AFTER swearing on the Bible to begin a two-day interrogation in Court 73 of London’s Royal Courts of Justice last Wednesday, an octogenarian once feared as the world’s most powerful media mogul began taking questions, the first few being perhaps the only ones he answered with clear and indisputable truth.
“Your full name, please?” Robert Jay, the QC assisting Britain’s Leveson media inquiry, asked.
“Keith Rupert Murdoch,” came the reply.
“You are the chairman and chief executive officer of News Corporation, a company incorporated in the United States?”
As for much of the rest of his seven-hour testimony – gripping for media junkies; like watching paint dry for the most that aren’t – Murdoch’s former editor at London’s The Sunday Times, Sir Harold Evans, saw Murdoch’s performance more akin to the fanciful plots scriptwriters at News Corp’s Fox Studios might concoct.
“Everything he says should be taken as the diametric opposite,” Sir Harold told an interviewer on his wife Tina Brown’s Daily Beast website afterwards. Murdoch’s testimony showed, he said, that the mogul had “discovered a huge imagination. Frankly it’s pathetic. I haven’t stopped laughing all morning.” Perhaps Evans, sacked by Murdoch, was miffed that Rupert said he hadn’t read his famous account of their brief liaison, Good Times, Bad Times.
Others, including Murdoch’s raucous cheerleader in Australia, Andrew Bolt, thought it “a brilliant rebuttal of the sniggering reports of his intellectual decline.” Writing on the website of the Murdoch-owned Melbourne Herald-Sun, Bolt wrote: “Murdoch at 81 showed his memory of events of decades ago was as sharp as a razor, and his wit was just as keen. No stumbles, no doddering, no embarrassment, no lack of command.”
At this point, it’s useful to remember why Murdoch was there in the first place and why the world was treated to a rare, public and proper grilling by a skilled and well-researched interrogator of The Man Who Owns the News, the title of a celebrated Murdoch biography by the New York journalist Michael Wolff.
Murdoch was there ostensibly to explain how things were allowed to fester inside News Corporation’s British division, News International — the now notorious phone-hacking scandal and its derivatives, which have seen more than 40 of his former staff arrested, some jailed.
His company has been scorned as a “shadow state” for its cosy links to — and support, manipulation and even intimidation of — politicians and public figures around the world over decades, in the cause of advancing News Corp.
Murdoch wasn’t appearing before Leveson to explain how he and News Corp think and function; he was there primarily to defend and rebut, as continuing scandals threaten to consume and even vanquish his legacy and life’s work.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that swathes of his testimony were incorrect.
Take Murdoch’s recollection of many of the key events surrounding his controversial 1981 acquisition of Times Newspapers, notably The Times of London and The Sunday Times, the deal that provided him real political clout in Britain.
As Robert Jay walked him through the transaction, Murdoch drove a proverbial coach and horses right back at him, at one point seemingly re-writing the ideological legacy of one of his political heroes and allies, Margaret Thatcher.
Murdoch was asked by Jay about a meeting he’d requested with then British PM Thatcher on January 5, 1981.
This was a meeting over lunch at Downing St’s Buckinghamshire retreat, Chequers, that happened as Thatcher’s government was under pressure, including from MPs within her own Conservative Party, to refer Murdoch’s bid for Times Newspapers to Britain’s quasi-independent Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
Until March this year, when Thatcher’s private diaries revealed it, this was a meeting that officially never happened.
Jay quoted evidence of the meeting, a note from Thatcher’s then press secretary Bernard Ingham, from those diaries: “In line with your wishes, the attached has not gone outside Number 10 and is, of course, to be treated commercial in confidence.” In The Times‘s official history, published in 2005 by the Murdoch-owned Harper Collins, Murdoch reportedly suggests he had never met with Thatcher ahead of her cabinet approving the Times purchase.
But meet her he did, and the timing of their Chequers lunch seems telling, as Jay attempted to explore with Murdoch this week.
