Bravo l’artiste

John Lanchester

  • The Murdoch Archipelago by Bruce Page
    Simon and Schuster, 580 pp, £20.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 7432 3936 9
  • Rupert Murdoch: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Media Wizard by Neil Chenoweth
    Crown Business, 416 pp, US $27.50, December 2002, ISBN 0 609 61038 4
  • Autumn of the Moguls: My Misadventures with the Titans, Poseurs and Money Guys who Mastered and Messed up Big Media by Michael Wolff
    Flamingo, 381 pp, £18.99, January 2004, ISBN 0 00 717881 6

If we follow the logic of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, we could say that Rupert Murdoch is not so much a man, or a cultural force, as a portrait of the modern world. He is the way we live now; he is the media magnate we deserve. It is almost impossible to say a single conclusive, summing-up thing about him. The range of his interests is so diverse as to defy summary, and almost to defy listing. We in Britain know about the Sun and the News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times and the Times Educational, Higher Education and Literary Supplements; we know about HarperCollins, and hence about Jack Higgins, and about Fourth Estate, and hence about The Corrections; we know about the BSkyB network in Britain, about its role in pioneering multi-channel TV, and about its ownership of the rights to transmit Premier League football, which have just been diluted by the European Commissioner for competition, Mario Monti. (His requirement was that Sky sell eight games a season to other networks. Golly, what a fearsome sanction.) If we think about it for a moment we remember that he owns the Fox network in America, and 20th Century Fox the film studio, and Fox News the toxic right-wing news channel, the Star satellite network in Asia, and the LA Dodgers baseball team, and part of Ansett airlines until it went broke, and the US TV Guide. Some of us may be aware that he owns 70 per cent of Australia’s newspaper industry, and one of its main television channels. He is the unmoved mover behind The Simpsons, That 70s Show, Married with Children, Fight Club, The Full Monty, Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, King of the Hill, Titanic. We can usually think of one or two of these at the same time, but the sheer extent of Murdoch’s businesses is so vast that it is hard to hold them in the mind simultaneously. When his wife Anna filed for divorce and was asked the extent of her husband’s assets, she said she didn’t know what his assets were. In his response, Murdoch was asked the same question, and gave the same answer. The strange thing is that he may have been telling the truth.

A very great deal has been written about Murdoch, most of it at some deep level boring because it is so much on one side or the other. William Shawcross surprised and disappointed many of his admirers by coming out as a big Murdoch fan in his 1992 biography. Bruce Page’s recent work, The Murdoch Archipelago, is as badly written as any book I have ever read, and is full of sentences which don’t mean quite what their author seems to think they do, but it does have a body of reflection and inside experience to make its bitter critique of Murdoch convincingly feelingful. Perhaps the most useful book is Neil Chenoweth’s Virtual Murdoch (2001), now revised and republished as Rupert Murdoch, which is jauntily written and has a great deal of financial information that must surely have been discomfiting for its subject. Nothing ever written about Murdoch, however, gives you the feeling that its author has got him, perhaps because there is so much – or so many – of him to get.

‘The thing about Rupert,’ someone who knows him once told me, ‘is that his barbarian routine is a complete act. In second-hand bookshops around Melbourne you can still find copies of his grandfather’s sermons. From an Australian point of view the Murdoch family are practically the Huxleys.’ This is true; or it is at least one of the truths about Murdoch. Type his surname into a search engine and the first hit will be Murdoch University in Western Australia, named in honour of his great-uncle Walter, a literary scholar with a particular interest in the question of the canon. Walter is also the only Murdoch to have an entry of his own in the Oxford Companion to Australian History. The family’s charitable and philanthropic work is extensive: Rupert’s mother was made Dame Elisabeth in recognition of her work for the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. She is 94, and is often said to be the reason that Murdoch’s Australian papers, tabloids included, are markedly less feral than their British equivalents. There is no Page Three girl in Australia, not in Rupert’s papers.

