, an aide and executive who served loyally for more than five decades but who Parliament accused of making misleading statements. The two men did not speak for more than a year and half. Similarly, Murdoch is said to have all but lost touch with his former executive assistant Dot Windoe, who retired after a tenure that fell just shy of a half-century.

But maybe the leaks weren’t about Murdoch’s wife. A former top Murdoch editor wrote to me in an email that the Mail stories were “planted by him for sure,” motivated by “a sense of betrayal by one of the few politicians that he had once grudgingly admired.”

Faulkner wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Murdoch prefers his past dead. He wants to look and move forward, to breathe new life into his struggling newspapers, and to write a new arc for his life story. One can see why. The most recent chapters have been brutal.

David Folkenflik is an award-winning journalist and author of Murdoch’s World: The Last Of The Old Media Empires, which was published by PublicAffairs Books in October. He has been NPR’s media correspondent since 2004, and he previously covered media and politics for the Baltimore Sun. He edited the 2011 book, Page One: Inside The New York Times And The Future of Journalism. Folkenflik lives with his wife, the radio producer Jesse Baker, and their daughter in New York City.

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