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Rupert Murdoch in 1968. (Photo: Aubrey Hart/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Rupert Murdoch in 1968. (Photo: Aubrey Hart/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

MediaNovember 17, 2022

The Rupert Murdoch protection bill

Rupert Murdoch in 1968. (Photo: Aubrey Hart/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Rupert Murdoch in 1968. (Photo: Aubrey Hart/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Following reports that Rupert Murdoch might be ‘plotting a return’ to New Zealand, Toby Manhire looks at the global shadow he casts in media, business and politics across more than six decades – including a heated 1965 parliamentary debate between Holyoake and Kirk.

Even now, the front page of a tabloid packs a visceral punch. Giant headlines, bloated puns, garish images; there is nothing quite like it. All the more so if it’s a News Corp title. Then it becomes also a sign, a smoke signal, a message not quite from God, but close: the most dangerous man in the world, Rupert Murdoch.

That’s how it went last week, when the headline on the late edition of the New York Post responded to a disappointing night in the midterms for the Republicans by hailing “DeFUTURE”. The celebration of Florida governor Ron Desantis “romping to victory” was an unsubtle dig at Donald Trump, against whom he is expected to run for the presidential nomination. Even less subtle was the next day’s splash. “TRUMPTY DUMPTY”, it read, pointing the finger of blame at a man perched eggily on a wall. “Don (who couldn’t build a wall),” chortled the coverline, “had a great fall – can all the GOP’s men put the party back together again?”

Those front pages, together with a Trump-critical mood in the Wall Street Journal and on Fox News, had commentators immediately divining confirmation that Murdoch was done with Trump and his Maga tribe. Murdoch had “appeared to make clear that he would prefer to cast aside Trump in favor of DeSantis”, said CNN. “A marriage of convenience that paid huge political and financial dividends has ruptured in spectacular fashion,” said the Financial Times. Even Saturday Night Live pounced on “the week Murdoch officially turned on Donald Trump” 

Implicit in so much of the coverage is Murdoch’s place in the political firmament. The epithet above – the most dangerous man in the world – is not my hyperbole, but Joe Biden’s. My guess is Murdoch would be thrilled. Bestriding the worlds of media, business and politics across the western world, Murdoch the press baron embodies the Machiavellian maxim that it is better to be feared than loved. Feared even by Trump, a man impervious to normal human emotion. Only Murdoch can exact revenge, deliver schadenfreude. It’s all there in Vanity Fair’s headline. “Rupert Murdoch knees Trump in the balls while he’s doubled over coughing up blood.”

Murdoch the man is softly spoken. But his voice, his influence – sometimes real, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes imagined, always obsessed over – has echoed through the halls of politics for more than six decades. Little wonder, then, that a less violent local headline this month, “Murdoch plots New Zealand return”, sent a shiver down spines. The Australian mogul has been a fascination here, as almost everywhere, since the 60s, when Keith Holyoake and Norman Kirk debated the meaning of Murdoch, with passion and at length, in the New Zealand parliament. 

‘Do we want Murdoch to take over and eliminate our newspapers?’

New Zealand was the first foreign media foray for a young and tenacious Rupert Murdoch. In January 1964, he sailed across the Tasman and toured New Zealand with friends in a Morris Minor. The 32-year-old, then steadily building his Australian portfolio from a single newspaper in Adelaide (all that was left of his father Keith’s once strong media stable) happened on the news that Lord Thomson, a powerful UK-based Canadian press baron, was seeking to purchase a controlling stake in Wellington’s Dominion newspaper. Murdoch decided to take him on. 

The next month a commentator in London’s Financial Times noted the counter-bid by the “energetic young Australian newspaper proprietor”, writing: “Mr Murdoch, unlike Lord Thomson, likes editorial power as much as he likes making money, and lays down some pretty controversial policies in his papers … New Zealanders at large seem to wish a plague on both bidders.” 

Murdoch outfoxed Thomson (from whom, years later, he would purchase the establishment title he so coveted, the Times of London), purchasing a number of shares on the open market, and secured a dominant stake of almost 30% in the Wellington Publishing Company. 

The two moguls’ tussle for the newspaper led to Keith Holyoake driving through New Zealand’s parliament the News Media Ownership Bill of 1965, which would limit future overseas ownership of news operations to 20%. The National prime minister, wrote biographer Barry Gustafson, “played a more prominent and passionate role in the debate in parliament on this bill than on almost any other piece of legislation during his long career”. Its intention, Holyoake told parliament, was to protect homegrown journalism against the fickle or malign self-interest of foreign press barons.

Prime minister Keith Holyoake in 1967 (Photo: Trevor James Robert Dallen/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Labour leader Norman Kirk railed against an “obnoxious, iniquitous, repressive” bill. The government’s real concern, he judged, was maintaining the sympathetic press coverage it enjoyed under the status quo. “This is not a News Media Ownership Bill but a National Government Protection Bill,” said Kirk. “It is a first step towards removing the independence of the press.”

