Opinion

Chris Wallace
Murdoch and Trump, sons of oligarchy

Fans of Rupert Murdoch will be relieved to know he and wife Jerry Hall enjoyed a date night at Scott’s in London’s Mayfair this week. Looking like Stanley Tucci’s benign granddad in a bright blue suit and trainers, friends were relieved to see the News Corp mogul up and about after a back injury five months earlier. The injury was suffered on the yacht of his eldest son, Lachlan.

Others, heartened by what turned out to be profoundly false rumours that the temporarily bed-bound Rupert was losing his edge and therefore likely his grip on News Corp, were less cheerful. To round off their misery, let it be noted that if Murdoch lives as long as his mother, Elisabeth, did – and physically, if not in other respects, he is like a bit of her chipped off and grown in a Petri dish – Rupert will be around and mentally competent until 2034.

What happened to Rupert Murdoch? Seventy years ago the American way of life was being debated at his high school alma mater, Geelong Grammar. Student debater Rupert “accused Americans of racial intolerance, deplored their political system and found that the country had fallen into the hands of the capitalists”. Now he owns and profits from an American media empire that mainstreams racism and fans right-wing extremism.

Two years earlier Rupert had played the rainbow goddess Iris in the Geelong Grammar production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a teenage boy in a gown. These days he is in the business of having gender fluidity – in the military, and elsewhere – stigmatised on his Fox News Channel, a pottage of virulent antisocial views making America hate again.

Read now, in the knowledge of News Corp’s malign nodes and the Trump presidency, these schoolboy snippets from early Murdoch biographer George Munster’s 1985 book A Paper Prince spark despair over Murdoch’s character arc over those seven decades. They also underline the value of biography when trying to understand contemporary history.

Consider this compelling passage from Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. “People are against him. They are against him because … well, he is who he is and they are who they are. He stands here; they stand there. His world is his world – it is not necessarily a part of other worlds. He exists in opposition. You are with him, you are against him, or you are irrelevant to him. Arguably, he has overcome most obstacles by that simple analysis. If you are against him, then you are his enemy and he fights you – it becomes binary. Sometimes it seems that he creates enemies just because it simplifies his world.”

A great evocation of Trump by Wolff, yes? Actually, no. It is the opening of “The Outsider” chapter in Wolff’s 2008 book The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch. The passage could easily be copied and pasted from Wolff’s biography of Murdoch into his book on Trump a decade later, the personae are that similar.

Survey the score or more biographies of Murdoch and something becomes perceptible in his core that makes him at some elemental level weirdly like Trump’s psychological twin.

This creeping realisation transforms one’s understanding of Murdoch’s Fox News as something more than just the media claque for the lying, cheating United States president that it seems to be. Trump looks more and more like an acute, current flaring of a chronic underlying Murdochism, which began in Australia in the 1950s, spread to Britain in the late 1960s, and continued on to the US in the 1970s, as News Corp bought more and more of the world’s media.

In biography, the juvenile and young adult years can be especially illuminating. Yet the more international Murdoch’s footprint has become, the less space in those biographies is devoted to those critical early years.

William Shawcross’s 1992 book Rupert Murdoch: Ringmaster of the Information Circus, for example, has 29 longish paragraphs on his years as a Geelong Grammar boarder from the age of 10. This was cut to just four brief paragraphs in the biography’s next iteration, Murdoch: The Making of a Media Empire, published five years later, as News Corp’s American operations gathered pace and his Australian roots seemed less relevant.

One of the critical cuts between editions is Shawcross quoting Geelong Grammar’s headmaster during Murdoch’s boarding years, Sir James Darling, commenting in 1991, in his 90s, on Murdoch’s newspaper career. Darling cited this from Martin Boyd’s novel Lucinda Brayford: “ ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘your newspapers for two decades have engaged in the degradation of the proper feelings of our people. What is vile they offer to gloating eyes, what is vindictive they applaud. You have done more harm to this country than any of its external enemies … I beg you will leave before my butler throws you down the steps.’ ”

To contemporary eyes and ears, this registers immediately as Darling describing Murdoch as having a sensibility that was pure Trump long before Trump.

