My Years With Rupert Murdoch

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After just about 30 years working on and off for News Corp. (NAS: NWSA) Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, although he would certainly never have noticed me, I've been intrigued by recent predictions of the great media man's imminent demise because of the phone-hacking scandal. 

Just about everybody's had a crack at the Dirty Digger, including Conrad Black of the Daily Telegraph and U.S. penitentiary fame who described him as a "great bad man" in the Financial Times. However, not even the critics deny that Murdoch has built an astonishing empire in the past half-century. 

Starting with an unimpressive newspaper in Adelaide, Australia, he now sits on top of a global business made up of satellite television, movies, news networks, popular and quality newspapers, and magazines. Even Black had to admit that "Rupert Murdoch is the most successful media proprietor and operator in history."

And this, in my years of observing the man in action, is why.

Obstacles are made to be overcome
I remember when he first came to the U.K. in 1969 and bought a dying broadsheet Sun. It looked like a hopeless task, and most people said Murdoch should have stayed in Australia. However, Canadian Lord Thomson, the other media interloper at the time, was more perceptive. "He could be some new kind of fella," Thomson said. 

And he was. Within a year or so, the circulation of The Sun had rocketed to more than 4 million, and the paper had become a serious rival for the Mirror.

Does it his way
Basically a common man and a natural outsider, Murdoch relies on gut instinct and confidence. Instead of using marketing surveys before buying The Sun, he talked to a wide variety of people including unions. 

"He's a great chatter-upper," said his then-wife, Anna. And very unusually, a remarkable number of his top people are street-smart ex-journalists rather than university-educated MBAs.

Persistence
Some of Murdoch's victories took decades, like the long struggle to establish The Australian as the country's first truly national (and profitable) newspaper, the winning of government approval to buy The Times, and the patient investment in BSkyB, not to mention the establishment of the Fox News network. 

During strikes by Australia's militant printers, Murdoch used to fly in and help executives lay out the pages in lead. In all that time, he paid top rates for journalism.

Nerves of steel
A fearless borrower, Murdoch got into deep trouble in the '90s but survived with his empire still growing.

Does what it takes
Murdoch became a U.S. citizen to expand his empire into America, and he broke the back of the unions when he shifted the printing presses to the London district of Wapping.

A patient lobbyist
Despite telling the parliamentary inquiry into phone-hacking that he wished prime ministers "would leave him alone," he's spent his entire life sweet-talking politicians in an age when governments kept a tight grip on media ownership. 

As Conrad Black wrote, he's been "assiduously kissing the undercarriage of the rulers of Beijing for years."

An intellectual who pretends he isn't
For all his plain-spoken conversation, Murdoch's occasional public lectures are rigorously argued insights into the future of the media.

A pragmatic visionary
You can't build an empire like that without taking the long view. 

Looking back, you have to ask why Murdoch didn't end up like the Fairfax family, which owned the giant Sydney Morning Herald group in the '70s. I worked for them, too, and I saw one bad decision after another. The Fairfaxes were elitist, quixotic, and, ultimately, insular. They lacked the vigor and daring of the upstart Murdoch, whose empire grew around the world while the Fairfaxes struggled to get beyond New South Wales.

My view is that Rupert Murdoch is irreplaceable. There'll never be another one like him. But he's got a few years left in him yet.

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