A fascinating four-page article on Rupert Murdoch at The New Yorker.
UPDATE: OK, bugger you lot, I will reproduce it verbatim because you are all so damned lazy:
MURDOCH’S GAMEApologies to the New Yorker et al for reproducing this verbatim, of course, but then again there are only a handful of readers on this blog and all of them should consider this NEED-TO-KNOW stuff. Right?
Will he move left in 2008?
by JOHN CASSIDY
Issue of 2006-10-16
Like the legendary press barons to whom he is often compared—Hearst, Pulitzer, Northcliffe, Beaverbrook—Rupert Murdoch has relished playing kingmaker. In the fall of 1977, when he was forty-six and had recently arrived in New York from Australia, by way of Fleet Street, he decided, as the new owner of the Post and New York, to endorse a candidate for the mayoralty. The city was in crisis: the treasury was empty; the serial killer Son of Sam had been terrorizing the five boroughs; the labor unions were threatening to strike; and seven Democratic candidates, including Mario Cuomo, Herman Badillo, and Ed Koch, were vying to succeed the hapless Abe Beame.
Murdoch invited them to his office. “Mario Cuomo was Governor Carey’s candidate,” Koch recalled recently. “And Rupert’s preferred candidate, too, initially. Rupert asked each of us what we would do to take on the labor unions. Mario said, ‘Trust me.’ I said, ‘I’ll take a strike and I’ll break it. If they go on strike, it will be illegal, and I’ll defeat them.’ ”
Koch, then a liberal congressman from Greenwich Village, lacked both Cuomo’s eloquence and Badillo’s popularity in the outer boroughs. According to one poll, only four per cent of voters even knew who he was. “Rupert was impressed by what I said,” Koch said. “But he wanted to endorse Mario nevertheless. So he gave him a chance to come back and see him again later in the week. Again, he asked him the same question. And Mario said the same thing: ‘Trust me.’
“A day or two later, I was sitting at home. My campaign truck had broken down, so I couldn’t go out campaigning. The phone rang and a voice said, ‘Is Congressman Koch at home?’ I didn’t recognize the voice, so I said, ‘Who’s calling?’ The person said, ‘It’s Rupert.’ I said to myself, ‘Rupert . . . Rupert . . . That’s not a Jewish name. Who could this be?’ Then I recognized the Australian accent. I said, ‘Oh yes, that Rupert.’
“He said, ‘Congressman, we will be endorsing you in the mayoral race. It will be on the front page of the Post tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Rupert, you just elected me.’ And he had. The Post’s endorsement transformed my campaign. I wouldn’t have won without it.”
Almost thirty years later, Murdoch is arguably the world’s most powerful media executive. His company, News Corporation, owns the Fox Broadcasting network, the Twentieth Century Fox film studio, the book publisher HarperCollins, the Post, The Weekly Standard, MySpace, and part of DirecTV, the biggest satellite-television provider in the country. News Corp. also owns five British newspapers and more than a hundred and ten Australian newspapers, and controls satellite-television providers in Britain, Italy, and Asia.
The success of Fox News Channel, which Murdoch launched in 1996, has secured his reputation as a strident conservative, so it came as a shock to both his right-wing allies and his liberal enemies when, in July, he hosted a fund-raising breakfast for Hillary Rodham Clinton. During the Clinton Administration, both the Post and Fox News pilloried the First Couple with a relish bordering on cruelty. (Page Six, the Post’s famous gossip column, referred to the President as the “horndog-in-chief,” and Sean Delonas, its editorial cartoonist, routinely depicted him in his underpants.) Since September 11th, Murdoch’s media outlets have sometimes seemed like propaganda arms of the Bush Administration, skewering anybody who dares to question the President’s war on terror. (Last year, Bill O’Reilly, one of Fox’s most popular anchors, suggested that the American Civil Liberties Union and the “judges who side with them” are “terror allies.” When the Abu Ghraib prison story broke, the Post didn’t even put it on the front page.)
The fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton took place on July 17th, at News Corp.’s midtown tower, which houses the Post and Fox News. Among the News Corp. executives who attended were Roger Ailes, the veteran Republican operative who runs Fox News, and Col Allan, the pugnacious, Australian-born editor of the Post. Clinton spoke for about twenty minutes, and then took questions. The breakfast raised more than sixty thousand dollars for Clinton’s senatorial re-election campaign—neither Ailes nor Allan contributed any money—and it led to speculation that Murdoch was preparing to endorse Hillary in the 2008 Presidential campaign.
Appearing on “The Charlie Rose Show” on July 20th, Murdoch said that an endorsement was “unlikely,” which didn’t exactly reassure conservatives. In August, they became more agitated after Murdoch played host to Bill Clinton and Al Gore at a News Corp. retreat in California. “The nature of the event . . . confirms our suspicion that Murdoch may be moving left as the 2008 U.S. presidential election approaches, and that he may bring his ‘conservative’ news properties with him,” Cliff Kincaid, an editor at Accuracy in Media, a conservative watchdog group, commented on the organization’s Web site.
