The Fourth Estate has been on life support for some time, its system barely nourished, any evidence of ongoing life a whimper in desperate search of vim and bang. A good deal of it has been killed by the poisoned darts, missives and stabbings of Australia’s greatest media export. Rupert Murdoch now claims to be stepping aside for one of his heel-nipping progeny. But does it really make any difference to the Murdoch Imperium?
On September 21, a press release announced that News Corp’s tarnished godhead was ‘stepping down as chairman of each board effective as of the upcoming Annual General Meeting of Shareholders of each company [Fox Corporation and News Corporation] in mid-November’. Hardly any reason to get excited, though; Murdoch was merely moving into the position of ‘Chairman Emeritus of each company’.
This announcement must have been viewed with some scepticism. The most savage and imperialist press mogul of them all had always insisted that he would not release the reins of power, stating in 1998, at the age of sixty-seven, that he was ‘enjoying’ being in charge, though admitting it was ‘a selfish choice. To walk away and retire, it’s a pretty dismal prospect—I don’t want to do that’. Were he to do so, he thought, he would ‘die pretty quickly’. One of his sons, Lachlan, seemingly the perennial successor-in-waiting, had to concede in 2015 that his father was ‘ never retiring’.
Grotesque parents have a habit of producing insufferable children. Their embryonic visions of future hopes are realised as mirrored nightmares. It therefore comes as no surprise that Murdoch always found it hard to imagine that his impedimenta might eventually rule. ‘I don’t think my children are ready yet’, he grumbled in his 1998 interview. ‘They may not agree with that, but I’m certainly planning [to] wait several more years’.
In 2023, now in his ninth decade, he has given Lachlan the reins of Fox Corp and News Corp. But he has done so as a gold-crowned crab, with enormous reluctance, moving suspiciously to the side rather than going backwards. Some glory has been relinquished, but only for show. The claws remain, ready to be directed.
Murdoch’s open letter to employees is a fabulous reminder that totalitarian empires are not merely to be found in the public sphere. In it, nauseatingly bolshie and childishly petulant, the ghost promises all too eagerly to remain as a permanent overlord. ‘Our companies are in robust health, as am I’, he promised. ‘Our opportunities far exceed our commercial challenges. We have every reason to be optimistic about the coming years—I certainly am, and plan to be here to participate in them’.
The letter does not deviate from the formula Murdoch embraced from the moment he became a newspaper proprietor in 1952. This did not involve news as accurate reporting so much as news for purpose, armed for battle and honed for the kill. It was also news as a mirror of his audience. ‘His tabloids’, James Poniewozik identifies with fair accuracy, ‘ran on the idea of publishing for readers as they were, not according to some platonic ideal of how one wished them to be’.
Ruthlessly, the idea of freedom came to be associated with license, notably of a bums-on-seats variety that did not shy away from appreciating those bums. Receipts for paper purchases were as important as encouraging the invasion of Iraq or a battle with Argentina over distant islands most Britons could barely identify. ‘My father firmly believed in freedom, and Lachlan is absolutely committed to the cause’, Murdoch wrote in his open letter. Freedom, as one of history’s most mutilated terms, remains the soiled fantasy of the wealthy, permanently abused for gain.
As he so often has, Murdoch aped the populist promoter, attacking the grey suits as ‘[s]elf-serving bureaucracies’ that seek ‘to silence those who would question their provenance and purpose’, as if he cared. He persists in having a fanciful notion of elites who show ‘open contempt for those who are not members of their rarefied class’, which he followed up in his letter with the predictable observation that ‘Most of the media is in cahoots with those elites, peddling political narratives rather than pursuing the truth’.
The establishment and the media have, at points, colluded, often disgracefully. Truth and accuracy, in such cases, are manageable, tradeable commodities, preferably kept between the stakeholders, shareholders and the blatantly shoddy. But Murdoch is a poacher turned gamekeeper, having acquired The Times of London and The Wall Street Journal. The ‘elite’ was a cartoon straw man, easily brought out and just as easily retired. One just never knew when Murdoch might bring the figure back.
The triumph of Donald Trump in 2016 was very much a Murdoch victory, even if the newspaper proprietor never truly understood the tycoon of reality television. The establishment had been rattled, but in its place raged an anti-establishment monster with his own establishment credentials. Trump, after all, knew every kink, chink and defect of US capitalism, its failures, its rejuvenating bankruptcies and its inveterate tendency to circulate those very same problems. The plug of the establishment swamp might be removed, but only on his own, constitutionally lax terms.
This raises, then, the challenge posed to the Murdoch Imperium. The media industry continues to face an onslaught of what are politely called ‘disruptive forces’—industry jargon for threats to the income stream. These range from the conventional battles over retaining television viewership to the emergence of generative artificial intelligence as an enabling tool and spoiler in the news industry. To cope with this, Murdoch proposed a merger between Fox and News Corp. The major shareholders rebuffed the proposal.
Always ready to startle and horrify in terms of news content, Murdoch’s companies are embracing the AI storm with gusto. News Corp Australia, for instance, revealed in July that it was producing a weekly complement of 3,000 articles using generative AI. At the World News Media Congress held in Taipei, Michael Miller, in a presentation entitled ‘Taking a stand’, told his audience that a team of four individuals had used AI technology to create thousands of stories based on local content, spanning such topics as traffic conditions, weather and fuel prices.
The angertainment media ecosystem is proving to be lucrative. According to Miller’s figures, the Australian segment of the empire passed the 1 million digital paid subscriber milestone last October. Over the last two years, NewsCorp Australia’s monthly audience has boomed from 16.4 million to 18.1 million.
Miller puts this down to ‘trust,’ though a better explanation for it lies in the company’s strategy, in true Murdoch fashion, of giving its audience what it wants. To illustrate this, he cites the use of such data analytics platforms as Verity, a ‘data assistant’ that examines how a story with a feature can generate new subscriptions via all the company’s various platforms (his example featured a case of voluntary assisted dying in Adelaide, and how it generated twenty times more subscriber page views than an ‘average article’).
Under Lachlan, and Rupert’s oppressively cast shadow, the Imperium’s burgeoning legal liabilities will continue. The $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, reached after Fox’s false claims of fraud perpetrated during the 2020 presidential election, has emboldened a number of lawsuits, including another worth $2.7 billion by Smartmatic Corp. The temple gossipers wonder whether the children might sell the shambles.
This is unlikely to happen, if we trust recurring commentary from the likes of media analyst Brian Wieser, from the advisory firm Madison & Wall, who states that ‘Many of [Murdoch’s] enterprises still produce a lot of important news which helps keep the world informed in ways that might not have occurred were it not for his leadership’. At least Wieser is sound enough to admit that this way of being informed comes with an ‘amplified toxicity’ that shows no signs of abating.