[ilds] rupert murdoch, durrellian character

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Thu Dec 18 05:35:56 PST 2008

I spotted this piece in The Telegraph.  Mr. Shakespeare opens with a 
most curious comparison, and then he even helps us to recover 
biographical detail from those gray and "lost" years in Yugoslavia.



> *The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch 
> by Michael Wolff - review
> Rupert Murdoch is an enigmatic man, but his motivation is really 
> rather simple, argues Nicholas Shakespeare
> By Nicholas Shakespeare (www.telegraph.co.uk)
> Last Updated: 11:45AM GMT 18 Dec 2008*
> An Australian friend (not interviewed for this book) rowed in the same 
> Oxford college eight as Rupert Murdoch. He recalls his expensive room, 
> the provocative bust of Lenin ("He once took me to a meeting of the 
> Communist Club of Oxford to hear the Russian ambassador"), and a drive 
> through Yugoslavia with Murdoch and his father Sir Keith, culminating 
> in a lunch with Lawrence Durrell.
> It's a shame that the founder/chairman of News Corps is apparently 
> "almost not interested at all" in reading books, because the figure 
> who glides in and out of view in his latest biography is very 
> Durrellian: a thrice-married Walter Matthau lookalike in a signature 
> singlet, with a Chinese wife 38 years his junior and grey hair that he 
> has taken to dyeing orange. In the words of his oldest daughter, Prue: 
> "He insists on doing it over the sink because he doesn't want anybody 
> to know. Well, hello!"
> Astonishingly, among the few people not to have heard of Keith Rupert 
> Murdoch (b 1931) were the parents of Wendi Deng: she alerted them to 
> the identity of her husband only after their wedding ceremony. "They 
> don't know who he was. I showed them a newspaper."
> There is no better way to explain his essence, since, as Michael Wolff 
> sees it, Murdoch uses his newspapers to express himself; in fact, he 
> cannot "see a paper as separate from himself".
> Deng, an ambitious woman who "eschews self-editing", puts his 
> motivating urge in these terms: "He want to know everything. He asks 
> so many things like, 'Why you no read newspapers?'" It is around 
> Murdoch's dramatic purchase, in 2007, of the Wall Street Journal -- 
> which belonged to a long-established family, the Bancrofts, to whom 
> Murdoch is "the master of evil incarnate" -- that Wolff hangs his 
> supple, gripping narrative.
> Murdoch was the only uncorrupt media baron of the three to employ this 
> reviewer -- the others were Conrad Black and Robert Maxwell -- but the 
> most all-pervasive, if only by dint of his uncommon power and 
> influence. In a priceless scene, he is sailing with two of his 
> executives when he takes a sensitive call and cups the phone: "Would 
> you mind?" -- whereupon both men jump into the water and swim around 
> until the conversation is over.
> In person, he has the unobtrusiveness of the best photographers. Wolff 
> paints him as courteous, puckish, shrewd; a lover of gossip and a good 
> listener, if a mumbling conversationalist. He is not pretentious or 
> grandiose (you can't see him dressing up as Cardinal Richelieu, as 
> Conrad Black did). Nor is he prone to introspection: "It's painful for 
> him to speak personally."
> Rather as he is never fully absent from his newspaper offices, or the 
> supplicant minds of those who work for him, so is he never fully 
> present when he's there. According to his editors: "Can anyone, in the 
> end, be sure what Murdoch actually believes in?" To his daughter 
> Elisabeth: "He's impossible to figure." Even to his astute biographer, 
> a columnist for Vanity Fair and no patsy, he remains, one feels, a riddle.
> Wolff has spent only a year on this book and the haste sometimes shows 
> -- words are missing, sentences repeated, important witnesses 
> overlooked. One person he didn't interview is Dot Wyndoe, Murdoch's 
> secretary for 46 years. I can't see why not. Murdoch, after all, 
> allowed Wolff access to his six children, each of whom confesses the 
> same puzzlement: "Why is he doing this?" No one has an answer. Maybe 
> at this late stage, having never been interested before, "Old Grumpy" 
> is looking for Wolff to tell him who he is.
> The Man Who Owns the News presents someone with the reflexes of a Port 
> Jackson shark, who does not fear or worry about what people think of 
> him, but keeps an opportunistic eye on their weaknesses. "It's a 
> minute by minute mind. Animalistic. Eat what you kill." A newspaper 
> for sale is blood in the water, especially in the case of the Journal. 
> Murdoch was the last person the Bancrofts considered selling to. "He 
> wants it because they don't want him -- it's fairly primitive."
> Wolff is happier to lose himself in the Bancroft family tree than in 
> Murdoch's childhood -- he swirls from birth to Oxford in less than two 
> pages. There are no Rosebud moments of revelation, merely the 
> recognition of a particular pathology. Murdoch might choose to act the 
> prowling, circling outsider, but it's not how he grew up. Aged 19, 
> also with his father, he visited President Truman and the Sulzbergers. 
> "He began as an insider; became an outsider because people didn't 
> understand he was an insider; became such a successful outsider that 
> he became once again, necessarily, an insider."
> To Wolff, his baffling subject suffers from a retarded historical 
> mechanism. "He instantly loses interest in the past." But Wolff, who 
> understands so much, doesn't see how his Australian past is actually 
> the unmysterious key to Murdoch.
> He's like one of the founding sires of Sydney: a larrikin republican 
> who hates authority and loves power, to which he feels entitled and 
> enjoys with picaresque abandon.

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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