Murdoch likes to keep people guessing about his intentions. On September 14th, the Post published a front-page story encouraging New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to launch a Presidential bid. “RUN, MIKE, RUN,” the headline read. “Americans like him for prez: poll.” The poll in question happened to have been commissioned by the Post and Fox News, and at first glance its findings appeared to provide little support for Bloomberg. Asked whom they would vote for in a 2008 election featuring Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Bloomberg running as an independent, forty per cent of the respondents said McCain, thirty-five per cent said Clinton, and fifteen per cent said Bloomberg. The respondents were then read a paragraph about Bloomberg, which described him as a “successful, self-made businessman,” and were asked to vote again. This time, Bloomberg earned twenty-one per cent of the vote, indicating, to the Post, at least, that he was “perfectly positioned for a White House run.”
I had lunch with Murdoch the day after the story appeared. We met outside his office, on the eighth floor of the News Corp. building, and rode the elevator down to an executive dining room on the third floor. The elevator car didn’t have call buttons; you had to press the floor’s number on a panel in the hallway before you got in. “Somebody put these new elevators in, and nobody knows how to use them,” Murdoch complained. “The bloody landlord did it.”
At seventy-five, Murdoch looked as trim and energetic as he had the last time I had seen him, some years ago. (Between 1986 and 1995, I worked for two Murdoch newspapers, the London Sunday Times and the Post.) The lines on his face were deeper, and his gait was a bit slower, but his big black eyes were eager. After he had ordered fish and lemon-lime Gatorade from a uniformed waiter, I asked him about the Bloomberg story, which elicited a loud cackle. “That was just a bit of fun, that poll,” Murdoch said. “He”—Bloomberg—“rang me today. And he said, ‘You made my mother very happy, but I am not a candidate. I’ve got to run this city for the next eighteen months.’ He’s disowning all the speculation about the White House, saying it is just out-of-control aides talking too much. I’m told that’s B.S. He’s thinking about it all the time.”
I asked Murdoch if he thought that Bloomberg would make a good President. “In some ways, very good,” he replied. “He’d run a very efficient government. He’s not frightened to have the best people around him. He doesn’t worry about being overshadowed.” Murdoch paused. “I would distrust him on taxes,” he added. (Bloomberg has raised some city taxes.)
Murdoch loves to talk politics, and he is a news junkie. He spends a good part of each day calling his editors around the world. When I was an editor at the Post, I once took a call from Murdoch while he was on his yacht, somewhere off Italy. He had sneaked away from Anna, his wife at the time, who was trying to get him to take a real vacation. I told him about the latest developments in Washington, where the Republicans had recently taken control of Congress. He listened intently and said that he’d call back the next day, if he could.
Murdoch became an American citizen in 1985. Although his political instincts are staunchly conservative—he dislikes taxes and government programs; he’s for a strong defense policy; he’s suspicious of trade unions and regulators—he does not belong to either party. Since the early nineteen-fifties, when he kept a bust of Lenin in his study at Worcester College, Oxford, he has considered himself a maverick. “I wouldn’t join the clubs,” he said. “I don’t ever want to be in a position where people can pressure me to do something. I have fewer close friends than most people. But I think that’s the right thing. You have to keep yourself somewhat detached.”
This detachment makes him an irresistible target for ambitious politicians of all parties, but also an elusive one. Even if Bloomberg runs for President in 2008, Murdoch probably won’t end up supporting him, because he doesn’t think the Mayor has much chance of winning. As Murdoch explained, “If he made a good impression in the debates and ran a good television campaign, it’s conceivable that he could win a few states. I don’t see anything more than that, but you never know.”
It is no coincidence that Murdoch is on friendly terms with the politicians who are favored to win their parties’ nominations in 2008: McCain and Clinton. “I like McCain,” he said. “We always get on very well. I think in many ways he’s a great American. People say he has a very short temper, but I’ve not seen that.” Nevertheless, Murdoch insisted that he was not ready to make an endorsement. “It’s a long way away,” he said of 2008. “I’m not backing anybody. We have a good relationship with Hillary. She has been a good senator. She’s been tireless in working for the people of New York, as has Chuck Schumer”—the state’s senior senator—“and she was very impressive when she came in for breakfast.” Later, he added, “She was very, very gutsy originally on the war in Iraq, and she has tried to rival Al D’Amato”—the former New York senator—“in being Senator Pothole. She’s really built a base here, which people didn’t think was possible. She has amazing energy.”
I asked Murdoch whether he thought that Hillary would make a good President. “I don’t know,” he replied. “She’s very intelligent. I think she’d be decisive. She may be more decisive than Bill was. If you go on her history, I would say she would be a lot more liberal than I am, but I don’t know. If she makes it, we’ll see.”
