To read Michael Wolff's recent biography of Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, is to appreciate how intensely the media overlord lives for the fight: whether breaking the British newspaper unions in the mid-1980s, taking over and remaking the broadsheet Times of London into his own tabloid image, leveraging his company to the brink of bankruptcy, or bullying his way into buying The Wall Street Journal in 2007. Mr. Wolff, who received unprecedented access to Mr. Murdoch while researching his book, has become the go-to guy for decoding the goings-on at battle-scarred News Corp. In the following exchange, he reveals how Mr. Murdoch's past skirmishes offer clues to his modus operandi in the current crisis.
During Tuesday's grilling by a British parliamentary committee, Rupert seemed out of touch with his company's operations, physically debilitated, and a little doddering. Some people thought that was a put-on, mere strategy from a master strategist. Do you think it was real?
Oh, absolutely. Rupert was exactly as I saw him over the course of nine months [of interviews]
It's very hard for him to have a back-and-forth conversation; it's very hard for him to respond to a set of things. As I sat with him a couple of years ago, I began to see what were the things he had trouble with. Anything with dates gave him trouble, anything he had to remember with names gave him trouble, anything in which he had to draw conclusions from disparate pieces of information gave him trouble. Anything in which he had to talk personally, or talk in an analytic sense gave him trouble.
The Lion in Winter, caught in one last fight, not of his own making. So do you think his earlier conflicts inform our understanding of how the current one might unfold?
They do. The big difference is those were “power meets power” battles. Even in his banking crisis, he had an enormous amount of leverage – he probably could have taken several banks down with him. And also he had at each point the leverage that his newspapers gave him. And the way he traditionally fights these battles – it's an old-fashioned way, it's a smoke-filled room kind of thing. Ultimately they come down to a negotiation in which he tends to get the better of somebody. He cuts a deal, in other words.
This battle is a lot different than that. There's nobody he can cut a deal with. I mean, he tried to cut a deal [with the victims of phone hacking]– remember, all of those initial payments are sort of the Murdoch way. He spent six years trying to do what he usually does: pay, keep them silent, use his own newspapers to fight his battle, accuse the other newspapers of doing the same – all that sort of thing, using the leverage of his power. And then it got to the point where that wasn't working any more, there was nobody he could cut a deal with. The newspapers themselves, having become so discredited, had no leverage left. His political muscle was gone. And ultimately it became an issue of trust and credibility – which is a game he's never played, never been interested in, only had scorn for.
Is there an irony here? I'm not suggesting his newspapers have become discredited only through his actions, but have his actions led in part to that discrediting and therefore that reduced leverage?
Of course. He has always functioned on the basis of reward and punishment. That's the source of his power: If you do what I want you to do, I'll give you a reward, and if you don't I'll punish you and I'll use my newspapers to do both of those things. And so when the newspapers were discredited, he no longer had that ability to reward and punish.
The political class deserted him. So there was that sense – I saw people kind of getting free of him. Even if you were a Murdoch person, he's such a big pain in the ass about it, and he makes you grovel so much that I think it was the opportunity [for payback]that was hard not to grab.
You surmise in your book that Mr. Murdoch agreed to sit for your interviews in part because, having recently won the Journal, he had no big fight to occupy him; he was bored. This may sound weird, but I wonder: Given his love of battles, do you think in some small way he might be enjoying this crisis?
That's a good, good question, and I don't know the answer. I think it is possible. It is also possible he doesn't quite get it. He certainly is not remotely in control of this. He's looking at not only the possibility that he might lose what he's worked for, but that his children will lose what he's worked for. So I think it must be very, very scary. I'm not sure he understands the nature of this battle. He likes a battle because he likes: “You have this and I'm going to take it from you.” But here, he's not trying to take anything, he doesn't get anything out of it.
You mean he's only got something to lose, nothing to gain?
There is [a chance to win]if he can see a way to trick somebody. In some of the other battles that he's waged he just does things that other people – it's not that they wouldn't think of, they just wouldn't be shameless enough to do.
In The Wall Street Journal and The Times of London takeovers, in each instance he promised to set up these independent [editorial oversight]committees. He made it part of the agreement – without any intention at all, at any point, to honour those agreements. And actually with an incredible disdain for and mockery of the people who might think that he would. And I suspect we'll see this here, actually. I suspect he will step up to be chairman and put in someone as CEO. And everybody will [accept that as a concession] And then, of course, he will just go on, and that will be meaningless.
This interview has been condensed and edited. Simon Houpt is The Globe and Mail's advertising and marketing reporter.