Actually, I say ‘he’ owns things, but that needs some glossing. These assets of Murdoch’s are not really his, they belong to his company, News Corp. When I say ‘belong’, I mean that News Corp has a substantial interest in them, like the 35 per cent stake News Corp has in BSkyB, a stake which proved sufficient to have Murdoch’s 30-year-old college dropout son, James, appointed chief executive of the company, in the face of opposition from other shareholders. When I say News Corp is ‘his company’, I mean it’s a company of which he owns about 35 per cent, the exact amount varying from time to time as his shareholding goes up and down. When I say he ‘owns’ these shares, I mean that they belong to a company called Cruden Investments, which was the family vehicle to which Murdoch’s father, Sir Keith, left his assets, and which is in turn owned by something called the A.E. Harris Trust, a trust which is set up like other trusts, in that Murdoch can say when it suits him that he has no control over it, because it is run at arm’s length by lawyers and accountants, or that he has complete control over it, because he can appoint and dismiss the trustees. When speaking to the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, he has tended to stress his control of the trust, because this emphasises that his assets are – since he became an American citizen in 1985 – American-owned. At the same time, when speaking to the Securities and Exchange Commission in New York, Murdoch stresses that his company, News Corp, is Australian, and hence liable to different rules over accountancy standards (which are more flexible in Australia) and tax.

Tax. There’s a thing. Murdoch, or rather News Corp, doesn’t pay much of it. In the course of Neil Chenoweth’s investigations he found that News Corp’s tax bill declined from 30 cents in the dollar in 1984 to nine cents in the dollar in 1986, and stayed below ten cents in the dollar for the entire decade from 1989. The savings in the decade to 1997 were over a billion pounds’ worth of unpaid tax. This isn’t because News Corp gets some special tax rate; they pay tax at the same rate as every other company. Rather it’s because of the effort and ingenuity which goes into moving money between networks of trusts and offshore entities in order to minimise the company’s liability for tax. Between 1992 and 1997 News Corp declared profits of A$5.8 billion in Australia, under Australian accounting rules; profits of A$3 billion in the US, under SEC accounting rules; and paid tax consistent with having earned profits of A$1 billion. ‘In those six years alone the News Corp accountants had moved A$4.8 billion of income past the tax authorities in Britain, the United States and Australia.’ And then Chenoweth has found, looking at the accounts, that the company’s profits, declared in Australian dollars, were A$364,364,000 in 1987, A$464,464,000 in 1988, A$496,496,000 in 1989 and A$282,282,000 in 1990. The odds that such figures were a happy coincidence are 1,000,000,000,000 to one. That little grace note in the sums is accountant-speak for ‘Fuck you.’ Faced with this level of financial wizardry, all the ordinary taxpayer can do is cry ‘Bravo l’artiste!’

What this boils down to – and this is one of the most Postmodern things about Murdoch – is that he is in a sense not located anywhere. He was on British TV a few weeks ago, talking about the possibility that he might switch his support away from Labour, and particularly about the threat that the European Union posed to ‘our sovereignty’. I thought I had a full understanding of what the word ‘shameless’ implies, but it turns out that I don’t. This is the man who said ‘I am very proud and grateful to be sworn in as an American citizen’ 18 years ago, and who has not lived in London since the early 1970s. ‘Our’ sovereignty: amazing.

There was a time when more or less everybody, apart from the people who were paid by him or whom he was helping to stay in office, thought that Murdoch was a Bad Thing, pure and simple. That was during the early 1980s, when the Columbia Journalism Review described the New York Post under his ownership as a ‘force for evil’. His papers were unashamedly on the side of Mrs Thatcher, and did everything they could to get her elected and then to keep her in power. They were powerfully assisted in this by the fact that voters from the social class C2 were a. the key target in Tory plans to lure former Labour voters; b. heavily represented in certain constituencies, such as the famous Basildon; and c. keen readers of the Sun. On the day of the 1992 general election the Sun ran a headline saying: ‘IF KINNOCK WINS TODAY, WILL THE LAST PERSON TO LEAVE BRITAIN TURN OUT THE LIGHTS.’ After the result it ran another headline saying: ‘IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT.’ That was a joke, but from the psephological point of view it was not as much of a joke as you might think. Following whatever deal it was Murdoch made with Tony Blair in 1995, when Blair flew out to Australia to address a conference of News Corp executives, the Sun now backs Labour, the party most of its readers have supported all along.