Irwin Stelzer, an economic consultant based in Washington, is almost the same age as Murdoch, and has known him since the mid-nineteen-seventies, when they both spent summer weekends in the village of Old Chatham, in upstate New York. In Britain, where Stelzer spends a lot of time, he is sometimes described as Murdoch’s emissary, although he also runs a consulting company and writes a column for the Sunday Times. Stelzer told me, “Rupert will call me on a Sunday, and we’ll spend two and a half hours on the phone, on questions that range from why did the Fed raise interest rates—he’s usually against that—to what do you think of the latest move by the Chinese government, to is Gordon Brown”—the British Chancellor of the Exchequer and a likely candidate for Prime Minister—“really a socialist? People say, ‘Is Rupert going to the left? Is he going to the right?’ That’s the wrong way of looking at it. He’s going in a direction where the conversation is most interesting.”
Recently, Murdoch has spent a lot of time talking to Bill Clinton. In the summer of 2002, the former President was at a party in New York and ran into Gary Ginsberg, a forty-four-year-old attorney who had worked in his first Administration as a White House counsel and as a Justice Department official. Ginsberg joined News Corp. in 1999, and he holds the title of executive vice-president of corporate affairs. Clinton had been reading the Post since he moved to New York, and the paper was still making fun of him. (“I’m sick and tired of being a goddam punching bag for the New York Post,” he reportedly told an associate.) He told Ginsberg that he had been trying to arrange a meeting with Murdoch but hadn’t succeeded.
Ginsberg told Murdoch that Clinton wanted to get together. In October, 2002, he accompanied Murdoch to a meeting with Clinton at his office, on 125th Street. “They hit it off,” Ginsberg said. “It was about a three-hour lunch. The conversation spanned the world—foreign policy, domestic issues, economics, pretty much everything. Rupert was very impressed, I think.” Murdoch confirmed this when I asked him about Clinton. “Well, he’s enormously charming and winning,” he said. “Nobody can stand up to his charm. He’s very, very bright, and he’s got an encyclopedic mind. He can talk interestingly about anything. You can’t help but enjoy spending time with him.”
In early 2003, Clinton startled many Post reporters by touring the newsroom with Murdoch and Col Allan. Since then, Murdoch and Clinton have seen each other once or twice a year, and the former President has remained on good terms with the Post’s editors. “There is a better dialogue today than there has been, and that’s a good thing,” Allan said. “We are not always going to agree with him, but we respect him as a former President and as a very smart person.” Last month, when a number of Clinton’s former aides complained to ABC about his depiction in a miniseries about September 11th that the network was planning to broadcast, the Post, apparently tipped off by Clinton’s office, put their objections on its front page. “Only two papers in the country had that story,” Allan boasted. “The Washington Post and us.”
Better relations with the Murdoch media serve several of Clinton’s objectives. Through News Corp., Murdoch has donated half a million dollars to the Clinton Climate Initiative, part of the former President’s ambitious effort to address problems such as poverty, AIDS, and global warming. “It is President Clinton’s style that he doesn’t have sworn enemies,” Jay Carson, Clinton’s spokesman, told me. “On many issues, President Clinton’s politics are diametrically opposed to those of Rupert Murdoch, but you can disagree on most things and coöperate on others.”
Clinton also knows that his friendship with Murdoch has helped to improve his wife’s image in the Murdoch media. By cultivating that relationship, Clinton has potentially neutralized one element of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Hillary referred to in 1998. Two years later, when she moved to New York and ran for the Senate, she again found herself under attack by the conservative media. “To vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton is to affirm double-dealing and deception,” the Post’s editorial page warned. Michael Tomasky, a liberal journalist who covered the campaign for New York, counted seven positive editorials and columns about Clinton in the Post, seventeen neutral pieces, and two hundred and twelve negative ones.
When Allan arrived from Australia, in the spring of 2001, the relationship between the paper and Hillary Clinton was antagonistic. “I didn’t sit down and think, We have got to have a better relationship with the Clintons,” Allan said. “But I did gradually develop an appreciation of the work Hillary was doing for New York as the junior senator. I have been very impressed by her work ethic and her care for her constituents.”
Allan talks to Murdoch most days. Under his editorship, the balance of positive and negative stories about Hillary has shifted dramatically. When she introduces a new legislative initiative, or attacks the White House, the Post usually reports it straight. Sometimes, such as when, in August, she gave her clearest hint yet that she would run for the White House in 2008, she lands on the front page.
The Post’s approval of the Clintons is not unconditional. Recently, the editorial page assailed Hillary for supporting the antiwar candidate Ned Lamont, who defeated Senator Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut’s Democratic primary. And, earlier this year, after a scandal erupted over the alleged attempt by a reporter for Page Six to extort Bill Clinton’s friend Ron Burkle, a California supermarket magnate, the Post twice returned to its old characterization of him, calling him the “former horndog-in-chief.” Clinton was furious. His aides complained to Allan on the ground that the description demeaned the office of the Presidency. The references ceased.