Others accused Holyoake of doing Murdoch’s bidding. Labour MP Warren Freer asked whether it was “designed as a means of rewarding a certain individual by the name of Mr Rupert Murdoch”, who had already established a toehold in the New Zealand media. Freer pointed to “mysterious, secret, hole-in-the-corner negotiations with the prime minister” that saw Murdoch, “a hard-headed businessman, forgo some of his voting privileges”.

The president of the New Zealand Journalists’ Association was similarly opposed. “The effect of the legislation,” he said, “is specifically to protect the interests of one overseas investor, the News Limited group of Adelaide, headed by Mr Rupert Murdoch.”

Holyoake accepted that he had held discussions with Murdoch, but his motives were the same: to limit foreign influence. Those calling the legislation the “Murdoch Protection Bill” were quite wrong, he said. On the contrary, “the issue at this stage is do we want Murdoch to take over and eliminate our newspapers?” 

‘The most humble day of my life’

Fast forward 46 years from Holyoake and Kirk to another, bigger parliament, and a scene that must sit at the centre of any Murdoch biopic. It was the summer of 2011 and the line outside the Wilson Room at Portcullis House began forming before 7am. The box-office attraction: Rupert Murdoch, along with his son James, the boss of the family’s UK operations, appearing before Westminster’s culture, media and sport committee, to face questions over the phone hacking at the News of the World.

The scandal, revealing illegal activity on a near-industrial scale, had engulfed the paper and the wider company, and dominated British headlines for many months. A week before the father-son pair faced the parliamentary committee, Murdoch Snr had taken the jaw-dropping decision to fold the 168-year-old title, to put a bullet in the head of his beloved first British media property, acquired a full 43 years earlier. 

Murdoch had poured blood, sweat and ink into the tabloid, which had grown on his watch into the biggest selling newspaper in the western world. Shovelling freshly raked scandal into millions of homes across Britain every Sunday morning, its fascination with what happened between the bedsheets saw it nicknamed “the Screws”. Its own humiliation was another parade of celebrities, except this time they were pointing the finger, and the villain was the rag and its hacks. The end of the World was the revelation that, along with dozens of footballers and actors, the victims of the illegal phone hacking schemes included the murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler.

“This is the most humble day of my life,” the 80-year-old press baron told MPs that morning. Frequently mumbling, sometimes appearing baffled, unflinchingly deferential, Murdoch rejected a host of accusations from MPs, from the charge of “wilful blindness” to one MP’s suggestion he resembled a “mafia boss”.

The exchange – though not its climax, when Murdoch’s then wife, Wendi Deng, pursued a protester who clown-pied her husband – was paid fictional homage eight years later on HBO, when Logan Roy and his son Kendall appeared before a senate subcommittee probing abuses in Waystar Royco’s cruise division. It was “the worst day of my life”, intoned Logan. Succession draws on many monsters and media dynasties, but the Murdochs are the mother lode, a gruesome pantheon of siblings and spouses, of sycophants, regents and schemers.

James Murdoch’s swagger seemed not to recover from the hacking scandal. Or maybe it was his conscience. He quit the News Corp board in 2020, citing “disagreements over certain editorial content published by the company’s news outlets”. James’s main objection was thought to centre on climate change coverage. 

By then, his older brother Lachlan was cemented as heir. After his own mysterious stint out of the fold, Lachlan returned to his father’s company and in 2004 was appointed co-chairman of News Corp. A new biography of Lachlan is called The Successor. Joining a groaning shelf of Murdoch books, it details claims of fraternal fallings-out, and speculates about the possibility of his siblings conspiring to wrest control of the media business away from their brother after Rupert’s death. 

Rupert Murdoch, flanked by sons Lachlan and James, at his wedding to Jerry Hall, his fourth wife, in 2016. The couple divorced in August. (Photo: Max Mumby/ Indigo/ Getty Images)

‘The incestuous relationship between politicians and press’

Three years after the parliamentary hearing, I joined another long and early queue in London, curling up the spiral staircase to the public gallery at the Old Bailey. Late in the morning in courtroom 12, Rebekah Brooks was called from the dock, where she sat alongside six other defendants including her husband Charlie Brooks and her former colleague and lover Andy Coulson. 

In the first of her seven days on the stand, Brooks, who had been editor of the News of the World and the Sun, insisted she knew nothing of the so-called “dark art” of phone-hacking. The jury believed her and she was acquitted on all charges. Murdoch, who bankrolled her bravura defence team, later appointed her head of his UK news operations. 

