Improve the world we live in, the departing Rupert Murdoch urged staff today. So why didn’t he? | Jane Martinson
It should come as no surprise that Rupert Murdoch has decided to step down from the top of his media empire. Yet the news that the 92-year-old, no longer in the best of health, will not die in the job, as he always suggested he would, came as a huge shock.
After a lifetime spent transforming the relatively small Australian print newspaper business he inherited from his father into a global corporation, which spans one of the biggest newspaper businesses in the UK and one of the most controversial television channels in the US, he stands down ahead of two hugely important elections in both his adopted homelands, Britain and the US.
The timing of his decision to step down, or rather “transition” into an emeritus role in his words, cannot be coincidental. It will be minutely analysed over the weeks ahead.
But it is not too soon to consider now what his decision means, not just for his business but for the world of media and politics that he has done so much to influence. If the world before he took over a struggling tabloid newspaper in a grey but proud postwar Britain is the time we will call BM, “before Murdoch”, what will the morning and the new epoch, AM, or “after Murdoch”, look like?
If the old man gets his way, it will be more of the same and there will always be a Murdoch in charge of the news organisations most connected to those in power, whether that be Fox TV in the US or the Times and the Sun newspaper groups in the UK.
In a letter to all staff published today, surprising in the warmth of its tone, Murdoch made it clear that there should be no guessing who his successor should be, placing his third child and oldest son as the obvious heir. “My father firmly believed in freedom, and Lachlan is absolutely committed to the cause,” he wrote about the new chairman of his media empire.
But that could make the AM era an uneasy one for anyone who hoped the Murdoch transition would bring a liberal shift, or at least a move from illiberalism. Lachlan’s own politics are considered more libertarian and rightwing than even his father’s, and definitely his siblings. Rupert’s note made it clear he shared the contempt for those he described as “self-serving bureaucracies”. Witness the delusion of a multibillionaire who bragged of “going in through the back door” of No 10 and a man courted by every political leader railing against the “elite”.
Lachlan may be less able to continue his father’s chosen narrative. Rupert is a multibillionaire and a member of the most elite super rich, but has always considered and portrayed himself as a man of the people; not one of the “elites” who, as he put it in his letter, have “open contempt for those who are not members of the rarefied class”.
He is not completely going away of course, and did warn his staff that he would be watching with a critical eye, reading newspapers and websites. But it will be different. When he calls in the early hours of the morning, the lieutenants may not care quite so much about his diatribes.
Murdoch largely leaves behind a media and political age that he himself has shaped: an age in which norms are shredded, and the powerful have money and access sufficient to dictate the wants and desires of people’s lives.
He ends his letter by urging his thousands of staff to “make the most of this great opportunity to improve the world we live in”. That, over the decades, was his opportunity. Who can honestly say he took it?