Murdoch’s papers eventually turned on Whitlam, but in the nineteen-eighties and nineties they supported two more Labor Prime Ministers: Bob Hawke, a former trade-union leader, and Paul Keating, a forward-thinking technocrat who tried to end Australia’s ties to the British Crown. (Australia is still part of the Commonwealth and thus technically under the rule of Queen Elizabeth II.)
At the same time, Murdoch was urging his British papers to promote Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party leader, who was Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. The Sun, a jingoistic News Corp. tabloid that sells more than three million copies a day, praised Thatcher’s proposals to slash income taxes, confront the trade unions, and privatize publicly owned enterprises. “I thought that what she was trying to do was basically right,” Murdoch told me. “Some of the methods she used were wrong. But you have to give her credit for the fact that she was in a minority in the Cabinet for the whole time she was there.”
Without the support of Murdoch’s papers, which relentlessly attacked the opposition Labour Party, the Conservatives would have struggled to remain in power. On the day of the 1992 general election, when Neil Kinnock, who was then Labour’s leader, was challenging Thatcher’s successor, John Major, the Sun printed a picture of a light bulb on its front page next to a headline that read, “IF KINNOCK WINS TODAY WILL THE LAST PERSON TO LEAVE BRITAIN PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS?” (Major won the election.)
When Tony Blair took over as the head of the Labour Party, in 1994, he was understandably eager to court Murdoch’s favor. According to Andrew Neil, who was then the editor of the Sunday Times, Murdoch and Blair first met in September, 1994, at Mosimann’s, an expensive club in Belgravia. “The dinner went very well,” Neil wrote in his 1996 memoir, “Full Disclosure.” “Blair discovered Rupert was not the ogre his party had painted, and Rupert found what Blair had to say a refreshing change from the usual Labour nostrums. Blair indicated that media ownership rules would not be onerous under Labour, Rupert that his newspapers were not wedded to the Tories.” After Blair left, Murdoch remained at the club chatting with colleagues, including Neil. “Well, he certainly says all the right things,” Murdoch remarked. “But we’re not letting our pants down just yet.”
In 1995, Blair travelled nine thousand miles to Hayman Island, on the Great Barrier Reef, to deliver a keynote address at a News Corp. retreat. In the speech, he described himself as a radical modernizer, and as the natural heir to Margaret Thatcher. This time, Murdoch, who was tiring of Major and his scandal-plagued government, was receptive. “By the end of 1995,” Neil wrote, “Rupert’s editors were in little doubt that Blair was his man.”
During the 1997 general election campaign, the Sun and the News of the World, Murdoch’s Sunday scandal sheet, backed Blair. (The Times and the Sunday Times, which have greater editorial independence, stuck with the Tories.) After Blair’s victory, which ended eighteen years of Conservative rule, Murdoch became a frequent visitor to Downing Street, although neither side publicized the meetings. In 2001 and 2005, most of the Murdoch papers supported Blair for reëlection, helping to make him the most successful leader of the Labour Party since its inception, in 1900.
Murdoch and Blair remain on friendly terms, even though Blair’s support for the war in Iraq and for President George Bush have gravely undermined his popularity. (Last month, he announced that he would leave office within a year.) On July 28th, Blair flew to San Francisco on a trip that was described as an effort to promote British technology companies. Many of the British reporters who accompanied him knew better. “The real reason he is here now is because Rupert Murdoch invited him here to meet with all of his executives,” Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, told KCBS, a Bay Area radio station, referring to the News Corp. retreat that Murdoch was hosting in Pebble Beach that week.
News Corp. has been holding corporate retreats sporadically since the nineteen-eighties, but there hadn’t been one since 1998. This year’s conference lasted five days, and it was the grandest yet. Dozens of security men with walkie-talkies and guns had secured the Pebble Beach resort against potential terrorists (and reporters from rival media organizations). Two hundred and sixty-five executives and their spouses flew in from around the world. Among them were News Corp. veterans such as Jane Friedman, the head of HarperCollins, Roger Ailes, and Col Allan, along with Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, the founders of MySpace, the social-networking Web site, which News Corp. bought last year.
Gary Ginsberg, the principal organizer of the conference, had put together a list of speakers that included McCain, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, Shimon Peres, Lawrence Summers, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Blair delivered the opening-night speech. “Rupert, it’s great to be back at the News Corp. Conference after all these years,” he began. “When I first met you, I wasn’t sure I liked you, but I feared you. Now that my days of fighting elections are over, I don’t actually fear you, but I do like you.”
On August 2nd, the second-to-last day of the conference, Bill Clinton arrived. That afternoon, he played a round of golf with Ginsberg and Col Allan. With the help of several mulligans, he shot in the eighties. Then he attended a dinner for the conference participants, where he sat between Murdoch and his wife, Wendi, a thirty-seven-year-old former executive at Star TV, whom Murdoch married in 1999. The Murdochs’ table was cordoned off in a V.I.P. area, but Clinton mingled with the rest of the guests after he had eaten. When Murdoch and his wife retired for the evening, shortly before midnight, the former President, surrounded by people, was listening to a performance by the Australian singer Keith Urban and his band.
