Planet Murdoch: is nothing out of his reach?
Rupert Murdoch’s spectacular $5bn takeover of America’s revered ‘Wall Street Journal’ is the crowning moment of half a century’s deal-making and empire-building. Is anything out of his reach? Stephen Foley reports
"Rupert is my boss. Rupert Murdoch has bought Dow Jones. Dow Jones owns my paper. So I am now an underling in the world's most evil corporate empire. "
This anonymous blog entry from a Wall Street Journal reporter just about summed up the sense of misery as the news sank in. At the paper's newsrooms across the US, journalists held impromptu wakes. "We stood around a pile of Journals and drank whisky," one told a reporter from a rival paper.
"The readers' comments on WSJ.com really got to people," another Journal veteran lamented. On the paper's website, reader after reader threatened to cancel their subscriptions. "This news is like hearing from an old friend that he has a debilitating, fatal disease," said one, in an unconscious echo of the late British playwright Dennis Potter, who called his cancer "Rupert".
"Murdoch will defile it and turn it into another example of his legendarily low-brow offerings," predicted one reader, and throughout the discussion, wags were coming up with tabloid-style headlines for the media business coup of the decade. The best: "D'oh! Simpsons boss Homers in on Journal".
It has taken Rupert Murdoch many years to become as hated in the US as he has been in the UK for more than two decades, and in his native Australia for longer still. But he has sealed that status thanks to his takeover of The Wall Street Journal – pious organ of the American financial establishment for over a century. Its previous owners, the Bancroft family, agonised about their duty to protect a national icon handed down through generations, but they could not turn down $5bn (£2.5bn), nearly twice what the paper was worth.
His success proves what his detractors fear most: he is rich enough, powerful enough and audacious enough to get anything – anything – that he wants. Now that his News Corp empire is absorbing the second best-selling newspaper in the US (one of its two or three most politically influential) he is more powerful than almost anybody without access to a nuclear button.
And the most extraordinary thing of all is that Rupert Murdoch is 76. What of rumours last year that he was starting to slow down, take more of an interest in consolidating the legacy for his children, retire from the daily grind and the nightly party circuit? Blown out of the water. The people with him throughout his four-month chess game with the Bancrofts say he has been as alive as ever, as vigorous and immersed in the detail and the plotting – indeed more so, since this is a trophy he has coveted personally for more than a decade rather than something News Corp is likely to make a large return on.
"This is what he likes to do, this is what keeps him going," says Michael Wolff, Vanity Fair's media commentator. "He thrives on this sort of confrontation, this insistence on his primacy. It is part of the Rupert Murdoch brand. That's the real value of spending $5bn: he gets to look once again as if he is unstoppable."
The Journal is the missing piece of the puzzle in the US, where his influence on the news is limited – if limited is the right word – to the country's newest and already most watched news channel, Fox News. Its unabashedly unfair and unbalanced right-wing outpourings, plus its mix of trashy personality stories, has utterly changed the landscape of television news, pushing CNN into second place and forcing the established channel to react in ways that critics allege have blurred the boundaries between news and comment. He also owns the New York Post, a trashy tabloid and a guilty pleasure for many New Yorkers, keen to see which misbehaving celebrities and politicians are being terrorised in its famous gossip column, Page Six. It is through the Post – which he rescued from bankruptcy, thanks to a waiver of media ownership restrictions – that Murdoch has waged feuds with the judge who imprisoned his business associate Michael Milken, politicians such as Teddy Kennedy ("Fat Boy", the Post calls him) who have opposed liberalised media laws, and business rivals such as Ted Turner.
And it is therefore in New York that Murdoch is concentrating his time, lounging in the 8,000 sq ft apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side that once belonged to the mighty Rockefellers – another trophy asset that he coveted for decades and only finally got the opportunity to buy in 2004.
With his wife, Wendi Deng, 38 years his junior, whom he first wooed when she was an executive at Star TV in Hong Kong, Murdoch has been extending his dynasty, with two daughters aged five and four. His renewed vigour may have much to do with the confused state of any succession plans – Lachlan, his eldest son, flounced out of News Corp in 2005 in a dispute over inheritance plans for the new daughters, leaving Murdoch without an obvious successor. The younger James is running the outpost BSkyB in the UK, and was brought in to help reassure the Bancrofts that the Murdoch family can be good stewards of the Journal, but he is not deemed experienced enough yet to take the torch from his father.