It was different for Andy Coulson, another former editor. He too claimed ignorance, saying he didn’t know about the practice when he left the Murdoch empire to become chief spin-doctor for David Cameron, the man he would join at the apex of British power in Downing Street. “I’m extremely sorry that I employed him,” Cameron said, following Coulson’s conviction. “It was the wrong decision and I’m very clear about that.”

Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch in 2010. (Photo: Indigo/Getty Images)

Milly Dowler’s sister, Gemma, said her family was clear on the “most important and damaging” problem exposed by the scandal: “the incestuous relationship between our top politicians and the press.”

After a day at the Old Bailey, I caught up with Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who broke the story and went on to literally write the book about it. Phone hacking was not the point, he told me for a Listener feature. “It’s really rather a petty crime … The reason why it became important isn’t actually because of the crime within newsrooms, it’s because of what it then exposed about the Murdoch power network. So I’ve always said, all the way through, it’s not a story about journalists behaving badly. This is a story about power, and the abuse of power.”

He said: “It’s about the links between the Murdoch network and the police and the government, the corporate world, and to a lesser extent the press regulator. And it’s about fear. And it’s about tens of millions of adults electing a government, and one Australian – now an American – being able to tell that government what to do. If we had told exactly the same story about a trade magazine that tells you about how to look after your pets at home, nobody would really have given a fuck, because it wouldn’t have had all that connotation of power.”

‘Fair and balanced’

Rupert Murdoch was a disruptor long before that word became part of the Ted Talk lexicon. He transformed media markets and broke union movements. Politicians and parties that shared Murdoch’s free-market worldview, that smoothed the regulatory way, were rewarded; opponents were lambasted or lampooned. His titles stood ready to lift a sail and catch the popular wind. Sometimes they tried to engineer the weather. 

On election day in 1992, with the British Labour Party leading in the polls, the Sun infamously ran a front page featuring the party leader Neil Kinnock’s head in a lightbulb, with the words “Will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?” Labour lost, prompting what was very much not one of Murdoch’s most humble days. “IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT” went the headline. Tony Blair and the New Labour project focused great energy on courting Murdoch.  In 1995, Blair infuriated Kinnock by accepting an invitation to travel to Australia to address a News Corp conference. It paid off. Two years later the Sun switched teams and endorsed Blair. During his time at No 10, Blair was made godfather to one of Murdoch’s daughters. 

In 2007, Murdoch’s acquisition of the Wall Street Journal provided a long-sought authoritative newspaper in the US, a vehicle with which to take on the loathed New York Times, and the high-minded equivalent of his newspapers the Times and the Australian. But he could not buy the admiration of rivals. In the late 60s, Britain’s Private Eye dubbed him “the Dirty Digger”, a label that stuck. The Columbia Journalism Review called him “a force for evil”. The venerated British dramatist Denis Potter loathed him so deeply he named his terminal cancer “Rupert”.

When the world was debating a possible war in Iraq in 2003, Murdoch’s newspapers, more than 150 around the globe, New Zealand included, endorsed a US-led invasion. Editors denied emphatically any suggestion they had been handed an edict from their proprietor. Critics said he hardly needed to.

In the US, Murdoch’s influence continued to grow. In 1976, he had purchased the New York Post, turning a liberal paper into a rightwing scandal sheet. Two decades later, Fox News was launched. Alongside Roger Ailes, Murdoch built a Conservative powerhouse under the audaciously untrue strapline “fair and balanced”, providing a platform for outspoken rightwing partisans including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.

The network, which in 2017 swapped out its slogan for “Real news. Real honest opinion”, was instrumental in the rise of Trump, whose reactionary, polarising showmanship in turn turbo-charged Fox ratings. Trump was by numerous accounts glued to the channel in the White House. In the year 2019 he personally posted 657 tweets responding to Fox News or Fox Business. 

Malcolm Turnbull found himself the target of attack from Murdoch papers during his time as Australian prime minister, despite leading a party of the centre-right. But it was the American impact of his compatriot that most appalled him. In a recent memoir, Turnbull argued that what happened on January 6 2021 “was nothing less than an attempted coup, promoted and encouraged by the president himself and his media allies like Murdoch who, through Fox News, has probably done more damage to US democracy than any other individual”.

Backing his former rival Kevin Rudd’s call for a Royal Commission on Murdoch’s media sway, Turnbull said, “the same forces that amplified and enabled Trump are still at work in the US and here in Australia.” A subsequent Australian senate committee called Murdoch’s News Corp the nation’s “clearest example of a troubling media monopoly”. 