The next morning, Clinton began his speech, about the political implications of globalization, by thanking Murdoch and the band. “I thought they were fabulous last night, and I had a great time,” he said. “I don’t get to have that much fun anymore. When I was in politics, we always tried to invoke Clinton’s First Law, which is: ‘Whenever you are having a good time, you probably should be somewhere else.’ ”
Conspicuously absent from Pebble Beach were any senior members of the Bush Administration. Despite the close ties between Fox News and the White House—Tony Snow, one of the channel’s former commentators, is now the White House press secretary—Murdoch is not one of the President’s intimates. “People think I must be close to George Bush,” he said to me. “I tell you, I’ve been to one state dinner, as a result of being put on the list by the Australian Prime Minister. I stood in the reception line and shook the President’s hand. And that was my total lifetime experience with George Bush.”
In the eighties, Murdoch’s newspapers enthusiastically supported Ronald Reagan, but Murdoch regarded his successor, George H. W. Bush, as a taxraising member of the East Coast establishment. In the early nineties, Murdoch’s main contacts in Washington were with outspoken Republicans on Capitol Hill, such as Al D’Amato and Newt Gingrich. In 1995, he put up the money to launch The Weekly Standard, the neoconservative magazine founded by Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes, and John Podhoretz. “Rupert calls once every few weeks, and we chat about politics,” Kristol told me. “I would say he’s a pragmatic conservative. He’s pro-markets, and pro-defense, but he’s not a movement conservative. He respects people like my father”—Irving Kristol—“Bill Buckley, and Norman Podhoretz, but he moves in different circles.”
Murdoch’s closest confidant is his wife, Wendi, with whom he has two young daughters. (He has four adult children from his two previous marriages.) After he met Wendi, people who worked for him noticed that he was dressing in black polo shirts and casual jackets instead of Savile Row suits. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that Wendi, who is Chinese, had hired experts to decorate the California headquarters of DirecTV according to the precepts of feng-shui.
Wendi’s influence on Murdoch’s views is a matter of speculation within News Corp. In the past few years, he has become more amenable to progressive arguments about gun control and global warming. “I’m always interested in new ideas,” Murdoch said. “It’s what keeps me young.” He recently announced his intention to make the entire company “carbon neutral,” and he has agreed, along with Barbra Streisand and Anson Beard, a retired Wall Street investment banker, to help fund the Clinton Foundation’s Climate Initiative, which has enlisted major cities around the world in an effort to reduce emissions. Murdoch told me that his youngest son, James, who is thirty-three, persuaded him to take global warming seriously. “I’m still a bit more skeptical than most people,” he said. “But if there is even a thirty-per-cent chance that the experts are right, we should do everything we can to insure against a bad outcome.”
It would be a mistake to exaggerate Murdoch’s liberal tendencies, however. “I’m a radical in the sense of supporting change,” he said. “I also believe in free markets and in family values—in a low-key way. I’m not one to preach about it, having been married three times. But I really believe that the family is the basis of society.” Murdoch backs Bush’s tax cuts, and favors further cuts in welfare spending. All of his major newspapers endorsed the invasion of Iraq—a decision he stands by. “Well, like everybody else, I think there have been some terrible mistakes in execution,” he said. “Repeated mistakes. But I really believe that we were right to go in and cannot pull out. We have to win this thing, and settle it in some way.”
The rise of militant Islam both fascinates and terrifies Murdoch. He told me that he had been reading “Future Jihad,” a book by Walid Phares, an American political scientist of Lebanese descent, who warns that foreign jihadis and their American sympathizers are almost certainly mobilizing inside the United States. “These people intend to change civilization, and they are prepared to take a hundred years to do it,” Murdoch said. “We keep having to speak politically correctly about it, saying Muslims are wonderful, it’s just a tiny minority. They are not all terrorists, of course, but the frightening thing is that it is the children of those good original immigrants who are being brainwashed in big numbers.”
Murdoch takes a hard line on Iran, too: he supports the idea of threatening military strikes to prevent the Ahmadinejad regime from acquiring enriched nuclear material. “There are no easy solutions,” he said. “We can’t invade the place, so it’s a matter of bombing and probably killing an awful lot of people. If you could really end the nuclear program for good, you might be forced to do that. It would be a lesson to other countries.”
Hillary Clinton, who has been attacked by the left for her support of the Iraq war, has been reluctant to talk about her relationship with Murdoch, but her spokesman, Philippe Reines, said, “Senator Clinton respects him and thinks he’s smart and effective.” Like her husband, Hillary has been courting Murdoch’s media outlets. In April, she attended a party celebrating the tenth anniversary of “Fox News Sunday” and chatted with Bill O’Reilly and Tony Snow. However, many people around the Clintons still regard Murdoch with suspicion. “Rupert, I think, is interested in power and money, and not much else,” a former White House aide who worked with Hillary when she was First Lady said to me. “I think the ideology business is all a gloss. My vulgar Marxist view is that he is trying to defend his economic interest. The Democrats are about to sweep New York, and Hillary might be President in 2008.”