Murdoch again claimed to Jay that he had no recollection of the meeting and, when prompted by Jay, sought to portray it as a public service, a businessman advising his Prime Minister that militant unions were rampant at the papers:
“I don’t think she did know that there would be great problems with the unions or there could be – the sort of extent of the costs and the risks. I’m not sure she was interested.”
Not interested in the costs and risks to Murdoch? Or not interested in breaking the unions?
Mrs Thatcher was most certainly interested and informed about the extent of union power in Britain at the time. In October 1979, at the first Conservative Party annual conference since she’d come to power in May that year, she made a landmark speech that many Tories hailed as her setting down a marker for her rule — that the militant British unions’ grip over the country must be broken.
“What madness it is that winter after winter we have got set-piece battles in which powerful unions inflict appalling damage on the industries on which their membership’s welfare depends,” she railed.
“Millions of British workers go in fear of union power, and the demand for this Government to make changes is coming from the very people who experience this fear. It is coming from the trade unionists themselves. They want to escape the rule of the militants.”
On January 27, 1981, just three weeks after Murdoch’s secret meeting with Thatcher — a meeting Murdoch has repeatedly said he couldn’t remember — her Trade Secretary John Biffen said the Murdoch bid would not be referred to Britain’s anti-monopoly regulator. Murdoch now had control over four of London’s highest circulating newspapers, and an ally in Downing Street.
Jay asked if Murdoch worried the Times bid would be referred to the anti-monopolies regulator. Murdoch replied that “didn’t worry me in the least”.
According to a search on the Murdoch-owned Factiva archive data base, on January 28, 1981 Murdoch is reported to have “threatened that if his bid was referred to the monopolies commission ‘all bets would be off’”.
Murdoch described to the inquiry an “embittered” Times newsroom in turmoil at the time, claiming that its journalists had been on strike for “three months” in the lead-up to his bid.
Times journalists began a strike on August 22, 1980. They returned to work on August 30, after accepting a 27 per cent pay increase.
An American since the mid-80s, Murdoch’s accent is now decidedly mid-Atlantic; the Australia where he learned how to dominate the media and schmooze politicians must be a long way away for him now.
How else to explain his insistence to Leveson that “I would say that my, all my interests, whether intuitive or otherwise, have been confined to the media, not just any business”?
Murdoch hasn’t just been a media mogul. He was an aviation mogul too, for almost 21 years. That’s how long News Corporation held a half-stake in the now defunct Ansett Airlines, in joint venture with his old friend, the late Sir Peter Abeles. Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, it was one of Murdoch’s biggest assets in Australia. In 1986, News and Abeles’ TNT Corporation also acquired a half-stake in the Hong Kong-based Regent Hotels International. More recently, Murdoch has and had owned a series of sports franchises and stadiums and half of Australia’s National Rugby League, though these could reasonably be seen as connected to his broadcasting interests.
Jay also asked if the Australian Press Council had ever upheld a complaint of bias against one of his papers. Murdoch emphatically replied, “Certainly not”.
Perhaps the years have dimmed his recollection of what happened in 1979 at the paper which launched him, the Adelaide’s The News, passed to him by his late father, Keith, at his death.
In December that year, the Australian Press Council ruled that “readers of the (Adelaide) News could have been left in no doubt that the newspaper strongly desired the return of the Liberal Party and the defeat of the Labor government”. It upheld the complaint, ruling that the News was “biased, one-sided and deliberately so.”
There are other serious inconsistencies in his testimony. The Guardian newspaper, which has doggedly pursued the News phone-hacking scandal and its impact on British democracy, describes some of them here and here.
The Guardian also commissioned the storied Scottish journalist and writer Magnus Linklater to recall his version of The Sunday Times‘s Hitler Diaries scandal of 1983, a rather different one to the Murdoch testimony. And Harold Evans too, rebutting Murdoch’s testimony about their stormy — or was it? – relationship.
But Murdoch’s fudging isn’t just about his pursuit of Western influence.
