Media Monster

Rupert Murdoch’s Legacy, Part I

It’s the biggest story to hit the media business in years. Rupert Murdoch’s resignation is the end of an era.

Extinction Rebellion March Against Murdoch. Melbourne, March 2021.

Former darlings, loyal flunkies and old rivals have come out of the woodwork to debate the old man’s legacy.

The name Murdoch is synonymous with media power. His legacy is the spite and raw bile of the gutter press.

Rupert Murdoch’s gift to the mainstream media is a cheap, precarious labour market and the slow demise of hard copy.

The old man couldn’t resist one last shot at his opponents. “Self-serving bureaucracies are seeking to silence those who would question their provenance and purpose,” Murdoch wrote to his staff.

“Elites have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarefied class,” he continued. “Most of the media is in cahoots with those elites, peddling political narratives rather than pursuing the truth.”

Just as News International helped make prime ministers and break the opposition, Murdoch’s newspaper empire helped make Brexit possible.

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair could count on him for support.

Of course, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of pretending Murdoch is an aberration. In many ways, he follows a long line of press barons in UK media. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that the likes of Lord Northcliffe are any better.

But Rupert Murdoch is a different kind of media animal. Few men have shaped newspapers to the same extent, never mind the global media industry.

Everyone knows a Murdoch product, even if they’ve never heard of him.

The Murdoch press is notorious for its relentless pursuit of salacious detail. Controversy and scandal have helped make Murdoch incredibly rich, though there are signs he is still not done.

Not long after the news hit, there were reports that Murdoch wants to buy The Spectator.

He has always wanted the right-wing cultural magazine, and it could be a final hurrah in a long career.

Rise of the Digger

Nicknamed ‘the Dirty Digger’ by Private Eye, Murdoch prefers to see himself as an outsider fighting against the cultural elite.

In some interviews, he even describes himself as a ‘revolutionary’ and likes to talk about the masses.

However, Rupert was born into the Australian elite.

For example, there’s Murdoch University in the Perth suburb of Murdoch, both named after Rupert’s grandfather Sir Walter Murdoch.

It’s a name with wealth and prestige.

Young Rupert went to Geelong Grammar School, where King Charles also attended. Naturally, he later went to Oxford and read Politics, Philosophy and Economics (like many members of the Westminster class).

His self-image as an outsider may come from a genuine place: Geelong pupils viewed him as more ‘common’ because his family was nouveau riche, while the Oxford toffs sneered at his Australian accent.

It’s hard to believe, but Rupert Murdoch was known as ‘Red Rupert’ at Oxford.

He was a left-wing Labour Party member and sympathetic to the Communist Party, even keeping a bust of Vladimir Lenin on his desk.

Red Rupert had edited two student journals at school and later became a manager at the Oxford publishing company behind Cherwell. He had also worked part-time at his father’s Melbourne Herald.

But his first real job at a British national newspaper was a two-year stint as a sub-editor at The Daily Express.

It was the early 1950s. In those days, the Express was at its height – selling millions of copies a day – under the tenacious Lord Beaverbrook.

This brief taste of life as a sub-editor ended when Murdoch flew back to Melbourne to take over the family business News Limited.

He had inherited The News, an Adelaide newspaper, from his father (all the other assets were sold).

Not only would Red Rupert rebuild his father’s media company, but Murdoch would expand throughout Australia, and ultimately, his ambitions would bring him back to Britain.

The onetime Leninist would bring with him a new kind of tabloidism.

Australian Invasion

A newspaperman to his bone marrow, Rupert Murdoch would gradually beat all his rivals in Australia. He bought up failing newspapers, revamped them overnight and made them fit the Murdochian model.

The Australian tabloid press was rough, tough and played dirty.

Young Rupert soon outmatched the competition. He quickly mastered the tabloid form as a populist vehicle for sports, entertainment and sleaze.

What Murdoch came to understand was that the newspaper industry was competing with TV.

It wasn’t enough to provide the news anymore. You need celebrity gossip, sex and murder. You need football, rugby and cricket.

Rupert Murdoch also cultivated a deep sense of loyalty and respect in his newsrooms. He became famous for his ‘hands-on approach’.