Certainly, Lord Palmerston’s description of nineteenth-century England applies to Murdoch’s empire: it has no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, only permanent interests. In 1996, when News Corp. was seeking to do business in China, Murdoch cancelled the pub-lication by HarperCollins of a book by Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, criticizing the Beijing regime.
“He’s savvier, and he has far better understanding of how to influence government, than anybody else I’ve ever met in the media,” Reed Hundt, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the body that regulates the broadcasting industry, told me. “He’s just smarter about that than everybody else.”
Hundt was the chairman of the F.C.C. from 1993 to 1997. Shortly after the Senate confirmed him, Murdoch invited Hundt to his Bel Air estate, which was once owned by Jules Stein, the founder of M.C.A. At the time, Fox wanted to purchase more television stations, but it was running up against F.C.C. ownership rules. When Hundt arrived for dinner, Murdoch escorted him outside. “We were overlooking Los Angeles, the stars were out, and I was thinking, This is a scene from ‘Faust.’ I was thinking about Mephistopheles,” Hundt recalled. “But he didn’t say anything like ‘This is what I want.’ He just said, ‘This is what we are doing, this is what we are about.’ He was just completely and utterly gracious.”
Some time later, Murdoch flew to Washington to see one of Hundt’s juniors, an official who headed the F.C.C.’s bureau that regulates commercial satellites. News Corp. was thinking about buying a satellite-television company. (It eventually bought a controlling stake in DirecTV, but not until 2003.) “Rupert himself came and sat down with that person,” Hundt said. “Rupert wanted to make sure that he understood on a personal level the direction of policy, but what he was also saying—and he never actually said this, because he didn’t need to say it—was that he was open to this guy. That kind of thing has a huge impact on a government official at any level.”
In 1994, in response to complaints from NBC and the N.A.A.C.P., Hundt launched an investigation of Fox, which ultimately determined that the company had violated laws governing foreign ownership of networks. (Fox announced plans to restructure, though News Corp. remained based in Australia until 2004.) Murdoch was furious about the investigation. In statements that he released to the press, he accused Hundt of “using clearly prejudicial procedures,” and of trying to “hurt us.” Hundt found himself being attacked by Republicans in Congress and, later, by Murdoch’s media outlets. “When you talk to most media owners, they say, ‘You can talk to me, but I don’t have any influence on the editorial side.’ With Rupert, you don’t have that pretense,” Hundt said. “You know, and he knows, that, if he likes you, you are going to get both news and editorial coverage that is different than if he doesn’t like you. For that reason, he creates more power for himself than his peers. You know that there are favors that can be granted and punishments that can be handed out.”
I asked Hundt if he was surprised that Murdoch was on such friendly terms with the Clintons. “I think it is completely consistent with his previous behavior,” he replied. “Rupert has amply demonstrated that he’s quite willing and able to work with any political party or politician that he thinks is going to be influencing policy. If he can be cozy with Tony Blair and the Chinese Communist Party, the Clintons aren’t even a stretch.”
Murdoch’s political maneuverings are closely monitored inside News Corp. Like an eighteenth-century French monarch, he is surrounded by courtiers, with numerous factions, both conservative and progressive, vying for his favor. The News Corp. conservatives include many senior figures at Fox News, the Post, and Murdoch’s British newspapers. They tend to downplay the significance of their boss’s flirtation with the Clintons, describing the Post’s sympathetic attitude to local Democrats, such as Hillary, as an inevitable reaction to the comatose state of the New York Republican Party under Governor George Pataki. In the recent Democratic primaries, the paper endorsed Eliot Spitzer for governor and Andrew Cuomo for state attorney general. Col Allan said, “Our coverage of the G.O.P. in New York shouldn’t be misunderstood as the paper twisting left in any way. We have been criticizing the New York G.O.P., and it is difficult to do that without criticizing the Governor. We’ve said he went to sleep at the wheel.”
Murdoch is scathing about Pataki. “I don’t know about George,” he said to me. “He was just lazy to start with. And then he started thinking about how to get reëlected. He was prepared to do a deal with his natural enemies, particularly the big state unions who overstaff many state functions.”
Still, some conservative News Corp. journalists think that Murdoch has gone mushy. “I don’t think Rupert is turning into a liberal—I just think he is becoming more of an establishmentarian as he gets older,” one News Corp. editor said to me. “He’s not the great rebel that he was in the eighties and nineties.”
The News Corp. progressives—they don’t like to be called liberals—are less visible in public, but they have greater access to Murdoch on a daily basis. They include his deputy Peter Chernin; the two co-chairs of Fox’s film division, Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos; and Gary Ginsberg, whom Murdoch refers to as his “ambassador to the Clinton Administration.” (Murdoch has told associates that it was Ginsberg who persuaded him to hold the fund-raiser for Hillary.)
