Rupert Murdoch: the media mogul who gives the audience the lies they ask for
The king of conservative and tabloid media reached a $787.5 million out of court settlement with Dominion over vote-rigging claims to avoid his day in court
Earlier this week, a much-anticipated episode of the new season of Rupert Murdoch’s life was canceled. The scene was set when Murdoch arrived on the seventh floor of the Wilmington courthouse, packed to the rafters with reporters, and sat down to answer questions before a jury of six men and six women. The script had not been written, but a lawyer was poised to put the media mogul on the spot to ask him to explain why his Fox News network relentlessly spread the lie that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from Donald Trump. It was a lie that Murdoch did not give credence to personally, but also one that it was not in the interest of the great post-truth mogul to stop: Fox’s viewership wanted to hear it. It would have been an interesting episode. Canceling it has cost Fox $787.5 million.
Those who were hoping to tune into the Rupert Murdoch show will have to content themselves with watching Succession, HBO’s critically acclaimed series inspired by the magnate. Although in this case, truth really is stranger than fiction. Murdoch has had more wives (four), more children (six), has more years on the clock (92), and has been the protagonist of more scandals, intrigues, and corporate operations than Logan Roy, his fictional alter ego. There are episodes of Murdoch’s life that would seem hardly credible in a television series. Such as when his newspapers broke the news of his own death. Or when two men hatched a planned to kidnap his then wife, Ann Murdoch, but mistakenly kidnapped and murdered Muriel McKay, the wife of one of Murdoch’s deputies, Alick McKay, whom they followed to their home after he had borrowed the tycoon’s Rolls Royce, assuming that they were trailing the Murdochs.
Murdoch became “the disreputable tabloid editor at the center of a macabre tabloid story,” wrote Michael Wolff in his biography The Man Who Owns the News. It was 1969. At 38, Murdoch had already accumulated vast experience as a publisher. Murdoch was born in Melbourne, Australia, on March 11, 1931 - the same date on which the Daily Courant, Britain’s first daily newspaper, was launched in 1702. His father, Keith Murdoch, was a war correspondent turned regional press magnate. When Keith Murdoch died of cancer in 1952, Rupert, his only son, took over News Limited, the family business. He bought numerous regional newspapers in Australia and New Zealand, placing his focus on sensationalism. He then launched The Australian, the country’s first national newspaper, this time adopting a more serious approach. It was a pattern he would go on to repeat in the United Kingdom and the United States: sensationalism, then the search for respectability.
In 1969, Murdoch was in London because he had just completed the purchase of tabloid dailies News of the World and The Sun. That the publisher of those newspapers also took over The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981 came as a shock. At that time, print new was a buoyant business. Murdoch crossed the Atlantic and snapped up the New York Post in 1976, turning it into a tabloid. Later, in 2007, he also bought the prestigious publication The Wall Street Journal.
In 2012, journalist John Lisners published the book The Rise and Fall of the Murdoch Empire — but Murdoch was very much alive and his empire had not fallen. At the turn of the century, Fox News became most-watched news channel in the United States. Since then, it has installed itself in a parallel world aimed at a conservative audience who want to be told that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that the Democratic Party is the radical left run by degenerates, and that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, only to have the White House stolen from him. Such lies usually go unpunished, but anchors and guests on the network repeatedly claimed that the Dominion voting machine company had switched votes for Trump to his Democratic rival, Joe Biden. Dominion duly filed a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit that appeared set to hand Murdoch one of the most humiliating days of his life.
After Fox settled out of court for $787.5 million, Murdoch has avoided submitting himself to a devastating public interrogation in front of a jury. Previous statements and correspondence provided to the court has already caused the mogul significant embarrassment — “We don’t want to antagonize Trump further” — he noted in one. The documents submitted to the authorities show that Murdoch himself did not believe the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump, a hoax that formed the basis of the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol. In sworn questioning in January by lawyers for Dominion, Murdoch was asked, “Do you believe that the 2020 presidential election was free and fair?” “Yes,” he replied, according to a transcript. And yet he did not prevent the network from pursuing the issue to pull in viewers. Fox has paid up, but it has not apologized and has moved on to the next lie.
Dozens of books about the tycoon have been published. His professional biography is considerable but his personal life has also been the subject of novels, films and series, and speculation about his own succession. The latest series of Murdoch’s parallel show has also been a busy one. In two weeks, he has gone from announcing his fifth marriage to calling off the wedding. Less than a year ago, he informed his fourth wife, Jerry Hall, that he was divorcing her in an email: “Jerry, sadly I’ve decided to call an end to our marriage,” it read. The separation agreement, it was reported, included Hall agreeing not to provide details or ideas to the writers of Succession.
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