The latest episode of the painfully good Succession pays pointed homage to the appearance of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his son before a British parliamentary inquiry.
Contains a shitload of spoilers, obviously.
Succession has delighted from the start in refracting the venal and vulgar absurdities of real-life media dynasties. The story of Logan Roy, his media empire and the offspring scrambling to succeed him survives hyperbolic moments that would derail other shows not just because of the exquisite writing and performances, but because no matter how histrionic any moment might seem – a humiliation exercise called boar on the floor, or a rich kid buying his dad a football club as a present – there’s somehow a sense that, impossibly, it’s rooted in reality. Or at least in anecdote.
There’s a good bit of that in the latest episode, DC, in the HBO series (on Sky and Neon in New Zealand). The second-to-last of the second series, centring on testimonies before a congressional hearing, is so good it stings. It’s so good, in the words of the Vox recappers, that “Roman has maybe been kidnapped, and it’s the B-plot.”
So far missed by the US recappers and the source material trainspotters, however, are the references in the most recent episode to a real-life confrontation between lawmakers and media bosses eight years ago.
In Succession, directly after the Tom and Geri show, mogul Logan Roy is hauled before a US senate subcommittee, alongside his son, Kendall, to defend the ethical behaviour of his media conglomerate after it has become embroiled in scandal. Which sounds eerily like July 2011, when mogul Rupert Murdoch was hauled before a UK parliamentary select committee, alongside his son, James, to defend the ethical behaviour of his media conglomerate after it had become embroiled in scandal.
It’s not a facsimile, exactly: the Murdochs were under the screw over the tabloid hacking scandal – a scandal which has fresh legs just this week thanks to Prince Harry launching fresh legal action. In DC, it’s a #Metoo scandal, connected to the company’s cruise ship operations. And – although I was waiting for it to happen – Logan Roy didn’t, like Murdoch, get a plate of shaving foam thrown at him by a protester. In retrospect, that was probably the best, most sympathy-generating thing that could have happened to Rupes.
If you doubt the parallel, here are the media bosses’ opening lines spoken to the committees of lawmakers, eight years apart.
Real human Rupert Murdoch: “I would just like to say one sentence. This is the most humble day of my life.”
Fictional human Logan Roy: “Senators, when I read of the abuses of power alleged in my cruise division, well, that was the worst day of my life.”
Repeatedly at the culture committee hearing in 2011, Murdoch senior deflected questions towards his son.
For example, in response to a question about why “none of your UK staff drew your attention to this serious wrongdoing, even though the case received widespread media attention?”, real human Rupert Murdoch responded: “I think my son can perhaps answer that in more detail. He was a lot closer to it.
In DC, Senator Gil Eavis asks: “Mr Logan Roy, what did you personally know about the operation of a system of obfuscation of wrongdoing in your cruise division by means of the keeping of shadow logs?”
Fictional human Logan Roy responds: “At that point, I believe my son was across that operationally … You can talk to him.”
And such sons! Just watch James Murdoch’s pneumatic mannerisms and manner of speaking, then compare Kendall Roy’s …
The episode is written by the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, who, I’m going to hazard a guess, would’ve been glued to the Murdoch appearance at parliament. Armstrong, whose creations include Peep Show and many of the best parts of In the Thick of It, insists that Succession is not about the Murdochs – and, fair enough, he is very much inspired, too, by other media dynasties, ranging from those of the late William Randolph Hurst to the ancient, terrifying Sumner Redstone.
But still, Armstrong did once write a screenplay about the Murdoch family, which didn’t end up getting made.
The Murdoch empire, like the Roy fiction, has buzzed with speculation about which of three children might succeed their Learesque dad. It’s impossible not to see a glimmer of James, Elisabeth and Lachlan in Kendall, Shiv and Roman. (Most recently, as others have observed, the most eye-popping moment of the previous week’s episode, in which Kendall delivers a rap in tribute to his dad – “L to the O-G” –invites comparison with the hip-hop enthusiasms of James Murdoch.)
What do the Murdoch kids make of the show? “I don’t watch Succession’,” James told the New Yorker. “Not even a peek. Why would I?”
Brian Cox, who plays Logan Roy, tells a story, meanwhile, about a man coming up to him in a cafe to say how much he loved Succession, but that his wife found it a difficult thing to watch. The man turned out to be Keith Tyson. He’s married to Elisabeth Murdoch.
But back to the penultimate episode of Succession, which ends with an ice cold Logan Roy confiding to his daughter that the state of the company has become so perilous it may be time for a drastic step: a – shudder – “blood sacrifice”.
On which point, it’s worth noting simply this: some six months after the UK parliamentary committee appearance, with the Murdoch news operations still under a cloud over phone hacking, James Murdoch resigned.
But, hell, who knows what could happen. The season finale, apparently, is set on a yacht, which offers endless cliffhanger possibilities. Among the many media family stories that inspired the writers, Armstrong has said, is that led by Robert Maxwell. Logan Roy can only hope that’s not what providence has planned for him.
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