A Sunday Australian editor once pledged he would publish the newspaper upside down to keep Murdoch happy.

News Limited would eventually take over 70% of the Australian newspaper market. But this was just one part of the story.

Murdoch would bring this Australian-style tabloid journalism to the UK.

In 1969, Rupert Murdoch returned to Britain to snap up the News Of The World from press baron Sir William Carr, but he was not the only businessman who wanted to buy the newspaper.

At the time, corrupt publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell wanted to buy the tabloid.

Carr rejected Maxwell’s advances because he wasn’t really British (he was a Czech Jew), whereas Murdoch was Australian but a “gentleman”.

The newspaperman may not have been British, but he was still perceived as a colonial subject. This is also partly why Canadian press barons – from Lord Thomson to Conrad Black – have been welcomed with open arms in the UK.

Rupert Murdoch told the drunkard Carr what he wanted to hear, but the ink on the deal wasn’t even dry when Murdoch forced him out of the company.

This shocked the British establishment. He couldn’t have cared less.

The Perfect Tabloid

Another shock came when the News Of The World published Christine Keeler’s diaries for a handsome fee. Once again, the Profumo sex scandal was front-page news. The public lapped up the gossip, while the establishment feared the consequences.

If getting rid of William Carr was bad form, dredging up an affair from several years prior was definitely bad form. Murdoch would not be unbowed. His newspapers would continue to offend priggish upper-class snobs for decades to come.

The News Of The World was no vanity project. It was Murdoch’s entry into the British media market, and his empire-building would be built on its success. The newspaper was already known as a scandal sheet but would become even more salacious.

On Fleet Street, the News Of The World had the nickname ‘the News Of The Screws’ because of its constant coverage of sex. The Keeler shock was just the start. It would prove to be a definitive cultural shift for tabloids.

However, the News Of The World was a Sunday newspaper, and its Bouverie Street printers were inactive most of the week. This was a waste of money. So it wasn’t long before Murdoch sought something else to print.

The Sun was a broadsheet designed to compete with The Guardian at the time. But it was dying on its feet with £2 million in losses and just 850,000 daily readers (small in those days). Murdoch bought it for just £50,000.

Two editors helped build The Sun into a national powerhouse of tabloid journalism: Larry Lamb and Kelvin MacKenzie. However, neither man could have succeeded without Murdoch behind them at every step.

Murdoch had one goal for The Sun: to overtake The Daily Mirror as the UK’s number one tabloid.

“I want a tearaway newspaper with lots of tits in it,” Murdoch told Lamb, who was determined to deliver. The result was page three.

The Sun was a lot like The Daily Mirror, but it was more raunchy and rude. It was provocative and sharp. If the Mirror was the prototypical tabloid, The Sun went much further to build a vast readership.

Two years after Murdoch bought it, The Sun had recovered its losses and more than doubled its readership.

The former broadsheet had been transformed into the perfect tabloid.

Murdoch had no time for “up-market shit”, as he called it. He favoured the down-market readers because this was where true power lies.

If you can mobilise working-class Tories, you can wield influence in the UK.

After the Lamb years, Kelvin MacKenzie took over and ran with The Sun as fast as he could. MacKenzie would edit the paper until 1994. He would preside over many of its most famous and infamous headlines from the Belgrano to Hillsborough.

The Sun became Murdoch’s pride and joy.

It was increasingly influential and profitable as its readership expanded, exceeding more than 4 million daily.

This isn’t to say Murdoch doesn’t have an eye for broadsheets. The 1981 deal to buy The Times was the crowning moment in his rise to power in UK media.

It was a trophy for his conquest of British tabloids. But it would never have happened without The Sun and the News Of The World.

The two newspapers changed the course of UK media culture and history. UK tabloids deserve to be infamous for their brutal practices and vulgar copy.

Rupert Murdoch conquered Britain for Australian tabloid journalists, and here we are today.

Newspapers may be dying, but Murdoch’s journalism will be with us long after he is gone. A tabloid world may no longer need actual papers anymore.

This is the first part in a series on Rupert Murdoch’s legacy in British media. The next part will follow Murdoch’s rise in the 1980s and 1990s. Photograph courtesy of Matt Hrkac. Published under a Creative Commons license.