Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment, Rodney Tiffen.

NewSouth Books, 2014

If nasty words could inflict wounds, then Rupert Murdoch would have died a grisly death long ago. But he continues to power onwards and upwards, some skin and blood lost in the past few years, but nothing fatal.

So much has been written about Murdoch that it is hard to believe there is anything new to report. Rodney Tiffen, emeritus professor at the University of Sydney, says that there is about a dozen books on him but a quick check suggests the number is closer to thirty, with Paul Barry’s Breaking News and David Folkenflik’s Murdoch’s World among the most recent. Many of the examples of Rupertology are not much more than join-the-dots conspiracy theories dressed up as research projects. In fact, for would-be left-wing intellectuals writing a book, or at least a long article, attacking Murdoch appears to be de rigueur.

Tiffen avoids the temptation to run about collecting anecdotes from the many people who have come off second-best in a dust-up with Rupert. He acknowledges that he uses only material that is already on the public record. This is, of course, a huge amount, but one cannot help but wonder what the point actually is. Just what is Tiffen supposed to be reassessing?

Certainly, it is refreshing to have someone work through the background data before making a conclusion, and he reminds us of a number of striking points. For example, Murdoch was only 22 when he inherited his father’s business. By the age of 24, he had already shown a striking talent for business manoeuvres, as well as a capacity for assessing and taking risks. In hindsight, the signature move of his early career, the establishment of the Australian newspaper, appears to be an idea whose time had come. In 1964 the picture was not so clear. It is also easy to forget the impact that the newspaper had on the overall quality of journalism in Australia. Tiffen points out that this was important enough to Murdoch for him to support the publication for a very long time.

It was partly through the Australian that Murdoch earned his first generation of enemies. After supporting Whitlam as an agent of change in 1972, Murdoch turned against him in 1975, and many on the left saw it as a terrible abuse of editorial power. Tiffen is not so sure, pointing out that the electoral data doesn’t match. The massive swing against the Whitlam-led Australian Labor Party occurred even in places, and amongst groups, where Murdoch did not have much of a media presence. Nevertheless, a myth was born, and Murdoch either believed it himself or saw no reason to dispel it.

Following Murdoch’s inevitable expansion overseas, the myth continued to evolve, especially as Murdoch endorsed Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Yes, says Tiffen, both of those leaders benefited from his editorial support, but there is plenty of evidence that Murdoch simply followed the side that was likely to win rather than caused their victories. And he has supported leaders and causes lost, as well. Perhaps not too much should be made of discussions, meetings, and lunches; that is what politicians and business leaders do with much of their time, after all.

Nevertheless, his political connections were important when he began to move into the entertainment area. Tiffen suggests that Murdoch might have discovered the potential of the field through his partial financing of the movie Gallipoli, which provided returns far above what his newspapers offered at the time. One way or another, it pointed to a non-news direction for Murdoch, although in several countries he needed some political allies to smooth the regulatory path.

For a while, it looked like China offered huge possibilities, but Murdoch has never really had the hang of favour-for-favour networking. He loves the art of the deal, but that is not the same thing.

Tiffen believes that Murdoch sees himself essentially as an anti-Establishment insurgent. Over time, his definition of “establishment” has become ever wider, and it now seems to be a convenient catch-all. In particular, he saw that much of the traditional media in the US was over-liberal, elitist, and entrenched; likewise, a large segment of society did not identify with that view of the world. So Fox News was born, emphasising opinion over news, entertainment over analysis. It was wildly successful.

Perhaps this is what so many of his critics dislike about Murdoch: his success in proving, via ratings and subscriptions, that the elite view is not shared, and is indeed a minority position. This is not to endorse the astonishing ideological excesses of Fox News, but it is to say that there would have been no gap for Murdoch and Fox to fill if the traditional media had been more willing to examine their own preconceptions.

Tiffen touches on this but does not go into it, and the final chapters of the book deal with the phone-hacking scandal, which Tiffen sees as the result of Murdoch’s mercantile ideology and autocratic control. This is probably true but has been said before — numerous times, in fact.

It also seems to conclude as a strangely flat portrait of Murdoch. Painting him as a money-grubbing conservative does not explain why he has been willing to take risks with new technology and new production concepts. It does not explain his determined support for “quality” publications despite their lack of profitability. It does not explain, well, a great many things.

Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment is not a bad book, and is certainly preferable to most books about Murdoch. But a clearer sense of purpose, and perhaps a concluding chapter to reconcile the competing elements of Murdoch’s personality, would have made it a much better one.