It would be fascinating to know the details of the deal between Blair and Murdoch. It would be interesting even to know the mode of the exchange: whether explicit, or a matter of nudges and winks, or a matter of mutual interests being taken for granted in the shared understanding of hommes d’affaires who know what they want from each other. Murdoch’s papers backed Labour in the two subsequent general elections, so that part of the arrangement seems clear enough. It’s what was promised in return that one wonders about. But we have glimpses. When Gavyn Davies submitted a report on the future of broadcasting in 1999, it had various anti-Murdoch provisions and recommendations, none of which made it into law. When the House of Lords added an amendment to a communications Bill, threatening to ban ‘predatory pricing’ or the attempt to drive competitors out of business by undercutting them – which is what the Times was then engaged in doing – the Government in the Commons threw it out. The Government prevented an attempt to block Murdoch from buying Channel Five. Blair called Romano Prodi, then Prime Minister of Italy, to discuss the possibility of Murdoch’s bidding for Mediaset, Silvio Berlusconi’s company. All of this is in contravention of everything the Labour Party spent twenty years saying it would do about Murdoch.

Apropos the price war, I know someone who sat next to Conrad Black at dinner while it was going on. The Telegraph was one of the price war’s principal targets. (‘Don’t worry about the Telegraph,’ Murdoch told Sir David English of Associated Newspapers in 1993. ‘Leave them to me. I’ll put them out of business for you.’) Knowing that Black knew Murdoch socially, my friend asked him if he had ever brought up the subject of the price war. Black shook his head. He said: ‘He could smell the fear.’

I’ve never written for a Murdoch paper. This was an issue of principle, once upon a time, but it’s now so long since anybody asked me that when I sat down to write this piece I had to struggle to remember why I had once felt so strongly. Other parts of the British press are as bad as anything published by Murdoch; the Sunday Times may not be a real newspaper, but the other Sundays have long since joined it. Murdoch may have lastingly coarsened British public life, but if he did, he did it so successfully that his enterprises no longer stand out in relief. Reading these books, I have remembered the reason: it was to do with the way he had supported Mrs Thatcher and, I felt, distorted the democratic process in the 1980s. Now, though, I think Murdoch’s support cuts both ways, and did so even at the time. Page gives an example, in his account of the Westland Affair. Mrs Thatcher, and especially her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, were so close to the Sun that the paper tended to run anything she wanted: ‘Ingham’s dominance of the lobby – gift of the Murdoch papers – was a weapon of tempting power, but dangerously visible in use.’ When the Cabinet was feuding over Westland, the Sun naturally backed her, and so when Patrick Mayhew, the Solicitor-General, told Michael Heseltine that his account of the rival bids might contain ‘material inaccuracies’, this confidential legal advice was immediately leaked to the Sun, whose sensitive and nuanced front-page account of the discussion was a banner headline: ‘you liar’. But Mayhew’s letter was a request for information. It was answered the same day, in a way which made it clear that no corrections to Heseltine’s letter were necessary – and this meant that the Sun had dropped Thatcher, who everybody knew was the ultimate source of the leak, in deep shit. In the Commons debate which followed the resulting row and Leon Brittan’s resignation, a competent performance by Neil Kinnock would have brought her down, and it would have been the Sun wot done it.

The first draft of this piece began with a passage meditating at complex and moving length on the fact that I had never written anything for any one of Murdoch’s many enterprises. But then I realised that it wasn’t true, since I contributed a piece to the anthology Mortification, edited by Robin Robertson, about writers’ public embarrassments. I agreed to contribute before the book found its publisher, which turned out to be Fourth Estate, prop. R. Murdoch. Oops. I suspect I’m not the only person to have been caught out, since another contributor was Julian Barnes, who once said that signing a copy of one of his books to Rupert – at the request of Murdoch’s then-wife Anna – was ‘the sentence I am most ashamed of having written’. As Auberon Waugh once said, when a campaign to place a plaque to Matthew Arnold in Westminster Abbey was cut short by a letter from the Dean informing him that there already was one, ‘I am still sure that there is a point to be made, even if I am no longer quite so sure what it is.’

Besides, there is now, whatever negative view one takes of Murdoch, one huge thing to throw in the scales on the other side of the question, and that is The Simpsons. In talking to students at Al Gore’s Columbia University media class, Murdoch charmed his listeners by referring to The Simpsons as ‘the best television programme ever made’. That is, on reflection, I think, true. It is also true that none of the existing American broadcast networks would have made a show that was perceived as being too abrasive and too anti-family for the audience and (more accurately) the advertisers. So no Murdoch, no Simpsons – and that, for anyone who thinks as highly of The Simpsons as I do, is a big point in his favour. He also gets credit for his own appearance on the programme, in the episode where Homer and his buddies go to the Super Bowl. ‘I’m billionaire tyrant Rupert Murdoch,’ said billionaire tyrant Rupert Murdoch.

