And sincere ones too. Reaching 80 is a real landmark, and not so many media tycoons still in harness make it. And Rupert Murdoch is still very much at work, currently organizing the purchase of Sky in the UK with the delicate manipulation of the regulator and the politicians of which he is past master. This is a Tribute Blog, not an Obituary. I come to praise him, not to bury him. It is all too easy for the literati to look down on him and refer to his dumbing down of media properties: I could equally argue that he took mediocrity and created, in his prime, products that were genuinely popular and that people wanted. Rather than throwing brickbats I would like to explore some things that still seem strange to me, in light of the fact that once the Sky deal is completed News International/News Corporation will emerge as one of the very largest media corporations on Earth, comparable in size to very different players like Bertelsmann and Thomson Reuters. So, if I found the great man at the front door this evening I would invite him in, pour him a celebratory cognac, and ask:
- Why has being a Kingmaker been so important to you? After you caused Margaret Thatcher to be elected Prime Minister in the UK (you did, don’t deny it. I read the headline: “It was the Sun wot done it”) you then went on to get the British sold on Tony Blair. He even flew to the Outback of Oz, your country home, to placate you. Now I am told that you are being courted to find Obama’s successor at the end of his first term. Has the political agenda ever sold you an extra newspaper or secured a TV advertising deal which neutrality would not have got? In fact, the reverse is true: you have probably lost readers and viewers who disagreed with what appears to many as unwarranted meddling. Its an Enigma, Sir.
- Why have you been at pains to persuade so many that yours was a rags to riches rise? Was this a facet of your Americanization, this Horatio Alger positioning? On your way through there have been so many chameleon – like transitions, from brash Son of Oz to member of the British Establishment to US Media Tycoon to Friend of China. We all admired the nifty footwork, and the ability to change nationality at will, or at least when the regulator demanded it. But few self made men have inherited newspapers from their father’s news empire, succeeded a father who was Knighted by a British monarch, or suffered an education at Oxford. Its an enigma, Sir.
- Why have you never got the ultimate change in your markets when you so plainly got all the rest? You saw colour printing and computerized type-setting and bought in on the ground floor, to the huge benefit of your empire. You saw satellite TV and bought in ditto, in the UK, in China, and then at last in the US. You saw the importance of monopolizing the sports coverage rights and making your channels the only place where key events could be viewed. You saw the value of movie libraries and, again, bought in at the right time. But your record as an investor in digital publishing and internet services is abysmal. I am not convinced that it is because you believed in charlatans, or were misled by inadequately briefed colleagues (both theories that have been sold to me by former staff members of yours). I think that you have never “got it”. I hear you use an iPad to view The Daily, and I am sad to think of you wasting valuable time like this. How could a supremely intelligent analyst of popular taste in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries not appreciate what would happen when much of mankind was connected on a single network? The tragedy is that the world you have known – newspapers, books, broadcasting, movies – is all going to tip sideways until everything you have ever owned slides gracefully into that selfsame digital network. And you will be a secondary provider, for the most part, and not the primary owner of the customer. And that ownership has been your pride and joy. It is indeed an enigma.
Three questions late at night are quite enough for a man of your age, so raise a glass again and lets share that really funny anecdote from last week. You know the one, Sir. About how the dreadful Brits wanted to stop you buying the rest, around 60%, of Sky that you did not own and the UK Business Secretary, an unfortunate called Cable (should have been called Satellite), had a foot in mouth moment with two winsome journelettes (as we would call them if hey worked for the Sun!) and boasted that he would thwart your wishes. At that moment you must have known you had them cold. One quick strategy twist and the Culture Secretary was announcing that he had decided to approve the deal, subject to your agreement to give up total ownership of Sky News. Sky News (where you will still have 39%) was not the jewel in the crown. Sky News has no chance of survival on its own, As a business sector, Sky News contributes nothing to Sky, except losses. So you now have the UK government giving you permission to proceed – subject only to you leaving the majority of the losses to the existing shareholders. Its a masterstroke, Sir. You have never been on better form.
Time to say goodbye now. As I show him to the door, my questions left hanging in the air, I reflect that I have only ever seen one media magnate close up, and his initials were also RM. Strangely, whatever may be said of Robert Maxwell, the thing he did get was the vital importance of the digital in the publishing worlds that he dominated. And he too was, in every way, an Enigma.