Not that he ever will. "Rupert will never have completed his task by the time he leaves this earth. He's a huge restless spirit," Kelvin Mackenzie, his editor at The Sun once memorably said. Murdoch himself jokes that he had planned to retire at 100, but has had to postpone it. Instead, through his ownership of the MySpace social networking site, he is having to do a whole lot of getting down with the kids, learning about the internet and new ways to distribute the media content being churned out by the Fox television studio, maker of The Simpsons and American Idol, and movie lots, which have just spawned another Die Hard. One of his most recent parties, covered in the West Coast gossip rags, saw MySpace founder Tom Anderson rubbing shoulders with Tom Cruise and American Idol judge Simon Cowell on the roof of Murdoch's Beverly Hills condo.
His East Coast pad plays host to more heavyweight guests from politics and business – Murdoch never fails to mix the two. He is a dramatic convert to the cause of Hillary Clinton's campaign for the White House, hosting a fund-raiser for the former First Lady and burying the hatchet after years when his papers castigated her and her husband. Since she was elected Senator for New York, he has been burying more than just the hatchet – stories on her marriage, too, if insiders at the New York Post are right.
It was ever thus, in Murdoch's giant empire, where the news is tweaked in ways that suit his interests and keep his friends sweet.
He does it in little ways. A Saudi businessman friend of Murdoch, the billionaire Prince al-Walid bin Talal, who owns shares in News Corp, took umbridge at Fox News' coverage of the riots in the Paris suburbs in 2005. He phoned Murdoch to complain specifically about a caption describing them as " Muslim riots", and within half an hour the mogul had stepped in to get the caption changed to "Civil unrest".
And he does it in big ways. The BBC was thrown off Star TV in Asia, broadcasting into China, after the Communist regime complained about its critical coverage. Murdoch was unapologetic: "Primarily a financial consideration. But it might have occurred to me – this might have not hurt relations with Beijing," he told The Wall Street Journal, even as he was promising he would not interfere in the paper's editorial line if he took it over. "At that stage, I had not been received by a single [Chinese] minister or anyone. They had a report from Xinhua that when I had the South China Morning Post I was a member of MI6 or MI5. So no one was allowed to see me. We just had a total blackout for five years."
Power and influence are melded together through Murdoch's long career in the news business. Last month – thanks to a Freedom of Information request by The Independent – we discovered that Murdoch had a hotline to Tony Blair at crucial moments during his premiership, and that the pair spoke three times in nine days in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. The war was strongly supported by Murdoch-owned newspapers around the world. On two occasions, the day after a call with Blair, The Sun launched vitriolic attacks on the anti-war French President Jacques Chirac.
But Michael Wolff says Murdoch's motivation is not power so much as just an interest in the news. That is why buying the Journal is quite a quaint move. "In this day and age, no rational media person likes newspapers except old people. Young people are not interested in newspapers, advertisers are not interested in the news. But Murdoch still loves getting his hands dirty at a newspaper. He is buying a present for himself."
How Rupert’s embrace stretches from Alaska to Australia
Harpercollins Publishing A leading worldwide consumer book publisher. In the late 1980s, acquired US publishers Harper & Row and Williams Collins. Merged in 1989 to form Harper-Collins, which principally operates in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. Worth $2.2bn.
Employees: 3,000 worldwide
Fox Entertainment Group (100% owned)
Fox Broadcasting Co In 1986, News Corp launched Fox Broadcasting, the first new US TV network since 1948. Now reaches 98 per cent of US homes. Hit series include 24 and American Idol. Worth at least $36.6bn.
Cable Network Programming (Includes Fox News, Fox Sport World, 50 per cent of National Geographic channel) Fox News channel launched in 1996 – now more popular than CNN.
Twentieth Century Fox Film In 1985, Murdoch became a US citizen in order to buy more American media assets. That year he acquired Twentieth Century Fox film business. It has enjoyed a string of hits, including The Simpsons Movie.
Employees: 3,700 worldwide
MySpace In July 2005 Murdoch bought Intermix Media, owners of MySpace, for $580m. Murdoch hoped it would channel traffic to his other sites.
IGN Entertainment The MySpace acquisition was rapidly followed by the purchase of IGN, an internet video game company, for $650m, giving him control of gaming sites such as Game-spy and film criticism site Rotten Tomatoes.
GemStar-TV Guide International (41%) Provider of printed and interactive TV guides. Part of the magazines and inserts (carried in newspapers) business. News Corp’s magazines and inserts assets valued at $3bn.
