No one would call him likeable, or even estimable, any more than he does honor to his profession. Which probably doesn’t matter to him. At 91, Rupert Murdoch has achieved his goal in life. To establish himself as one of the most powerful and influential men and, in doing so, the most feared on the planet. At least in the Anglo-Saxon world, where the media empire he has gradually built reigns supreme. It is to this character, certainly out of the ordinary, that the academic David Colon devotes a biography, adding to and drawing inspiration from those published, in great number, in the United Kingdom and the United States.
The legend of Rupert Murdoch is well known. Himself the son of a renowned Australian journalist, he found himself, at the age of 24, at the head of the provincial newspaper that his father had acquired late in life. Its recipe is simple. Offer the worst to attract its readers, title below the belt, without skimping on insults, even if it means inventing when the truth of the facts does not seem to sell enough. The commercial results are there. And as Murdoch already has boundless ambition, with the treasury of his newspapers, he buys up others, and so on. Until then occupying, with the same processes, the television market. Then to export its know-how, all the same very particular, in Great Britain. He notably bought the Sun and the Times there, before launching BskyB, a satellite television network. Above all, it takes advantage of the influence conferred on it by its media power to interfere in the political arena. First, by supporting the heads of government most likely, according to him, to defend his interests, from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair. Then by displaying an increasingly marked ideology on the right. This is particularly the case in the United States where he manages to bring a completely different dimension to his group. With newspapers, such as the New York Post and later the Wall Street Journal, but soon with investments in television and more generally in what is called the entertainment industry (cinema, music, book publishing, etc. .). The most emblematic success of this development is that of the Fox News channel, which is more focused on debates and controversies than on information per se and which will do a lot for the election of a certain Donald Trump.
“It’s less about informing the viewer than making them feel informed,” writes David Colon. “A recipe that Murdoch has long applied to the media”.
This is only the necessarily concise summary of what was the course of Rupert Murdoch. A journey on which this book returns in detail. As welcome as this narrative is, we regret, however, that the author did not dwell more on the processes, both industrial and financial, without which Century Fox and New Corp. the two pillars of the Murdoch empire would not have reached their size. They are based first on the leverage effect, allowing an owner to retain control of his group even when he is no longer a de facto minority, and above all on debt which is only possible with the complacency of the banks. This was particularly true in the early 90s. Murdoch was then on the verge of bankruptcy, unable to repay the billions he owed them to the banks. Starting from the fact that beyond a certain level of borrowing, it is the debtor who is in a position of strength in relation to his creditors, he obtains a salutary rescheduling from 146 banks at which he nevertheless has accounts to to return.
As David Colon reminds us, this is not the only crisis that Murdoch must overcome, throughout his 65 years of management. To this was added a private life with twists and turns, with several marriages and sometimes uncontrollable heirs. Eventually, Rupert Murdoch sold Century Fox, its entertainment arm, to Disney for a whopping $71 billion. Disney, of which he still controls 17% of the capital. While retaining Fox News, still as profitable, and all of its press and publishing activities. Admittedly, regulations in other European countries have limited its prospects there, just as it has failed to establish itself in China. What does it matter!
Rupert Murdoch has often demonstrated that he has thick leather. To overcome these failures, among many others. But also the scandals that its very conception of information made inevitable. The most resounding was undoubtedly the affair of the News of the World, this English weekly stuffed with gossip, whose leaders, among other questionable practices, were discovered to have wiretapped dozens of personalities. Not only did Murdoch have to shut down the newspaper, but he had to answer to the British establishment he had so often sought to humiliate.
More recently, Murdoch distributed 2 billion to each of his offspring. Without really renouncing to reign over his empire. The only real limit to his mad ambitions, this book makes us understand, is that he failed to buy his immortality. Which perhaps leaves a chance, one day, for the media, whose excesses he orchestrated, to save honor.
“Rupert Murdock. The media emperor who manipulates the world”. A biography of Danid Colon. Editions Tallandier. €21.