Opinions differ as to the most egregious headline ever published by one of Murdoch’s papers. ‘GOTCHA!’, published on the first news of the sinking of the Belgrano, is hard to beat. Even Kelvin MacKenzie, the Sun’s carnivorous editor, had second thoughts about that one, and changed it in later editions to ‘DID 1200 ARGIES DROWN?’ ‘I wouldn’t have pulled it if I was you,’ Murdoch told MacKenzie, according to Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie’s deathlessly great history of the Sun, Stick It Up Your Punter! ‘Seemed like a bloody good headline to me.’ So ‘gotcha!’ still probably wins the prize, though there is a groundswell of support for the New York Post’s ‘AXIS OF WEASEL’. As for the vilest thing ever done by one of the journalists on a Murdoch tabloid, that is too difficult a title to award with any confidence, not least because so many of these dark acts happen in darkness. For the moment, and provisionally, we can award the title to the Australian reporter on the Post, Steve Dunleavy, who donned a doctor’s coat and posed as a bereavement counsellor to interview the family of a man blinded by Berkowitz, the ‘Son of Sam’, in New York in 1977.

As for the contemporary Sun, I have to say that I find it indefensible. One of the good points in Page’s book is that he shows it was not always so. Murdoch created the Sun in 1969, after he’d bought the News of the World from the Carr organisation, defeating Robert Maxwell en route. The News of the World is a Sunday paper, so it was a point of elementary commercial logic to start a daily paper to accompany it, in order that the presses would not lie idle during the week. Larry Lamb, the Sun’s first editor, essentially stole the tabloid format of the Mirror, coarsened it slightly, and left out the would-be informative but muddling and tonally uncertain Mirrorscope. The result was that the Sun ate the Mirror’s lunch, and the ensuing switch in fortunes between the two papers was unprecedented in Fleet Street history. Lamb’s Sun was yobbish but not rabid in the way that the paper became under MacKenzie, and has remained: the instrument, and exemplar, of a kind of journalism in which it is impossible to tell the truth.

This is not to say that I don’t, like most people who have worked in newspapers, have a sneaking admiration for the craft in some of the Post and Sun’s headlines. One of my recent favourites was the one summarising the Government’s arguments over Saddam Hussein and wmd: ‘HE’S GOT ‘EM . . . LET’S GET HIM.’ (A more accurate summary of Government policy would have been ‘HE HASN’T GOT ‘EM . . . but let’S GET HIM ANYWAY.’) The technique involved isn’t to do with news, and it’s a mistake to see it as journalism – it’s more related to advertising, or to comedy. ‘FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER’, ‘HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR’ – that isn’t journalism gone wrong, it’s a form of vaudeville. Or rather, it is journalism gone so wrong that it isn’t journalism any more.

Murdoch is, in person, charming. Everyone agrees. You get a glimpse of this in the account of working for him written by Philip Townsend, who was his butler in London during the 1980s. (Townsend had a dog who died, and whom he kept in Murdoch’s freezer.) When Murdoch made the switch to living more healthily – influenced by the fact that his father died at 67 – he did so by announcing to his butler: ‘Phil, I’m into yin and yang and all that shit.’ This charm is no small factor in his success, and comes across in many of the stories people tell about him, and in some of the things he says about himself. ‘I am sober after lunch, and in some parts of Fleet Street, that makes you a genius,’ he once said.