Jay asked him about the circumstances in February 1998 that led to a biography commissioned by Harpers Collins of Hong Kong’s last imperial governor, Chris Patten being withdrawn. Murdoch admitted he’d pulled it, describing it as “one more mistake of mine.”
Jay asked him if he was “hoping to acquire commercial interest in China at that point”. An emphatic Murdoch replied “no”.
This is also untrue.
Leaving aside the fact that from July 1, 1997, the Murdoch-owned regional satellite TV broadcaster Star TV was — and remains — based in the now Beijing-controlled Hong Kong, Murdoch was determinedly pursuing business interests in China throughout the 1990s. It was also where he romanced his current and third wife, Wendi Deng, in Shanghai and Beijing in October 1997 as the then 28-year-old mainlander interpreted for him.
In his 2008 kiss-and-tell book, Rupert Murdoch’s Adventures in China, Murdoch’s former CEO in Beijing from 1992-98, Bruce Dover, writes “breaching the Great Wall of China would become a very personal obsession” for Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch’s first visit to China was in the mid-80s, where he met the then Chinese Vice-Premier Yao Yilin. And the reason why we know that is because it was noted, almost People’s Daily style, in a 38-word item in Murdoch’s The Times on March 20, 1985. The paper reported that Murdoch told Yao “he will try his best to make co-operation between Chinese and Australian television ‘fruitful’.”
In May that year, Murdoch agreed with Chinese authorities that he would develop “an international hotel and news media centre” in Beijing in a joint venture with the Chinese government, a commitment that does not appear to have been fulfilled. The deal was reportedly discussed with Hu Yaobang, the then General Secretary of China’s Communist Party.
In 1986, two years after the Sino-British Joint Declaration that sealed Hong Kong’s post-1997 sovereignty, Murdoch bought control of its main English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, an asset he held until 1993. Murdoch even briefly moved there in 1993, renting a house on The Peak.
In 1992, Murdoch made a speech in London that infuriated Beijing, positing that the spread of satellite TV could bring down “totalitarian regimes”. A few months later, he would buy control of Hong Kong’s Star TV, which had a footprint extending across China. Star carried the BBC World Service TV, and Dover writes in his book that Murdoch had heard the Beijing hierarchy were anti-BBC, offended by a documentary that described Mao Zedong’s sex life. Dover writes: “Murdoch would later tell his biographer, William Shawcross, that the Chinese leaders hated the BBC.
“He (Murdoch) said, “They say it’s a cowardly way, but we said in order to get in there and get accepted, we’ll cut the BBC out.” Star TV, which had teams of executives devoted to extending the franchise across China, dropped the BBC in July 1994.
In 1995, Harper Collins published the English translation of a hagiography of China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, written by his daughter, Deng Rong. Star also aired a Chinese official documentary series about Deng Xiaoping.
In November 1996, The Times hosted the head of People’s Daily, Shao Huaze, then also a senior figure in the Chinese Communist Party, on a visit to Britain. Shao’s delegation was billeted at London’s Ritz Hotel, where the then British Prime Minister, John Major, visited them.
Murdoch would go on to build a broadcasting studio in Tianjin, and an estimated audience of between 20 and 25 million viewers across China. There were technology joint ventures with the Communist Party’s propaganda mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, and a joint venture TV channel with an influential ex-People’s Liberation Army officer.
But it didn’t end there.
Murdoch was an official guest at the June 30/July 1 ceremony handing Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in 1997. Murdoch’s TV joint venture broadcast 60 hours of the ceremony in a joint venture with China’s state broadcaster, CCTV.
Murdoch also joined a high-powered “Council of International Advisors” to Beijing’s main political representative in Hong Kong. In February 1998, about when Murdoch decided to kill the Patten book, Bruce Dover hosted a private viewing in Beijing of the Fox blockbuster Titanic for senior ministers and cadres of the Chinese government.
In his testimony this week, Murdoch repeatedly insisted, “I’ve never asked a Prime Minister for anything” and variations of that theme.
One presumes he meant British ones.