Rupert Murdoch peered at me from across his desk, his face a mask of frustration. “People don’t trust me,” he blurted. “What’s worse, even the damn bankers don’t seem to trust me.”
The year was 1989 and Murdoch was, as usual, in the midst of a flurry of deals in the U.S. and abroad, but had run into push-back. Having just become editor-in- chief of Variety, I decided to do a piece analyzing Murdoch’s problems, and phoned him directly at his New York office.
He promptly picked up. If I would come to his office, he said, he’d fill me in on the deals and even show me the numbers. I accepted his offer and found him both candid and cordial.
Cut to the present. Murdoch yet again has a maze of deals on the table and sees once more that the Murdoch brand is not working for him. At age 86, however, surrounded by echelons of advisers, not to mention pressure from his sons, he has even more at stake. His sons, like his stockholders, can clearly discern this reality: The moral and ethical vacuum that defines Rupert’s leadership carries a high financial toll.
Fox News, a major profit center, is in growing turmoil, its issues weirdly reminiscent of the London hacking scandal involving Murdoch newspapers of only four years ago. As British regulators skeptically study Murdoch’s bid for a major prize — outright ownership of the Sky satellite and cable network — Rupert’s transgressions weigh heavily. So does Murdoch’s fervent support of Donald Trump, which increasingly sets him at odds with the creative community and potentially with his two sons.
If storm clouds have gathered over his empire, it again seems as though he has invited them. Throughout his career, periods of apparent stability have been interrupted by over-reach and ideological friction.
Rupert looked the other way while fostering a sexist locker room culture at Fox News. And he was equally oblivious to the phone-hacking scandal that overtook his British newspapers, forcing closure of the News Of The World, once a profit center. The British regulators won’t consent to Murdoch’s Sky acquisition if the conduct of his businesses fails to meet the “fit and proper” criteria they have mandated. Those terms seem foreign to the Murdoch way of doing business.
At Fox News, the most explosive trouble spot, insiders suggest that the departure of Bill Shine, the co-president and chief programmer, will trigger further departures of “name” talent – perhaps even Sean Hannity, though that seems dubious. The network already is scrambling urgently to fill program spots – Tucker Carlson at 8 (the old Bill O’Reilly spot), a new panel show at 5, Martha MacCallum at 7.
Though ratings are holding at the moment, advertisers, having already pulled support for O’Reilly, are watching anxiously. Sexual harassment and racial prejudice are issues that panic advertisers, especially national brands that already are struggling in the marketplace.
The big guessing game is this: Will Lachlan and James Murdoch intrude their views more forcefully on the conduct of Murdoch business? I have talked to several important players in the Fox empire and find them universally wary about predicting an answer. James and Lachlan are uniquely cautious about expressing their personal views, either publicly or even in company meetings. “It’s all about business with Rupert, and that’s true of his sons, as well,” observes one important long-term Fox executive.
On the political front, Rupert has been stalwart as a Trump supporter, the President’s excesses, and his sons have not declared a contrary view. Editorially, the Wall Street Journal has edged even further to the right on issues like climate change. The newspaper did little to retain its relatively moderate op-ed columnist, Bret Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize winner who defected last week to the New York Times.
The pro-Trump stamp remains firm at Fox News despite the termination of O’Reilly.
Meanwhile, Murdoch forges ahead with its Sky bid and his effort to acquire the Tribune TV stations. As in this past, when problems loom Rupert summons even greater vigor — even though, as in 1989, he knows that “people don’t trust me.”