Rupert Murdoch well remembers his first front-page splash in a British newspaper.
It was, inevitably, a royal story. And it was widely followed up by the rest of Fleet Street.
But this was no Sun sensation. Nor even a News of the World blockbuster. In fact, it hit the streets well before the acquisition of those titles was even a glint in his eye – nearly two decades would pass before they were in his possession. No, his first taste of nationals glory came in 1953, when he was doing a spot of work experience on the Daily Express.
It was edited by the legendary Arthur Christiansen and the 22-year-old Murdoch, mentored by executive editor Edward Pickering, was a lowly junior sub.
“I remember one time, nobody knew what we were going to lead the paper on – quiet news day; there wasn’t much around,” he says, 52 years later. “I had seen in an Australian paper – which actually would have been three or four days old by that time – a piece by a correspondent that I respected, that Prince Philip was about to be made a Duke. I remember suggesting we could do something with that, and everybody got very excited about it. They led the paper on it, and the rest of them had to follow it up.
Which was quite amusing because the press always had a dislike of the Mountbattens…”
It’s easy to over-analyse these things, but there’s something about the story that does seem to neatly encapsulate what lay ahead. All the details are there: the fact that it featured what would become a staple of popular Murdoch journalism, the royal family; that it borrowed and amplified something that had originated in Australia; his obvious relish at having the edge on the rest of the pack; even that extra bit of gossipy intrigue thrown in for good measure at the end.
If you’re evaluating the past four decades of British journalism, as we are this week, and you’re looking for the single most influential figure of that period, the individual whose career has had the most far-reaching implications for the industry, your shortlist has just one name on it. Keith Rupert Murdoch. The global scale of his impact is little short of astonishing, which is one reason why the name still inspires such strong emotions – either of awe, or hatred. And barring Australia, it’s arguable that nowhere has he made a more fundamental and far-reaching difference to the media landscape than here.
The bias of newspapers
And so it is, after a few false starts in setting up the interview, that early on a Saturday morning in Australia he takes a short time out on the phone to reflect on some of the key points in the 36 years since he burst on to the British newspaper scene, and to put what he sees as his achievements in to some sort of context. (Given that when he reached 70 four years ago, Murdoch totted up the hours he might conceivably have left of his working life and vowed not to waste any of them, I’ll happily take it as a compliment to Press Gazette that the best part of one of them is allotted to this interview.) His months on the 1950s Express came as he made his way back to Australia following the death of his father, Sir Keith Murdoch, from whom he stood to inherit a controlling interest in one struggling newspaper in Adelaide that he would build into an unparalleled empire.
He was taken by the excitement of the Fleet Street atmosphere and learned “a lot of basic things that have stayed with me. How to present newspapers, the biases you can present, which some might disagree with, but you know… And I learned the absolute importance of making page one look fantastic”.
The Express had just eight pages in those days, albeit with considerably higher story counts than now – and they were religiously counted against the Daily Mail’s stories every day.
Does he consider the Prince Philip story as his first British scoop? There’s a throaty chuckle. “Yeah, I guess it was, in a way.”
Sixteen years later, he made sure there were more to follow by buying first the News of the World from the hapless Carr family (£250,000 for a six million circulation paper looks like a pretty good bit of business), and then The Sun from IPC.
The NoW was “in my mind, just the first part of an attempt to get into the dailies”, but it also gave him the first taste of the battles that would take up much of the next decade and a half. “I had the education of coming head-to-head with the Fleet Street unions once a week on Saturday night. I couldn’t understand they had these presses at Bouverie Street which did nothing for six nights a week. The challenge to get them to do something for six nights a week proved gargantuan.
“It was very hard going and it took an enormous amount of time that could have been better directed into more creative activities.”
So there’s a degree of irony in the fact that he owed The Sun deal to the unions. Robert Maxwell had been trying to buy the ailing mid-market broadsheet, as it was then, from IPC. But he couldn’t guarantee that there wouldn’t be job losses, which IPC found terrifying – its bosses feared redundancies would trigger sympathetic strike action at their cash cow, the Daily Mirror.
“I shot a letter into the Mirror,” recalls Murdoch, “saying if by any chance Maxwell couldn’t achieve an agreement with the union, then I’d be very happy to pick up the reins. They dropped Maxwell that afternoon. And we had it almost within a week.”
Using the lessons that had started with the Express, and from his subsequent time building up newspapers in all the major Australian cities, Murdoch set about transforming The Sun with new editor Larry Lamb.
Both men felt that the Mirror could be challenged.
And in particular that it was turning its back on its traditional working class audience. Hugh Cudlipp, the Mirror’s editorial director had, Murdoch felt, “been corrupted a bit by that whole Beaverbrook scene. He always wanted to take the Mirror up-market.”
“We were a new team and able to go for their throat with young people. We were clearly a young people’s paper.”
Does he think now that the Mirror could have played a different hand and strangled the nascent Sun at birth? “No. They would have had to change gravely. And they would have had to change all their people. You very seldom get 50- or 60-year-old people to change the habits of a lifetime.”
Within three years The Sun had trebled its circulation to more than three million. It overtook The Mirror in the 1980s.