Trump’s wind-bagging, lie-studded braggadocio is the keynote of his presidency: the “best president ever” with the “biggest inaugural crowd ever”, and on and on and on. The presidential gambit and uber-bragging is seen by many as Trump both overcompensating for his inability to gain acceptance by America’s East Coast elite and taking his revenge on them.

Read enough accounts of Murdoch’s early life and you find repeated suggestions that the media baron’s trickiness and extreme zeal for disruptive power may have its origins in a similar need to impress – in Murdoch’s case, his parents – and comparable desire for revenge on the burghers of Melbourne, Australia’s version of America’s East Coast elite, whose sons bullied him at school.

Citizen Murdoch (1986) by Thomas Kiernan – rated by later Murdoch chroniclers such as Neil Chenoweth as the biographer “closest to the family” – portrays Rupert as “an unhappy, timid boy who verged on academic failure throughout his school career and turned to various forms of social rebellion and reckless attention-getting to make his mark”.

Kiernan quotes a contemporary of young Rupert saying the scion “began to make things up about himself to make himself look better in Sir Keith’s eyes”. He did this in ways he was unlikely to be caught out over: “Little lies, innocuous lies, all for the purpose of getting Sir Keith to give him a pat on the back.” Again, so Trumpesque.

In Rupert Murdoch: Ringmaster of the Information Circus, Shawcross cites Rupert, Rupert’s older sister Helen and Rupert’s mother, Elisabeth, disputing claims that his father Keith was anything but loving and indulgent. Shawcross quotes family friend Nan Rivett’s view, though, that “Rupert was always trying to convince his mother that he was as good as his father, something Lady Murdoch clearly doubted”.

Michael Wolff allows for parental hardness and love to have coexisted in Rupert’s childhood. “It’s about not being overindulged in the midst of substantial wealth – in fact, being treated with calculated cruelty to build character,” Wolff writes of Murdoch’s upbringing. “Still, the mythology holds that while there is great harshness, there is great love and affection too.”

Wolff’s “calculated cruelty” line rings true. Experience, and perpetuation, of it may be the key psychological strut uniting Murdoch and Trump. It perceptibly deepens the provenance of the Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel’s sponsorship of the Trump presidency.

Fox News has been the placenta enabling Trump to plant himself, grow and, make no mistake, in key respects, thrive as president. His support among Republican voters is high. His net approval rating in the Real Clear Politics RCP poll average is minus 10.2 per cent. To put that in perspective, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s net approval rating in the latest Newspoll is minus 10 per cent, effectively the same as Trump’s.

Fox News’s enabling of Trump could not have happened without Rupert Murdoch’s support. It can only continue with Rupert Murdoch’s support.

If you want to get Trump, you have to take out Fox News. The best way to take out Fox News would be to end the Murdoch family’s gerrymander on voting rights in 21st Century Fox – the film and television arm of the original News Corp.

The most recent annual general meeting of 21st Century Fox took 26 minutes. Despite owning just 17 per cent of its shares, the Murdoch family controls 40 per cent of the voting rights. That’s democracy Murdoch-style. Little wonder Rupert is untroubled by the anti-democratic politics of Trump.

Activist investors such as the Nathan Cummings Foundation have pressed hard in recent years to end the Murdoch gerrymander and have come close but not succeeded.

Persisting and succeeding at the next AGM, later this year, could be a turning point in the Trump presidency. Sane corporate oversight could well see Fox News revert to something more like the long-run norm in conservative broadcasting media – right wing but not, as in Fox News at its worst, fringe fascist.

That could only be a good thing for the US, and the rest of us. One vote, one value, is a very sound proposition – one that Rupert, as a teenage debater at Geelong Grammar, would have endorsed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2018 as "Murdoch and Trump, sons of oligarchy ". Subscribe here.

Chris Wallace
is a political historian at the Australian National University, Canberra.