If Murdoch did decide to support Hillary, he would meet resistance from his editors, starting with Col Allan. Although the editor of the Post has kind words for her over-all performance as senator, he is unhappy about some of her actions, such as her endorsement of Ned Lamont. Allan said to me, “We look forward to hearing her explain, perhaps in a Presidential campaign, exactly what her position on the war is. She has stated that she supports our troops in Iraq. Unless I’m mistaken, she voted to give the President authority to use military action in Iraq.”
Bill Kristol has a written guarantee of editorial independence, and he is unlikely to go easy on Hillary. If Murdoch no longer wanted to be associated with the contents of The Weekly Standard, which loses more than a million dollars a year, his only options would be to sell it or close it down. Recently, there has been gossip in Washington that Murdoch was considering selling the magazine, but he dismissed the idea. “I’ve just read half of this week’s issue,” he said. “It’s always interesting.”
The most intriguing case is Fox News, which owes a good deal of its success to its saturation coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It is virtually inconceivable that Murdoch would risk alienating the conservative viewers who enable the channel to make an annual profit of hundreds of millions of dollars, but there are steps he could take, short of ordering Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity to be nice to Hillary. In 2004, Fox did terrible damage to John Kerry’s campaign by devoting airtime to the Swift Boat controversy for weeks on end. If Hillary emerges as the Democratic candidate in 2008, there will doubtless be similar attempts by right-wing groups to attack her credibility. Should Fox prove less receptive to these efforts, the campaign could unfold very differently.
Koch told me that Murdoch did once ask for something: during a newspaper strike in 1978, he requested, through an intermediary, that the Post’s delivery trucks be allowed to use the city’s parkways. Koch said yes. (He offered the city’s other newspapers similar access.) The Thatcher government provided Murdoch with crucial police support when he fired hundreds of print-union workers, in 1986, and Blair relaxed the Labour Party’s policy on media ownership. But it would be inaccurate to portray Murdoch’s relationships with political leaders as purely business arrangements. “They say Rupert talks to Tony Blair to protect his company,” Irwin Stelzer said. “Maybe there’s a small element of that, but that’s not what drives him. It’s about affecting events.”
For the past decade and a half, Murdoch has been trying to fend off what he sees as the encroachment of a European superstate. One of the reasons he turned against John Major was that Major wanted Britain to establish closer ties with the European Community. “I thought that was abdicating responsibility to unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels,” Murdoch told me. “And I still think that. There are good things about Europe, such as a unified market, but that’s a different matter. To give social policy, legal policy, human rights, and so on over to some anonymous body is crazy.”
Tony Blair was pro-Europe, too, when he came to office, but many British commentators, including some of his own former aides, believe that he modified his policies to satisfy Murdoch. “Blair was very keen to join the European monetary system,” Lance Price, a former media adviser at 10 Downing Street, said to me. “But at every stage of the way he stepped back. And one of the main reasons he pulled back was that Rupert Murdoch was vehemently opposed to closer links with Europe.” Price recently published a book, “The Spin Doctor’s Diary,” in which he writes about Murdoch’s influence on the Blair government. “It was never discussed in black-and-white terms,” Price told me. “Nobody ever said, ‘We have to do this because Murdoch supports it.’ But his views were always heard. And they were heard ahead of many Cabinet ministers’.”
Downing Street won’t say how many meetings Blair has had with Murdoch, but Murdoch has spent more time with him and Gordon Brown than he did with Margaret Thatcher. “She didn’t go out of her way to develop a personal relationship with me,” Murdoch said. “But Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, whenever I’m in town they say, ‘Can’t you come over for a cup of tea?’ When you’re invited by the Prime Minister to have a cup of tea, you have a cup of tea. It’s sometimes very inconvenient—if you’re only there two days and you have a month’s work to do.” Murdoch went on, “And you have to be careful to have a cup of tea with them both, or they are very suspicious that you are lining up with the other one.”
Blair’s announcement that he will leave office within a year has generated much speculation about when he will go. Irwin Stelzer told me that Murdoch was eager for Blair to leave, despite their personal friendship, so that the question of his succession could be resolved. “You know Rupert,” Stelzer said. “He’s a ‘get on with it’ person. He doesn’t like hanging around.” Murdoch told me that Blair made a “terrible mistake” when, during last year’s election campaign, he promised that he wouldn’t serve a full term of office. “To say ‘I am going to go in four or five years,’ you’re a lame duck from that day on. You’ve seen his authority ebb away, a little bit at a time. The sooner we can see a face-off between Gordon and Cameron, the sooner we can see the future.”
Cameron is David Cameron, the youthful leader of the Conservative Party, who is doing well in opinion polls but has yet to impress Murdoch. “Look, he’s charming, he’s very bright, and he behaves as if he doesn’t believe in anything other than trying to construct what he believes will be the right public image,” Murdoch said. “He’s a P.R. guy. He came out of public relations. He was a lobbyist and P.R. man for Carlton Television”—a British television company—“for seven years, and then went into Parliament five years ago, and that’s the only experience of life he’s had.”