But Murdoch was by no means limiting his ambitions to the popular end of the market. He had long had his eye on The Times and The Sunday Times, and once again it was to be the unions that helped him to his goal.
Crippling strikes had forced both titles off the streets for nearly an entire year, a scenario that seems unimaginable now.
The economics of the paper meant the price was low. Many of the bidders were tantalised by The Sunday Times’s cash-generating possibilities, but appalled by The Times’s potential to wipe those profits out. Only Murdoch seemed to offer credible guarantees of its future.
As Graham Stewart puts it in his new book The History of the Times: “Murdoch was not interested in owning The Times as a ticket into the British Establishment, and nor was it deployed effectively as his prime weapon in exerting political power. Rather, Murdoch’s motivating interests seemed to relate more clearly to its central place in the history and development of his first and greatest hobby – newspapers.”
Peter Chernin, Murdoch’s trusted lieutenant (and the man some believe will succeed him at the head of Newscorp), has described the acquisition of The Times as the “transforming purchase” that turned the company into a true global media organisation.
Murdoch disagrees with the description. “I thought it was a natural progression. It appeared to me to be risky, but a great opportunity. It wasn’t the £10/12m that we paid for it. It was the subsequent £35m we lost, just by trying to get over pig-headed unionism, you know?
“There were unbelievable frustrations, seven days a week. And particularly on The Sunday Times because that was the one they knew was making the money.”
In his book Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson recalls his time as a sub on The Times’s business desk, in which he was not allowed to personally retrieve the nightly report from Wall Street from the wire room. That was the job of a member of the SOGAT union to which no journalist could belong. The result was that he often missed the copy deadline.
These were the frustrations that Murdoch felt, and which led to him building the plant at Wapping that he planned to free him of union shackles (see boxout).
Twenty years on, how significant does he see the events of 1986/7?
The answer is unequivocal. “Well I think the result of it, the unpleasantness of Wapping, completely changed the economic model of newspapers in Britain. If it hadn’t been for that, there would certainly have been casualties by now.
“I was amazed. I thought the unions would immediately go to all the other publishers and say, we want lifetime contracts at once. Or try to set in concrete what they had already won. Instead it was the publishers who went to the unions and said: ‘Look you have to give us these concessions otherwise Murdoch will have a totally unfair economic advantage’.
“So in the end it played right through.”
In the year prior to Murdoch’s acquisition, The Times had lost 96 million copies through industrial action.
“And since that first Sunday when we got The Sunday Times out from Wapping, and the News of the World, I don’t think there has been one edition of a national newspaper lost. Before that, there had been losses every day or every week. And there were always crises and troubles.
“Remember, nobody in the private sector had won a strike of a major nature. We took them on and were the first to do it. And although we were abused by all sorts of people, including leading industrialists, who made portentous lectures on the BBC on how this was not the British way, in fact it was a turning point. An absolute turning point for Fleet Street and the whole of the newspaper industry. But also a turning point, although to a slightly lesser extent, for the whole of British industry.”
“Although it wasn’t pleasant, I’m certainly very, very proud of it. And it’ll be part of my legacy.
“It was only 20 years ago, but people are already forgetting it.” I can imagine the shrug at the other end of the phone. “But that’s the way it goes.”
I ask him whether he feels he has been fairly or accurately represented in the British media. “No of course not,” he says sharply. And does that bother him? “No, because I don’t expect to be. I’ve been, I hope, fairly radical, and an agent of change. I’ve brought in competition in the popular press. My insight, my feeling was that there was room for that.
Then there was the turning of the industry upside down at Wapping – to its total benefit – and then dragging The Times into the modern age, and The Sunday Times. It is perfectly natural that people would be a bit paranoid about me. But meanwhile, it just pours on. Some pour it on harder than others.
“They all hate me because of Sky. It absolutely changed the face of television. And will change it further. So there are three or four major benefits that I’ve done in Britain.
“Sky put the whole of the broadcasting establishment against me, and particularly the BBC.
They had 240 people in their public affairs department at one stage who did nothing but lobby for legislation against Sky, and were a constant pain. And, of course, a lot of those same people are sitting in regulatory positions today, which doesn’t make life any easier.
“Sky is doing very well. It will do a lot better. And as it does, the resentment from the establishment forces will only grow stronger.”
The disruptive internet
Much has been made lately of Murdoch’s refreshed enthusiasm for new media, after he admitted earlier this year that he previously hadn’t embraced it whole-heartedly enough. Does he feel now that his internet strategy is fully formed? “It’ll never be fully formed. The internet is changing, very disruptive technology and there are new inventions coming along every month. One has to stay awake and race to stay up with it, or if you get enough brilliant people around maybe you can get ahead of it.”
“The point is the ease of entry. If someone has a good idea on the net the cost of entry is zero. We’re going to have many, many more voices.
“We now have one billion people – not with broadband, but access to the net, and computer literate. In 20 years, 30 years, it’s not going to be one billion, it’ll be six billion.
“It’s going to be a huge force for good, but also a force for change in many ways that we can’t foresee.”
