LOS ANGELES — It’s an amazing cosmic convergence that Rupert Murdoch is twisting in the wind, ensnarled in a horrific phone-hacking scandal, just as the final chapter in the “Harry Potter” franchise is breaking box-office records. After all, no media magnate bears a closer resemblance to “Potter” archvillain Lord Voldemort than Murdoch, who for decades has been the chief overlord of the dark art of tabloid media skullduggery.
The scandal, sparked by revelations that Murdoch’s News of the World investigators had hacked into the voicemails of a slain 13-year-old girl and relatives of terrorist bombing victims, has resulted in a firestorm of condemnation, the closure of the tabloid, and the withdrawal of Murdoch’s takeover bid for British Sky Broadcasting. That’s not to mention the resignations of a host of top News Corp. officials, and the head of Scotland Yard, whose police operatives have been accused of bungling the investigation and having cozy relations with Murdoch executives.
When “Potter” author J.K. Rowling was once asked to describe Voldemort, she called him a “bully devoid of the normal human responses to other people’s suffering.” The same — and worse — has been said about Murdoch.
How did Murdoch get to this point?
Perhaps it can all be traced to his origins as an outsider. Having started as the owner of a sole newspaper in Australia, he clawed his way up to higher media ground in Britain and the United States. After buying a slew of newspapers, he went on to acquire the 20th Century Fox film studio, launch the Fox television network and Fox News and take control of the HarperCollins publishing businesses.
He was willing to take risks, and was never afraid to bully rivals or dismiss critics. He scorned the polite conventions of the chattering class — even as he cozied up to power brokers to get ahead.
Along the way, Murdoch excused his underlings’ bad behavior as a justifiable reaction to the kind of stuffy elitists whom he once derisively dismissed as “champagne people.”
Now, though, his willingness to thumb his nose at the establishment has turned out to be a double-edged sword; while it has been at the heart of his business success, it is now at the center of all his troubles. Murdoch’s casual contempt for proper behavior has now put him in a corner, with all his old media adversaries and political foes rooting for his downfall. The chickens, you might say, have come home to roost.
If the “champagne people” looked the other way at some of the sordid practices of the News Corp. empire, perhaps it was because the sprawling outfit grew so large as to take on an “Upstairs Downstairs” feel. It was more palatable, maybe, to think of Murdoch as the head of a company that encompassed the respectable Wall Street Journal (rather than the News of the World) or the film studio that brought us James Cameron and his wondrous “Avatar” (rather than the TV network that broadcast “Temptation Island”).
But Murdoch’s first love has always been newspapers, and his true wizardry has been finding ways to translate his newspaper tabloid sensibility to other mediums, a la Glenn Beck and his crackpot Fox News ravings.
As Michael Wolff, author of the compelling “The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch,” has pointed out, Murdoch sees tabloid reporting as about not just celebrity and gossip, but about immediacy and emotion.
It is this immediacy and emotion that catapulted Fox News to the top of the U.S. cable news heap. While CNN was trying to be a sober-minded, all-things-to-all-people product, Fox News was feisty and abrasive, grabbing viewers by the throat with a squadron of razor-edged personalities and an unabashedly conservative point of view.
Murdoch’s Fox TV network was just as anti-elitist in its origins, having many of its biggest successes with populist programming that often inspired critical hand-wringing, such as “Married With Children,” “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?,” “Beverly Hills, 90210” and, of course, “American Idol.”
Even as News Corp. grew into one of the world’s biggest media conglomerates, Murdoch, the wary outsider, continued to run it more like a family business. And this corporate structure, it seems, allowed some of the odious practices now ailing the company to fester.
Murdoch, 80, has long looked to his children as his only possible successors. His eldest son, Lachlan, was once the favored offspring, then it became his youngest, James. If you see the Murdoch clan in “Godfather” terms, James would be Sonny Corleone: bold and impetuous, he was once cannily described as “always decisive, often wrong.”
Over the years, issues involving James and succession plans cost Murdoch his longtime chief operating officer Peter Chernin and public relations guru Gary Ginsberg. With Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks having fallen on their swords last week, the Murdoch clan is more isolated than ever. Cynics say that if the scandal gets worse, Murdoch will sacrifice James, still having Lachlan and second-eldest daughter, Elisabeth — who sold her company to News Corp. this year — waiting in the wings.
But for now, Rupert Murdoch remains in charge. And though Murdoch’s TV networks and movie studio have made the lion’s share of News Corp.‘s profits, the newspapers have always been the wing of the empire that he cares about the most — a fact that he can’t run from now.
Not long ago, it looked as if the newspapers might burnish Murdoch’s legacy: Having acquired the Wall Street Journal in 2007, and, amazingly, made it an even better paper, Murdoch seemed to be on his way to rewriting his reputation as a cutthroat operator.
But now all focus is on a very different paper — the News of the World — with which Murdoch has a much longer history, going back more than four decades.
When Murdoch goes before the British Parliament to be questioned about the tabloid’s behavior, he will no doubt attempt to appear contrite and remorseful. But he shouldn’t act surprised by all the chicanery that has occurred — his cadre of loyalists have always dutifully played by his own rulebook.
Like Voldemort, Murdoch’s knack for ruthlessness and insatiable need for power can’t be disguised.