But there is a kind of flakiness too. The all-over-the-globe nature of the News Corp empire seems to be paralleled by a personal all-over-the-placeness in Murdoch. He has short-term goals but no master-plan. His two main insights – that news was gradually giving place to entertainment, and that a modern media company needed to be global in its reach – occurred to him in the 1960s. He has been faithful to those notions and they have served him well, but they are about as broad and vague as a strategy for a business can possibly be. A big company is, among other things, a portrait of its creators, and when that creator is one person, the company is a kind of character-sketch of its principal. Take the case of two of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Buffett’s investment vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway, is a portrait of Middle American Main Street: his holdings are in American Express, Coke, Dairy Queen, Disney. His philosophy is to ‘put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch the basket,’ and his ambition is to be quantifiably the most successful investor of all time. There is a recognisable consistency of approach and worldview in his career. Gates’s monomaniac focus and obsessive determination to win – to see the world in terms of winning – are indelibly stamped on Microsoft. Gates is not just in Microsoft’s dna: he is Microsoft’s dna. When we turn to Murdoch, however, there is no equivalent focus or consistency. If News Corp is a portrait, it is a picture of someone with an attention deficit disorder; a man who needs to be in constant motion, who can’t be in one place. Murdoch’s transnational existence, and the transnational status of his company, combined with the apparent insatiability of his appetites for movement and corporate acquisitions, for more and bigger deals, for more and bigger bets, makes News Corp close to being a company with no ‘there’ there.

From Woodrow Wyatt’s journals for 1986, quoted in The Murdoch Archipelago:

Wednesday 1 October. A message to speak to Downing Street urgently. The Prime Minister wanted me to know before the official announcement . . . that Duke Hussey was to be the new chairman [of the BBC] . . . I was shattered.

Wyatt’s worry was that Murdoch had recommended Hussey, an establishment dud, to get rid of him from Times newspapers. It was Hussey, Page argues, whose management of the Times and Sunday Times had put them into the position where Murdoch was able to take them over. But Wyatt’s anxieties on that score were eased by a phone call:

Rupert rings in a great state: ‘Has she gone mad? What a disastrous appointment. He was quite useless here and the only thing he was fit for was to run things like Hampton Court entertainment . . . They will make rings round him. The BBC Mafia must be absolutely delighted.’

Still troubled, Wyatt brings the subject up with Thatcher herself:

When I told her that the Duke Hussey appointment was a bad one, disastrous like the two previous ones, she said: ‘I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have such a strong recommendation from Rupert.’ I was amazed and said: ‘But he rang me up asking whether you’d gone mad.’

‘Good Lord,’ she said. ‘Well, he told me he was a very strong man, what had happened at the Times was not his fault . . . Otherwise I wouldn’t have made the appointment.’

So Wyatt gets back to Murdoch:

I tackle him about his having recommended Duke Hussey. Strange. He denies it, says he didn’t mention his name . . . I said: ‘Are you sure you didn’t say anything about Duke Hussey?’ He seemed evasive and giggled a bit. I said: ‘Why did she get the strong impression that you did?’ He says he doesn’t know. I think she is telling the truth and not Rupert.

This episode, we can agree, adds a new chapter to the annals of bizarrerie. Page thinks that ‘the giggle, perhaps, is a rare manifestation of Murdoch’s inner amazement "at the suggestibility of politicians’. And it might be to do with sheer flakiness too. From Chenoweth:

Among the crop of wild rumours and far-fetched tales that swirled around Rupert Murdoch in the American summer of 1996, the wildest and most far-fetched was the story that Murdoch did not really exist. He had died years ago, the yarn went, sometime during the 1990 debt crisis. Since then the chief executive’s role at News Corporation had been played by half a dozen Murdoch lookalikes. This was the reason for the contradictory strategy moves coming out of News Corp in the last ” 12 months.

It is this flakiness and suggestibility which has helped prevent Murdoch from being more of a force for harm. Added to it is the fact that, almost without exception, he puts his political interests to work to serve his business interests, and not the reverse. He could be Dr Evil if he wanted, but he doesn’t, because it would get in the way of business. The paradoxical proof of this comes in his actions in China, which are in one sense as despicable as anything he has ever done, and in another oddly comforting, since they prove as much as anything can that he is motivated not by ideology but by a simple need to keep doing business, and keep making ever bigger deals. The irony is that the events in China, which showed Murdoch finally abandoning any claim to the anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, muckraking pose he has for many years struck at every opportunity, were prompted by one of the few openly political speeches he has ever made. New telecommunications technology, Murdoch told an audience at Banqueting House in 1993, has ‘proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere’. Murdoch’s speech was reported all over the world. A month later the Chinese Government banned all satellite dishes in China, inconveniently for the man who had just spent $825 million in Hong Kong to buy the satellite channel Star TV. The Chinese Government knows how to make a supplicant eat shit, and in the years to come Murdoch was to pay Deng Xiaoping’s daughter a substantial advance for a biography of her dad, back out of publishing Chris Patten’s book East and West, ban the BBC World Service from the Star satellite, and slag off the Dalai Lama as ‘a monk in Gucci shoes’, as part of his strategy of appeasement. The Chinese Government enjoyed it, too. When Murdoch finally secured a meeting with Zhu Rongji, then one of the country’s Vice-Presidents, in 1998, Zhu switched from talking via the interpreter to ask Murdoch a question in English.

