Is Rupert Murdoch the Antichrist? The dust jacket of William Shawcross’ biography Murdoch sports a dictator-style photograph of the Australian-American media baron, and superimposed on it are 26 ominous words: ”One man has built an information empire that stretches around the earth — from Adelaide to Hollywood. Now he stands at the threshold of unprecedented global power.”
Well, not to give the plot away, but no, he isn’t the Antichrist. He isn’t even Big Brother, or Darth Vader, or Attila the Hun, or the Whore of Babylon, though the Bore of Babylon may come close. He is, in Shawcross’ slightly dazed account, a shrewd, impetuous, overreaching, but essentially conventional, businessman who as a tabloid newspaper publisher picked up and ran with a formula for success — crude, alarmist, lapel-grabbing sensationalism (”Killer Bees Move North”; ”Headless Body in Topless Bar”). The formula has been widely adopted, even among book publishers.
Shawcross, who made a good, hissable villain out of Henry Kissinger in his book Sideshow, doesn’t make much of anything out of Murdoch. He toys with depicting him as a throwback, quoting a writer who called him that in 1977, when he arrived in New York to take over the New York Post: a ”Hearstian figure who has seemingly materialized through some curious time warp.” But he’s much less flamboyant and bumptious than Hearst, Colonel McCormick, and similar American press tycoons. He isn’t quite Citizen Kane, or Lord Copper, the invincibly ignorant proprietor of The Beast in Evelyn Waugh’s satirical Scoop. He seems driven by nothing more demonic than a gambling streak and a sober work ethic. The most shocking revelation here is that the apostle of free markets had a youthful socialist spell and kept a bust of Lenin on his mantel at Oxford.
Shawcross’ book has already ruffled feathers in Britain, where it appeared last year. He notes that one reviewer complained that he had failed to describe Murdoch as a ”pornographer” who sold ”excrement.” While the author finds such comments ”grotesque,” feelings run high about Murdoch among Shawcross’ fellow Brits. He made his prodigal Sun into the shrillest newspaper in the kingdom, notorious for its Thatcherite slant, privacy-shredding gossip, and bare-breasted Page Three Girls. He adulterated the venerable Times, attacked the venerable BBC, and foiled some venerable labor unions. His grudge against the liberal-intellectual establishment was returned with interest. Similar sentiments have been heard among journalists in the U.S., where Mike Royko declared that no self-respecting dead fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch paper and the Columbia Journalism Review pronounced the Post ”a force for evil.”
A force for tawdriness, some of it scabrously amusing, is more like it — whether you are talking about the Post, Sun, or the Fox television network, the prize that forced him to give up many of his American newspapers. Shawcross has cogent things to say about the ambiguous triumph of global information, bringing down totalitarian walls but also depositing a uniform and suffocating layer of American diversion on every country on earth. But there’s no climax here, no high drama, because inside the labyrinth of acquisitions, intrigues, stock options, buyouts, and restructured debts there’s no Minotaur, no Maxwell, just an earnest go-getter. B