#What now for Rupert Murdoch?What does the future hold for News Corp and the Murdochs?
Rupert's biographer Michael Wolff and commentator Roy Greenslade discuss the damage done
July 2011 21.15 BST
Could the hacking scandal be the end of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp? Michael Wolff, author of The Man Who Owns the News, a biography of Murdoch, and media commentator Roy Greenslade talk about about the man, the media empire and what happens next. Emine Saner listens in.
Roy Greenslade: As bad as things appear to be, Rupert Murdoch could be seen to be a tremendously beneficial owner of media in Britain. He's poured money into the Times and the Sunday Times, and kept them afloat when few other people would have done so. He launched satellite TV, increasing the range of channels available to everyone. This must surely be something to appreciate about the man.
Michael Wolff: If you like the direction, reach and power of "big media", you can hardly find someone who has been more beneficial than Rupert Murdoch. The downside, however, is to use it to further his own interests, create a power base, an independent state of his own. Murdoch loves newspapers. But one of the reasons he has loved newspapers is they can be very powerful and they give him a power he can use.
RG: Isn't it always the case that small media, if it's successful, is going to become big media? We would say in terms of business, if we believed in capitalism, that branching out is a natural consequence. So Murdoch, as a newspaper owner, gains power, and we know there's this amazing reciprocal relationship that goes on. He uses his political power to further his business interests, and he uses his business interests to further his political power. The point is, is there any proof that his use of political power has had any effect on the democracies of Australia, Britain, the United States? Especially the US, where it seems he has very little political clout.
MW: Let's take the present presidential election cycle, in which you have a list of candidates in the Republican party. [You look] at these people and think, "how did they get here? These are the strangest group of national candidates ever assembled, how did this happen?" The answer, most obviously, is because of Fox News. It has two million viewers who want to be entertained by politics, who need exaggerated figures to entertain them. You can only be a viable Republican if you speak to the Fox audience. They demand exaggerated figures, therefore we have conservatives who are unelectable in America.
RG: Is that not a failing of politics? Is it politicians who are being lured – and this would be true in Britain – into the idea that this man has more power than he really has?
MW: I absolutely believe that. Both here and in the US, at any point, politicians could say "no, you're not powerful, you just have the illusion of power and that's what everyone is falling for". But that's a bit of dialectic here – whether power is real or it's an illusion. I think this is a unique moment – you can call it an Emperor's New Clothes moment – of re-evaluation of what power means.
RG: You've spent time with Murdoch, and over the years so did I. I've also met – and suffered under – other media moguls, most particularly the late, unlamented Robert Maxwell so I am able to contrast them as people. Murdoch is quite a nice guy when you meet him. He is quite gentle, he rarely raises his voice. I found him quite sociably liberal, though clearly a rightwinger. As a person, he is not without charm. He really likes journalists, he likes the gossip.
MW: I think you can even go so far as to say the man has a fundamental amount of integrity. He is guided by a set of clear interests, principles and a worldview, and mostly he doesn't deviate from it. Having said that, fundamentally the problem is that Rupert Murdoch doesn't care about you. He doesn't care about anybody outside of his sphere. He is connected only to specific things – his family, which is good, you feel a warmth. He is a victim to these emotions as much as any father. And he cares about his company. But beyond that …
RG: We balance between Rupert being a good thing for keeping newspapers going and yet at the same time, having accrued that power, has misused it. Is it not possible to conceive that this crisis would lead to a rebalancing, or are we really seeing – as I believe – the disembowelment and end of News Corp altogether?
MW: Let's just deal with the newspapers. We are seeing the end of newspapers and this has given a weapon, within News Corp, to those who have been saying, "What do we have these papers for? We have all this capital tied up in low- or often no-growth businesses." They have the upper hand now. I think that's one of the reasons why the newspapers will go; also the newspapers are incredibly tainted and I don't see how the Murdochs can go on running a business in the UK any more. As for News Corp as a whole, the best-case position is to say, "if we get rid of the newspapers and we get rid of the Murdochs, we have a healthy company". I think it may be too late for that.
Emine Saner: What happens to the rest of the family? Is this also the end of the Murdoch dynasty?
RG: James has been found wanting in this whole affair. He wasn't around when it happened, but he was sent in to clean it up and he used a toothbrush.
MW: I've spent time with James. He is intelligent, but he is the son of a rich man and that's his dominant characteristic – he is impulsive, entitled, arrogant, he listens to nobody. What that means, ultimately, is that he is incredibly immature. His father is too old; he is too young.
RG: Do you think there is a real split in the family?
MW: I'm just picking up on what I hear and obviously there is an enormous amount of friction. At some point it naturally becomes every man for himself.
RG: The performance in front of the select committee was extraordinary. I kept thinking, is he acting? Is he pretending he's not hearing, that he's faltering and doddery in order to confuse the committee?
MW: I've been telling people this for several years now. This man is 80, and he's an old 80. In all the time I spent with him, this is the behaviour that I saw. He can't hear. There are a whole range of cognitive references he can't deal with – dates, names, mid-term memories, abstractions. He can deal with things right in front of him. That's why he's very good on the phone with newspaper editors.
ES: Where does he go from here?
RG: He retires to a nice Los Angeles ranch, I guess, Ronald Reagan-style.
MW: One of the better sources I have, with access to News Corp, said the fear inside the company is that Rupert will not see 82 as a free man