He had heard, Zhu said, that Murdoch had taken out US citizenship when he wanted to operate a television network in America. Would he consider taking out Chinese citizenship to further his interests in China? Murdoch was clearly taken aback. Zhu watched his reaction for a moment, then turned to his entourage and repeated his question in Chinese – to general mirth.

You almost feel sorry for him.

So what does drive Murdoch, if it isn’t ideology? The answer seems to lie in his love of crises, of the point when everything seems about to be lost. The best-known instance, thanks to the bravura account in Shawcross’s biography, is the episode in 1990 when News Corp was facing a debt crisis, and Murdoch spent months flying between meetings – over a hundred of them – to engineer a ‘rescheduling’ of the debt. If a single one of the 146 lenders to News Corp had said no, the company would have gone into liquidation; and on 6 December, one of them nearly did. The Pittsburgh National Bank refused to ‘roll over’, i.e. extend, its loan of A$10 million, and for some hours it seemed likely that Murdoch’s company would collapse. He got out of it, though, as he always does.

Perhaps a better example of how Murdoch chooses to live and do business comes in the events which led up to the great credit crunch of 1990. These began in Murdoch’s American acquisition spree of the middle 1980s. He bought the 20th Century Fox network in the US in 1985, the Metromedia chain of television stations the same year, and then in 1986 launched Fox, the first national TV network since 1959. He didn’t have the money to pay for all of this, so he raised it by revaluing his company under Australian accounting rules, raising its worth from $166 million to $1.6 billion, and accordingly raising its ability to borrow money; then he borrowed some money from junk bond king Michael Milken, under a very badly designed deal which meant that he had to pay out more money the more News Corp’s share price went up; then he moved his British newspapers to Wapping, saving £150 million a year in operating costs, so that he could afford it. He spent the next five years coping with the consequences of his deal with Milken, which had become extraordinarily expensive thanks to the fact that the move to Wapping made News Corp’s share price shoot up; in the process he took over most of the Australian newspaper industry, as part of a set of rococo debt-shifting manoeuvres brilliantly unpicked by Neil Chenoweth. Then in 1988 he amalgamated Harper and Row with William Collins to form HarperCollins, and launched the Sky network.

This would count as a mad binge, if it had not kept on going – and is going on still, with the most recent focus of obsession being Murdoch’s attempts to buy a share of the DirecTV satellite station in the US. At the time of writing, he has just managed to do so, at a cost of $6.6 billion. Any one of these deals – bets, really – could have ended with News Corp’s going under. An addiction to gambling is usually seen as being au fond an addiction to losing. With Murdoch it clearly isn’t like that: it’s as if he needs the stimulus of exposure to risk to stay fully present. His attention is always seeking to wander off: it’s only in a crisis that he feels he is where he wants to be. There is no other tycoon who has made such a career of betting his company. ‘Rupert Murdoch is probably at his best when he is cornered or when he does have great adversity going against him,’ Barry Diller, who set up the Fox network for him, said. ‘And maybe it’s his moment of greatest pleasure.’ Perhaps that pleasure, that buzz, is what in the end Murdoch is after. He is that strange thing, a sensualist of crisis.

Murdoch-watchers are officially supposed to be consumed with interest in the question of what will happen to News Corp when he dies. (If you think he’s going to retire, I have a bridge I would like to sell you.) This is taken to mean, which of his children will inherit the top job: hard-working Elisabeth, who has spent more professional time outside the company than the other contenders; earnest, likeable, good-looking Lachlan; relaxed, good-looking, likeable James. Then there is the Wendi Deng factor: the children from Murdoch’s third marriage are likely to inherit the 10 per cent share of News Corp which currently belongs to Dame Elisabeth. The argument over shares and inheritance was said to be the main bone of contention in Rupert’s divorce from Anna. All in all, we’re in good Balzac territory here.