New York Post First bought 200-year-old New York Post in 1976 but forced to sell it for regulatory reasons. Acquired again (when on brink of bankruptcy) in 1988 for $25m.
DirecTV (34%) Acquired stake in satellite broadcaster DirecTV in 2003 for $6.6bn after 20-year chase for a distribution network in the US. In 2006 agreed to transfer interest to Liberty Media in return for Liberty’s shares in News Corp. News Corp stake valued at $8.4bn.
The Weekly Standard The intellectual cheerleader of the neocon right. Washington-based weekly political magazine has a circulation of 60,000.
Sky Latin America DirecTV Latin America Holdings include Sky Mexico and Sky Brazil, each of which has more than 700,000 customers and 100 channels in its respective territory. DirecTV Latin America and Sky Latin America are in the process of merging, which will give them a combined 3.3 million subscribers.
HarperCollins Publishers Hathaway Cable (25%) NDS India (research and development plant in Bangalore)
NDS Israel (research and development plant in Jerusalem)
Channel 10 TV 9% stake taken in 2006
Fiji Times, Sunday Times, Nai Lalakai, Shanti Dut
Papua New Guinea
The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun, News of the World, TLS The company’s UK newspaper business, News International, is at the centre of a global newspaper empire estimated to be worth $11bn (before the Dow Jones deal). The UK accounts for 60 per cent of News Corp's newspaper revenues. The News International titles have around one third of the national newspaper market in Britain.
NDS (78%) NDS makes smart cards for pay-television businesses, including News Corp’s own. News Corp’s stake is worth $1bn.
BSkyB (35%) It offers more than 400 digital channels. and dominates the UK pay-TV market with 8.6 million subscribers. Aims to have 10 million subscribers by 2010. Sky is valued at about £11.5bn, making the News Corp stake worth £4.03bn.
EASYNET Broadband internet provider, bought for £211m in 2005.
Amstrad This week News Corp splashed out £125m on Amstrad, founded by Sir Alan Sugar. Amstrad manufactures around a third of Sky’s set-top boxes. The deal is primarily a cost-reduction exercise for News Corp: it cuts out the middle-man. Sir Alan will remain chairman of Amstrad for the time being.
Asia & The Middle East
Star TV A wholly owned subsidiary of News Corp, acquired 1993-1995, Star broadcasts across the Asia-Pacific region, through a mixture of cable, satellite and free-to-air services. Star has more than 40 channels in seven languages, and reaches more than 300 million viewers across 53 Asian countries.
Its main operations ( pictured) are in Asia. Channels include Star Chinese Channel, Star Plus, Xing Kong, Vijay, Phoenix Chinese Channel, Channel V , Star Sports, Star Chinese Movies, Star Mandarin Movies, Star Movies, Phoenix Movies Channel, Star News. Valued at $3bn. Serves: Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Mainland China, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Bangladesh, Brunei, Macau, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, UAE, Yemen.
Phoenix Satellite TV (38%) Hong Kong-based. Operations include a subscription movie channel in China, and a 24-hour news outlet, InfoNews, broadcast via cable in Hong Kong and via satellite to Taiwan, Mainland China and rest of East Asia. In China, reaches more than 42 million households (140 million viewers), broadcasting in Mandarin.
China Network Systems (20%) Cable TV operator based in Taiwan; News Corp acquired stake in 2001.
Sky Italia (80%) News Corp entered Italian pay-TV market in 1999 with stake in Stream. Bought Telepiu, merged it with Stream, formed Sky Italia. Estimated value: up to $4.9bn.
Sky Radio European pop music network sold in 2006 as part of a €190m deal.
NDS France A software development venture.
Balkan News Corporation News Corp launched bTV, Bulgaria’s first national private television station, in 2000. Has a 40 per cent market share.
NDS Denmark Develops games software for television.
News Outdoor(75%) Billboard advertising company focused on emerging European nations and Russia.
News Limited The Australian, The Weekend Australian, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, Herald Sun, Sunday Herald Sun, The Courier-Mail (42%), The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, 42%), The Advertiser, Sunday Mail (Adelaide), The Mercury, Sunday Tasmanian, The Sunday Times, Northern Territory News, Sunday Territorian News Corp has more than 100 Australian newspaper titles – 70 per cent of the market.
Fox Studios Australia The first major studio development for 20th Century Fox outside North America opened in 1998.
Foxtel The leading subscription television provider.
Fairfax Took 7.5% stake in rival media conglomerate for $360m in 2006.