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Murdoch: "A monopoly is a terrible thing - until you get one"

09 Mar 2011  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Raymond Snoddy

As Rupert Murdoch approaches his 80th birthday, Raymond Snoddy remembers many a meeting with the quiet, shy and unassuming great media tycoon - "The horns are difficult to see but there is no doubt he is relentless - sometimes ruthless - in pursuit of the one thing he is really interested in, the greater glory of News Corp"...

There are some moments in a career you never forget, however long ago - and Rupert Murdoch figures in many of them.

Who could forget arriving at Los Angeles airport on the Murdoch private jet from New York, with more exclusives for the Financial Times than you could shake a stick at, and hopping down the steps to the waiting white Mercedes. Into the back only to find that there is no chauffeur and Murdoch is in fact the driver.

Rarely has a hack moved so fast to get out of the back and into the front alongside the great media tycoon.

Another time when close to the end of an interview - naturally - you put to the chairman of The News Corporation the fact that Robert Maxwell had said that he, Murdoch, had done more than any other human being to undermine journalistic standards in the UK.

The silence is unnaturally long as Murdoch rocks back on his chair as if the question has not been heard and then there is an explosion of laughter and a single word is uttered - "Scumbag".

But why do you think you are so hated in the UK? "The occasional excesses of The Sun and Wapping," replied Murdoch instantly.

Then there is the famous Murdoch dictum which proves, that in a quiet way, the Australian-American has a sense of humour: "A monopoly is a terrible thing - until you get one".

But what, people often ask, is Keith Rupert Murdoch, born March 11th 1931, actually like to meet?

Quiet, shy, unassuming. You could even say charming, particularly if he wants something, if he was just a little more loquacious. But the silences, certainly with journalists, last a bit too long and there is a grave danger of being spooked into asking another question and then finding yourself talking over the answer to the first.

Statements are nearly always followed by a lopsided smile - virtually punctuation just to mark the end of the sentence.

But he is a media monster isn't he?

The horns are difficult to see but there is no doubt he is relentless - sometimes ruthless - in pursuit of the one thing he is really interested in, the greater glory of News Corp. And there is a long history of breached undertakings when prized takeover targets finally succumb.

As the former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil memorably said - Murdoch prefers the Italian style of negotiation, the serious negotiations only get under way after the deal has been agreed.

Yet he has also invested heavily in a great many companies and created, or ultimately protected, many thousands of jobs.

But as he approaches his 80th birthday, why on earth does the multi-billionaire still do it at the same pace, or even faster than before?

Impossible to say for sure but cod psychology has it that Murdoch got into the habit of proving himself worthy of his father - the distinguished Australian journalist Sir Keith Murdoch, who died suddenly when Rupert was at Oxford - and has never stopped.

Murdoch himself says he is just a "fidget" - the Scots-Irish word that denotes a child who is unnaturally restless, who simply cannot sit still.

Perhaps Murdoch is simply addicted to action, to the next thing, which is why he likes news so much and the very latest gossip.

Certainly journalists or other media people about to find themselves in his company should not come away empty handed: a juicy piece of gossip, or at the very least an opinion on how Cameron is doing is absolutely essential.

Weaknesses? A congenital propensity to overpay - certainly in the short term - for a media asset he wants, whether it's TV Guide or the Wall Street Journal.

Murdoch will almost certainly be prepared to overpay one more time, whatever he says, to get his hands on BSkyB - "his" company.

Despite the grand speeches, Murdoch has never got his mind around the business of the internet. He was offered 7% of Amazon for peanuts in the early days but turned it down because he couldn't see how it could ever make money.

Despite its global reach News Corp is also really only an Anglo-Saxon empire. Murdoch has never done terribly well in countries where English is not spoken well at least by the business elite.

He is also capable of spectacular errors of judgment - like telling the world, correctly, that satellite technology would bring the walls of totalitarianism crashing down at a time when he was trying to talk his way into the Chinese market.

Strengths? Single minded focus and the ability to take instant decisions for the long-term, the mark of a family owned company that just happens to be publicly quoted. But Murdoch has never let that unfortunate detail get in the way of his ambitions.

But he will retire won't he? Not knowingly. As long as he has his health and his faculties Murdoch will soldier on. And if he steps down from the chairmanship of News Corp to become non-executive chairman don't believe it. Murdoch will still be on the phone, wherever he is or whatever his title.

After all his mother Dame Elisabeth Murdoch recently celebrated her 102nd birthday and she is still as sharp as a tack.

But even Murdoch... there must be a succession plan mustn't there?

There probably is but it has remained fluid. There have been a series of informal viceroys over the years until the children from the second marriage - Elisabeth, Lachlan and James grew up - from Andrew Knight, former editor of the Economist, to Peter Chernin.

Commentators have played the 'spot the heir' game for many years and presently see James Murdoch as the man.

That may change now that Elisabeth has been enticed back into the New Corp fold with the purchase of Shine, her independent television production company. Lachlan, however, shows no sign of returning from Australia.

The reality is that all three siblings get on well together and it is not in their interests to scratch each other's eyes out to get the top slot.

They will also be united in keeping Murdoch's third wife Wendi Deng at bay, a lady who can be expected to fight ferociously for the interests of her young children.

But relax everybody. Keith Rupert Murdoch isn't going anywhere soon. And even if you don't fancy singing Happy Birthday in honour of his 80th, however grudgingly, you have to admit his business achievements have been truly remarkable.

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