But I don’t think this will play out in quite the soap-operatic way some people seem to think. Corporate fashions go in cycles, and the wave of ‘consolidation’ and mega-mergers which has dominated the media industry for some time is likely, if history is any guide, to be followed by an equally manic period of deconsolidation, fragmentation and break-up. As Michael Wolff argues in his brash Autumn of the Moguls, the media business is full of marriages and alliances which, from an economic point of view, don’t make any sense. There is a gradual, terrible realisation that ‘synergy’, the buzz-word behind the great consolidation, while useful as a slogan, mantra and battle-cry, has the unfortunate defect of not meaning anything. When the first of the great unwieldy conglomerates – AOL Time Warner, perhaps – begins to fracture, others will start to follow, as markets realise that these businesses are not, after all, worth more than the sum of their parts.[*] The likelihood is that after Murdoch’s death, News Corp will travel down this route. After all, the only coherence News Corp has is as an image of Murdoch, a pointillist portrait made up not of ink-dots but of entire companies. Or, to put it differently, News Corp is his biography: when one story ends, so does the other. The contenders for the throne will, if the other shareholders let them, end up presiding over different bits of what used to be one big mad conglomerate.

In the 1980s, people like me thought that Murdoch was Dr Evil. It turns out that he isn’t, not because the man whose papers now support Labour is in secret a cuddly social democrat – a glimpse at the Post or the Sun or Fox News will take care of that fantasy; or because the man whose employment policies in the 1960s in Australia were memorably summed up as ‘no blacks, no poofters, no suede shoes’ now has black grandchildren, a Chinese wife and two mixed-race daughters; or because on one big, crucial question facing the future of Britain, that of the euro and the EU’s democratic deficit, he is, for once, on what seems to me to be the right side. (Murdoch’s opinions on that subject probably owe something to the fact that he has so little leverage in EU politics, and fears what its unamenable, unindebted regulators could do to him: Mario Monti’s gesture over Premier League broadcasting rights were a sneak preview of what, in a more fully unified Europe, might be to come.) The real reason Murdoch isn’t Dr Evil is because being Dr Evil would get in the way of business. As Wolff puts it, ‘who doesn’t believe that, if his politics ceased to serve his strategy, his politics would change?’ He needs to be on the winning side, and needs to be able to change sides at will to keep it that way. This is the main reason why, in words of Chris Patten’s that express a deep weight of personal experience, ‘his help is only available when you don’t need it.’

Murdoch’s power and success come from his complete understanding of the modern Western world’s first commandment: thou shalt give people what they want. ‘There’s been nothing in Rupert’s papers to make you say: "Now that’s a new idea,”’ Cecil King observed twenty years ago. ‘There’s never a new idea. What his papers are about is going further, being louder and more vulgar.’ That philosophy, or strategy, has remained true. There is a circularity: Murdoch takes what we want, and gives it back to us in a coarser version – and we find that we prefer it that way. His basic approach, which he pioneered with the Sun and shows no signs of abandoning, is to take an existing form and make it slightly more violent, slightly more pornographic, slightly more envious. We lap it up. News Corp defeats its competitors because it is better at second-guessing the public. The really depressing thing isn’t that in the Postmodern, Late Capitalist world, we don’t just have the billionaire media tycoon we deserve; we have the media tycoon that we want.

[*] You could argue that Vivendi is the first of the conglomerates to self-deconstruct – but that company’s transformation from being the super-safe, super-dull utilities business Compagnie Générale des Eaux to the all-rapping, all-boogying, all-fucked-up media conglomerate Vivendi was so recent, so goofy and so clearly doomed to fail that it probably doesn’t count. This is how Woolf describes Jean-Marie Messier, the man who created this paradigmatic disaster, shortly after he moved to New York and shortly before he was sacked:

‘There was, languorously moving up Madison Avenue, a small man, with a coat cast cape-like over his shoulders and the most pleased-with-himself expression I have ever seen on an adult … He occupied a wide swathe of the sidewalk, with a strut to the left and then a strut to the right, nodding and smiling, or rather bestowing blessings, on passers-by, who gave him a wide and incredulous berth. He seemed to see himself as some combination of Pope and maestro – his idea, I suppose, of an American mogul … I do not think he would have considered spontaneous applause to be out of order.’