The former head of The Sunday Times insight team, Bruce Page, saw Rupert Murdoch as a hero figure when he was a young man, writes Dominic Ponsford.
But after completing a new, and highly critical, biography of the News Corporation chief executive, Page has come to some different conclusions.
Page admitted that he approached his subject with a degree of scepticism. He was asked to write the book by his agent, Michael Sissons, following the 1998 row in which Murdoch-owned HarperCollins dropped Chris Patten’s memoirs. Sissons also represents Patten.
Many said HarperCollins dropped the Patten book, which was critical of the Chinese Government, because Murdoch wanted to promote his Chinese television interests. Page claims his book is the first about Murdoch to bring together the stories of the various arms of his empire in Australia, China, the US and Britain.
And it is Page’s assertion that the growth of this empire has been largely dependent on Murdoch’s ability to acquire political favours from the ruling elite in the various territories.
Page, who is just a few years younger than Murdoch, first came to know of him in the early Fifties when he inherited his first paper, the Adelaide News, at the age of 21. He said: “When I was a young reporter in Australia, Murdoch was something of a hero figure to my generation of reporters.
“At his first paper in Adelaide he backed a remarkable campaign which saved a young aboriginal from being hanged for murder. We were all pretty impressed, he seemed to be a young bloke who seemed to have some good ideas. “The gloss wore off bit by bit. My suspicions built up over time. By the time I started the book I was still prepared to be fair and look at the evidence, but I don’t think anything remained of that initial admiration.”
Page said he didn’t ask for, or expect to receive, any assistance from Murdoch or his staff – so he relied for the majority of his research on public documents and interviews with former Murdoch employees. He said: “There’s a good deal of evidence about but not from within the empire — it’s a bit like dealing with the old Kremlin.”
Page dismisses the suggestion that Murdoch has directly influenced coverage of the Hutton Inquiry in papers such as The Sun and The Times. Their often seemingly proGovernment, anti-BBC line has often been at odds with the rest of the media. But he said: “Most journalists know it is quite easy to work out what the boss wants. There’s very rarely the need for direct orders. People who take lines independent of Murdoch don’t last in a Murdoch editorship.”
It was for this reason, according to Page, that Murdoch was unable to poach Paul Dacre from the Daily Mail in 1992 to edit The Times. He said: “Dacre decided that Murdoch was incapable of allowing editorial independence.
It’s clear that no paper edited by Paul Dacre would have come out to support Labour in the way that all the Murdoch papers did.” Although Page has had no direct access to Murdoch, through talking to people who have been close to him he believes he has got a feel for the man. He said: “I don’t think he’s a personally loathsome individual in the way that Robert Maxwell was a really nasty man on a personal level.
But on a professional level I think he believes a newspaper business should curry favour with the powers of the state. I don’t think he sees anything wrong with that. I don’t believe anyone has previously done that successfully with newspapers and I think it’s a very bad thing to do. “There’s a large school of people who approve of and admire Murdoch. Most of them work for him or are in some way or another obligated.
“Outside of News Corporation, there aren’t a great many journalists who admire Murdoch or who make a good case for his operation.”
The Murdoch Archipelago is published by Simon & Schuster priced £20.