Brown has been Blair’s right-hand man for twelve years. Unlike Blair, he is dour, but he shares something important with Murdoch. His father was a minister in the austere Scottish Presbyterian faith, as was Murdoch’s paternal grandfather. When Murdoch visits Britain these days, he is shocked by what he sees. “It has become totally hedonistic,” he said. “The churches were never much, but what was there has collapsed. You go anywhere in England, when it’s not raining, and there’s a cluster of people outside every pub, until ten or eleven at night, boozing. The increase in alcohol consumption is pretty alarming.”
Murdoch didn’t mention the fact that many British people go to pubs to watch soccer matches on Sky, his satellite-television provider. “Gordon has a Calvinistic approach to life, and there is a lot to be said for it,” he said. “The question is, is he such a micromanager that he’d want to interfere with everything in the country? And does he still believe that the state can run everything better than private enterprise? He’s not an old-style Labour socialist, but how much would he let the private sector get involved in health care and education—that will be the test.” Murdoch added that he was “optimistic” about Brown, but, typically, he hedged his bets about which candidate he will support at the next general election, which isn’t likely to be held until 2009 or 2010. “It will depend entirely on Gordon’s performance—and on the state of Britain,” he said.
As for Blair, the Independent recently speculated that he would join News Corp.’s board of directors after he leaves Downing Street. Earlier this year, José María Aznar, the former Prime Minister of Spain, who supported the Iraq war, became a non-executive director of News Corp., a post that pays him an annual stipend of a hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars for attending a few board meetings. Blair will need some similarly lucrative work when he leaves office. (Two years ago, he and his wife bought a town house in Connaught Square, close to Marble Arch, for nearly seven million dollars.) However, Stelzer thinks that Murdoch is unlikely to invite Blair to join his board. “I don’t think Rupert has much regard for his business acumen,” Stelzer said. “And he doesn’t need political contacts in Britain. Aznar provides information on a whole part of Europe that News Corp. doesn’t cover.”
In late September, Bill Clinton was back on the front page of the Post, following a confrontation with Chris Wallace, the host of “Fox News Sunday.” Clinton, asked why he hadn’t done more as President to defeat Al Qaeda, turned red, jabbed a finger at Wallace, and accused the Bush Administration of not even trying to pursue Osama bin Laden before September 11th. “I suspect that Bill rehearsed that blowup three times before he did it,” Murdoch told me a couple of weeks ago. “I think it helps Hillary with the left, and it bullies others into not asking the same question.” If the 2008 election were held today, I asked Murdoch, and the candidates were Hillary Clinton and John McCain, whom would he back? “I’d have to watch it closely,” he replied. “McCain—personally, I like him, but we’ll just have to see.”
On September 22nd, Murdoch appeared on a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative conference, which was held the same week as the United Nations General Assembly. “Gary”—Ginsberg—“roped me into it,” Murdoch said before the session, which took place over breakfast in a ballroom at the Sheraton New York, in midtown. It was the sort of do-gooders’ event that Murdoch used to avoid. For years, he made few donations to charity, arguing that such money was often wasted.
Clinton began by presiding over a ceremony in which executives from big companies joined him onstage to pledge money to worthy causes and receive applause from the large crowd. The drug company Merck agreed to finance the vaccination of thousands of children in Nicaragua. The insurance giant A.I.G. agreed to finance a scheme to provide loans for poor people in a number of countries. One of the businessmen who walked up to the dais was Ron Burkle, the supermarket magnate who had accused a Page Six reporter of trying to extort him. Murdoch, who was sitting a few feet away, looked down and examined his hands. Clinton then introduced the panel, whose members, in addition to Murdoch, included Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State, and H. Lee Scott, Jr., the chief executive of Wal-Mart. Turning to Murdoch, Clinton said, “It would be remiss of me if I didn’t thank Rupert Murdoch and his unusual partner, Barbra Streisand, for funding our effort to control greenhouse gases.” Murdoch smiled wanly.
When the session began, Murdoch talked about News Corp.’s efforts to promote social responsibility, such as encouraging its British journalists to teach English to Bangladeshi immigrants, and giving two-thousand-dollar subsidies to employees who buy hybrids. (In fact, the subsidies have been offered only to employees of Sky.) “People want to feel proud of who they are working for,” Murdoch said. “They want to feel like good citizens.” He couldn’t resist poking fun at the self-congratulatory aura of the event, though. Noting that most corporate donations were tax deductible, he said, “We hear a lot about these great gifts, but in most cases the government pays for half of it.”
Toward the end of the session, the moderator, Tom Brokaw, asked the panelists if they would encourage their employees to go into public service. Murdoch said that he would, and Brokaw quipped, “I think there are people in this room who would say there are people who work for you who are already working for the Administration.” Amid the laughter, Murdoch didn’t get a chance to answer. As the crowd filed out, he cornered Brokaw and complained about being denied a riposte. Then he walked behind the stage and slipped out a back way, avoiding a gaggle of journalists.