Rupert Murdoch is possibly the greatest media baron of all time. Make that definitely. He is also one of the greatest financiers of the age creating billions of dollars in value. His vision, his risk, his commercial creations, whopping great takeovers, his genius.
The BBC decided to trot out a series of no-hopers and has-beens for its 3-part mini-series. A hatchet job – a paper hatchet wielded by amateurs. I couldn’t possibly match the critique by his most successful Editor. Just Google “The real Rupert Murdoch by Kelvin MacKenzie”. Eviscerating.
For full disclosure (I love that, so woke). I worked as an Editor in varying degrees for The Sun. I had the greatest time, one of the all-time great bollockings, learned more than I can remember. It was like being a Senator in Caligula’s Rome. The Murdoch ethos was “we’re in it for the long haul”. They meant it. Just don’t take a third light.
He saved Fleet Street. Of that there is no doubt. Post Wapping, the very newspapers who have since mercilessly attacked him would have been closed. The Guardian for sure. He changed not just the print unions, but the whole iniquity of the arrogant barons strutting up Downing Street with their ruinous demands.
Maybe too far the other way, I grant you. But would you have rather had the miners? The Railwaymen? The taxi drivers of London who clocked into newspapers for a shift, drove fares for 8 hours, came back to clock out and pick up their disgraceful “earnings”. Your uncollected bins stacked up 30 feet high. A shambles of a nation which needed fixing.
People forget how much he was part of that solution. I don’t remember Tony Blair rushing to undo employment law, secondary picketing, the right to manage – all created by Mrs Thatcher alongside Murdoch’s extraordinary fortitude.
f course he was deeply enmeshed in politics. So was every media I have ever worked for, especially if you were the local paper of the rising politician. As a Mirror Group junior on the Tavistock Times I phoned Michael Heseltine at home on a Wednesday. We spoke to his voters, he made the time. If we had a story to float we got MPs to sign an Early Day Motion. The Mirror used to do the same with Labour until it got tired and flabby. Rupert just did it at a far higher level. With far greater success.
What the programme missed was how the lines between his media empire became blurred in the UK. They thought they could create Camelot. The newspapers keeping pliant politicians in their camp, nodding through Rupert’s ambition to own Manchester United, consume all of SKY. Even put their own man in Number 10. Trouble was his local dealmakers weren’t in his class. They forgot that church and state don’t mix. He couldn’t be everywhere. The phone hacking scandal exposed it all.
Is he a moral man? “Page 3 Birds” seem terribly tame in these days of shocking online Twitter and Facebook abuse. All those female Labour MPs frothing at the mouth, denouncing him in The House of Commons.
But the fact is that the Editors of The Sun – first Larry Lamb and then the master Kelvin MacKenzie – would never have existed without Rupert. The Sun paid Elton John £1M and made a huge story out of it. Piers Morgan was sacked by an inexperienced Mirror CEO for a page 1 story no-one talks about now. Did him a favour. Whatever Rupert did, he was never as dangerous as Facebook, their control over our data and democracy. Hiding behind the excuse of not being a media company. Compared to them he is a saint. Whatever you want to accuse him of, Murdoch has never shirked it. The softest thing in his head are his teeth.
But it’s his great deal making that was the biggest miss. How he won the Times and Sunday Times, the Wall Street Journal. Took a failing Sun from a lazy Mirror Group who laughed at him. Pretty soon they were crying. The millions he poured into SKY taking him to the brink of collapse. How he saved the Times especially, year after year at a cost of many hundreds of millions. I would have loved to get behind the thinking, the strategy. How he plotted his course right round the globe. Any of those deals would been a life changer. He has done it time and again. All in the head of one remarkable man.
So. My bollocking. Kelvin sent me to be Scottish Editor. It was a quiet dozy news list one very dozy day. A dozy reporter from The Herald phones me. Rupert is buying Glasgow Rangers, is it true? Parrumph. Of course not, how stupid are they. How stupid am I. “Well done, fine piece of reporting, did you know he is also looking at Partick Thistle as a feeder club? Great story just don’t quote me”. Haha. What a jape.
Next day. Page 1 of The Herald. Me quoted full bhuna. Including the Thistle line. Oh crap. I’m for it now. No I’m not. Rupert’s in New York. He will never read some tatty cutting from a low circulation Jock broadsheet.
One month later, on comes Bill O’Neill, his number 2. Aussie man-mountain, not to be trifled with. “Yeeeeees. Steve. Hazzz it going. Well we know you’ve been busy. Rupert gets the joke. He just wants to be part of it next time. OK?”. All said dead quiet, menacing. Line dead. Gulp.
The Queen’s detectives arresting two Sun reporters gate crashing her Ghillies’ Ball is another story entirely. We were, of course, completely innocent. Honest Rupert.
Steve Sampson is former Assistant, Northern and Scottish Editor of The Sun newspaper, and a Director of Trinity Mirror publications. He was a launch presenter of Radio5 Live, founder of First Press Publishing and contributes to the BBC. Based in Scotland, he is an investor/owner across a series of digital initiatives, and a media adviser.