An attempted pie-in-the-face assault on Rupert Murdoch in London, during a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday (July 19), might have stopped for the time being a plunge in News Corp.'s stock price and bought that news baron time to save his vast international media empire. It certainly will not be long until a rival tabloid speculates that the pie-thrower was, in fact, hired by Murdoch to gain sympathy for him during investigations of phone-hacking and bribery by his highest-circulation but now defunct British newspaper, the News of the World.
I did feel sympathy for Murdoch, I must admit, as I watched the aging lion fight for his own and his empire's standing and reputation. More on that a bit later in this piece.
The pie-throwing episode itself was tailor-made for the kind of coverage for which Murdoch's tabloids are famous. The 80-year-old was nearing a closing statement when a spectator rushed at him and threw a pie which missed his face but hit his jacket. Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng, who had been sitting behind him, leapt to hit the pie-thrower in the head. Murdoch's son James, sitting next to him at the table, expressed facial shock and also rushed to his dad's defense. After a brief recess, Rupert Murdoch returned to the table, sans jacket, delivered an impassioned statement, and refused a suggestion that he resign.
No, I don't think the Murdochs hired the pie thrower. But I continue to watch the parliamentary and other investigations because they are both fascinating and part of a continuing saga in which family-owned media empires fall as first- and second-generation leaders give way to younger family successors. That trend has accelerated as the old model of an eight-column daily newspaper, dominating its market, has given way to new media of all forms and persuasions.
There are several aspects of this story to consider.
Rupert Murdoch the person: As chance would have it, I got to know Murdoch during the period 1998-2000 when I was running an economic-policy institute for financier Mike Milken in Santa Monica. Milken had refused to settle a federal securities-law case against him, had gone to trial, and subsequently had to pay a $1 billion fine and go to federal prison. On release, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Milken decided to devote himself thereafter to cancer research and to philanthropy, which included the think tank. He was accepted and welcomed back in the Los Angeles community. But many old friends deserted him. Murdoch was not among them.
Over the course of two years I met and talked with Murdoch on a number of occasions. I met one of his sons (not James) and his then-fiancee, Wendi Deng. I had no business or financial dealings with him. But, on a personal level, I found him to be candid, without pretense, and likeable. He maintained his Aussie accent and often as not wore rumpled suits and non-matching ties. If he liked a dessert after dinner, he would have a second helping. I found his views on major issues to be sometimes unformed but generally populist. (In his testimony Tuesday morning, he mentioned his pride that his journalist father had made his mark by exposing the scandal of Gallipoli, in which Down Under troops were sacrificed in great number during a Winston Churchill-sponsored World War I British expedition in Turkey). He never pretended to know what he did not know.
Murdoch one evening attended an economic-policy seminar at the Milken Institute, accompanied by his fiancee. During the cocktail hour, he mentioned that it was his birthday. Attending a think-tank seminar to celebrate his birthday? He could think of no better way to use the time, he said, and he was embarrassed by celebratory occasions.
Then there are the violations to look at: Both before and during James Murdoch's stewardship of British and European Murdoch properties, things clearly were out of hand. There was phone hacking, bribery of police to gain information, and an unhealthy relationship between the Murdoch empire and many leading British political and police figures. Murdoch-media alumni were generously scattered among political and police ranks. Common practice among British tabloids? Perhaps so, perhaps not. But, in any instance, there were inexcusable and in some cases flagrant violations of law. Senior and mid-level executives have walked the plank. No matter how they might distance themselves from the practices, both James Murdoch and his father must bear responsibility for them.
Will all of this be fatal to the Murdoch constellation, including The Wall Street Journal and Fox News in the United States? That seems unlikely — unless new and damaging disclosures are made beyond those involving News of the World.
The Bancroft family, longtime owners of the Journal, had run it into the ground financially. Murdoch's purchase of the property was viewed suspiciously by many media folk, who feared Murdoch would meddle with editorial policy at the paper. But there is little evidence that he has done so. The editorial-page editor, Paul Gigot, is a person I have known for many years for his integrity.
Occasionally you can spot an op-ed on the page by a Murdoch executive but it always is clearly labeled as such. Overall, Murdoch has strengthened the Journal, widened its coverage, and quite possibly saved it. During the period of Murdoch ownership, the Journal and rival New York Times have traded some unseemly editorial shots but nothing sufficient to terminally tarnish either paper's credibility.
Finally, there is the family business: Newspapers in the United States have traditionally been family businesses. The Sulzbergers, Grahams, Pulitzers, Chandlers, Hearsts, Binghams, McCormicks, et. al. have been well known as publishing czars. But other newspapers, such as The Seattle Times, owned by the Blethens, have begun and stayed family-owned and managed.
How is it going for these families? Recently, not well. Not only have daily newspapers had tough going in recent years, given rapid changes in the media landscape, but new-generation managers have not always had the successes of their family elders. This is a familiar syndrome in many industries, not just newspapering. The New York Times, for instance, has made some disastrous publishing and non-publishing investments in recent years and its present leader, "Pinch" Sulzberger, is frequently compared unfavorably with his father "Punch."
Even if the Murdochs weather the present storm, and maintain control of the Journal, will they be up to its successful management once Rupert passes from active leadership? Given his octogenarian status, that time will come soon.
Political, financial, publishing, show-business, high-tech, and other dynasties are, after all, populated by people who are not greatly different otherwise from people in ordinary families. There are the same sibling rivalries, marital tensions, soap-opera episodes, triumphs and embarrassments, and other human stories that in varying degree fill the lives of the rest of the us.
I think of Rupert Murdoch, for instance, forced at this stage of career to defend in crisis both himself and his son, and his wife leaping to bash physically an intruder threatening her husband. Human beings — granted, powerful and wealthy human beings — nonetheless reacted in a quite human way to their situation. This is a good tabloid story meriting continued attention.