Except that foresight is precisely what the media industry expects. “He doesn’t just see over the next hill. He sees over the whole Himalayas,” a former broadsheet editor told me. The ruthlessness with which he has kept his companies at the forefront of the media world for so long suggests he is hardly going to surrender to the digital onslaught without a good scrap. The recent acquisitions of community website myspace.com and broadband provider Easynet signal that it may have started in earnest.
Yet WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell suggested last month that the spree smacked of “panic buying” and that Murdoch’s preoccupation with the internet meant he was willing to buy companies “willy nilly”.
Murdoch is dismissive. “I spoke to him about it – he’s a friend of mine – and actually he told me he didn’t really say that, or at least mean it. I think he made a speech, and just threw in some words.
“There’s no panic, and there was certainly no overpayment. It was a very careful strategy to go for the two biggest community sites for people under 30.
If you take the number of page views in the US, we are the third biggest presence on the internet already.
Now we’re not the most profitable, or anything like it; we have a huge amount of work ahead to get that whole thing right. And we’re working very hard to keep improving.”
He has also said this month that he’s watching carefully the bidding for AOL, as its parent company Time Warner considers a sale. So it’s clear how seriously he’s taking things at a corporate level. But how does that integrate, if at all, with existing newspapers?
“With The Times online we’re very sure where we’re going. But with things like The Sun, and a lot of the other papers out here, there are a lot of plans, although I’d have to be honest and say some of them are experimental.”
Given all this activity, how fearful does he think traditional journalists have to be for their futures?
“Not at all,” he says. “Just become better journalists. Great journalism will always be needed, but the product of their work may not always be on paper – it may ultimately just be electronically transmitted. But for many, many, many years to come it will be disseminated on both.
“There will always be room for good journalism and good reporting. And a need for it, to get the truth out.”
In Britain he thinks journalism is in as healthy a state as it has ever been. “Maybe better, there’s some great writing taking place, certainly in our newspapers – Times, Sun, Sunday Times- and we don’t have a monopoly on it. There is good writing all over the place. I do think there’s a tendency in some papers to be very hectoring in some stories – particularly when they’re trying to have a feud with the government – but I don’t think that’s any different to what it has been in the past.
“And it doesn’t matter because there are so many to choose from. I think the people of Britain are uniquely lucky to have such a great choice of newspapers and news, whereas in America you don’t.
Outside New York, it’s all monopoly newspapers.
Some have good work in them, but it tends to be overwritten, boring and elitist, not a reflection of the general mood in the public. And I think you’re going to find their circulations falling more than they already have. With their business models, because they’ve already stripped all the costs out, now they have to depend on advertising. And that is certainly under threat.”
It’s not just in the US that this reliance on advertising – particularly classified – is proving a problem. Murdoch once described revenue from these pages as “rivers of gold”. Yet presumably his concern over the future of the classified market was at least partly behind his sale of The Times Education Supplement group last month.
“Sometimes rivers dry up,” he says when reminded of his old quote. “This is a generational thing; we’ve been talking a 15- or 20-year slide on this. Certainly I don’t know anybody under 30 who has ever looked at a classified advertisement in a newspaper. With broadband they do more and more transactions and job-seeking online.”
Yet for all his new-found enthusiasm for the internet, it seems clear that Murdoch’s own love for newspapers remains undimmed. Since August he has even been acting as publisher of the New York Post, following son Lachlan’s decision to quit the firm.
He recently opened a building in his father’s name in Australia. Sir Keith had been a journalist who got his break with a report about Anzac troops in the Dardanelles during the First World War, and had gone on to be an editor and then proprietor.
I wonder if he still feels his father’s influence on his work today.
“His principles and his feelings about journalism that we were brought up with at home, that’s something that stays with you all your life. And they were about the responsibility of journalism, and the huge opportunity, if you have an important position in the media, to do what you feel is for the good of the community. You’ve got to serve your readers first, but I think it’s about journalism as a calling almost, and not just another job.”
Journalism is a calling
Does he remember the moment when he knew that newspapers would be the love of his life? “Yeah.
Well, I don’t recall a precise moment because I never thought I’d do anything else. Life at home was always so exciting and so involved in what was going on around the world, so it was the most natural thing.”
And he makes a comment that will doubtless add to the intrigue surrounding his children, two of whom have left the family business to pursue their own commercial interests (and one of whom, I should add for the record, is married to Press Gazette’s main shareholder). “I don’t think I’ve heard of any heir to a newspaper company who ever wanted to walk away from it. Children of major media people – generally, I wouldn’t say universally – want to be part of it.”
And what of the editors? Would he be prepared to say which of the many he has ever worked with he considers to be the best?
Murdoch’s long telephone pauses are well known by the executives and editors who have worked for him down the years. Sometimes they’re ominous, sometimes they’re just giving him time to weigh up a situation carefully. This one seems to last an eternity, and I’m starting to wonder whether I’ve pushed my luck too far with the sixth of my “one last questions” and he’s already hung up.
Eventually, the voice growls his answer. “Larry Lamb. For the first two years of The Sun’s launch, he was pretty much a genius.”