Those who have worked closely with Murdoch attest to his rolled-up-sleeves attention to detail, to the journalism running in his veins, and to his insistence, even as he became one of the most powerful media moguls the world has seen, that he was an outsider (a self-assessment, incidentally, he shares with Trump). Murdoch and his sons – much like the Roy family in Succession – struggled with the digital world, from MySpace on. And yet many media executives would later regret not following his early lead of standing up to Google

A Time cover to mark Murdoch’s purchase of the New York Post and New York magazine (which he no longer owns)

Murdoch has been a staunch, even romantic advocate of print newspapers, and kept alive a number of quality titles through long periods of loss-making. His titles are home to some of the world’s best journalists. He and his editors have staunchly opposed state censorship and repudiated libel laws – even if Lachlan is currently suing the small Australian news site Crikey for defamation over an article on the storming of the Capitol which included a characterisation of the Fox-owning Murdochs as “unindicted co-conspirators”.  

Murdoch barely ever speaks directly in public. A brief, ill-advised stint on Twitter made Murdoch seem less like a ruthless mogul than just another muddled granddad. His final tweets in 2016 were a series of fat-fingered empty replies and this: “No more tweets for ten days or ever!   Feel like the luckiest AND happiest man in world”. But he’d long since revealed a heroic embrace of – well, call it lack of self-awareness or comfort with contradiction. In a 1972 lecture back home in Australia, Murdoch unironically chided the new journalism, the “young men and women with an unquenchable desire to force their narrow view of humanity on the rest of humanity”, people who sought “to control the content and views of newspapers and through them the thinking of the population”.

 

Not banned and not bothered

The Business Desk headline, “Murdoch plots New Zealand return”, overcooked the report that followed. The return being plotted looks modest: a “dedicated New Zealand section on the website of The Australian, the group’s paywalled, right-leaning broadsheet”. Such an initiative, and the hiring of a couple of local journalists, would at most put it on par with the existing footprint of the Guardian in New Zealand. And, as with the Guardian, the basis is straightforward. The audience numbers for stories about and from Aotearoa are encouraging; let’s try to extract more reader revenue out of the place. 

Murdoch sold his New Zealand newspaper operations in 2003, at a time when his focus was largely on television growth. By then, thanks in large part to the management of Alan Burnet, they had grown to cover most of the country as Independent Newspapers Ltd. He dipped his toe again, with Murdoch companies at times holding stakes in both Sky TV and APN (forerunner to NZME), but these days he has no obvious direct ownership in New Zealand media companies. 

His reputation is such, however, that even in absence Murdoch radiates controversy. International newswires’ fact checking services have repeatedly moved this year to quash false claims that his companies are banned in New Zealand.

One of the statements in question went like this: “Asked why New Zealand does not suffer from the rage of older white men like in other western Anglo countries, PM Jacinda Adern [sic] replied, ‘Because we’ve never allowed Rupert Murdoch to set up a media outlet here.’ The guy has wreaked havoc on civil society in the US.”

Not true. Or not, certainly the banning bit. Reuters theorised the fabricated quote might have stemmed from commentator David Cormack’s assessment that “a huge reason that our politics is not so extremely polarised and so far out there is because we no longer have Murdoch-owned press in New Zealand, and it’s never taken a foothold.”

It is hard to argue with that. The tenor of Australian politics is palpably harsher and more hostile, its culture entwined in inflamed symbiosis with the Murdoch press. But don’t recline your seat. Cormack’s comments were for an October 2020 Guardian feature looking at Aotearoa’s relatively low level of populism, conspiracy theory and Covid-19 scepticism. Plenty has transpired since.

In fact Murdoch does have an outlet in Aotearoa already, if you count Sky News Australia, which broadcasts around the clock via the (unrelated) Sky TV platform. The rolling news channel recently restored a reporting presence at parliament in Wellington after a pause prompted by the Covid crisis. 

Like Fox News, Sky News Australia typically gets noticed less for its news output than its voluble night-time hosts. The roster of supercilious silver-haired shock jocks, such as Andrew Bolt and Rowan Dean, take an occasional interest in events across the Tasman, evincing a particular, swivel-eyed interest in te ao Māori and – of course – “wokeism”. Last week, Dean threw a tantrum on-air about Six60 producing a tour poster in te reo Māori. 

For all that he might be a details man, it’s highly unlikely Murdoch cares much about the chunterings of a third-rate controversialist at an outpost of his global empire. And it’s hard to imagine him being engaged, if he’s even aware, of the Australian newspaper hiring a reporter or two in New Zealand. Like another mythic media monster, Don Draper, he probably doesn’t think about us at all. Business Desk did, however, note speculation that he might fancy an acquisition – the NBR, perhaps. 

There is little in law to stop him. In 1975, Labour fulfilled its pledge and repealed the News Media Ownership Bill. In the decades that followed, foreign ownership of non-state New Zealand news outlets became the norm. There is today a character test on overseas purchases of “media entities that have an impact on New Zealand’s media plurality”, but that should be a breeze.  

Maybe, as he approaches his 92nd birthday, Rupert remembers fondly that Morris Minor road trip, that land of humility, his conversation with Holyoake in some smoke-filled room. There are worse places to slide into semi-retirement. Fox News is available. So is HBO.

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