Sunday, December 30, 2012

An Interview with Rupert Murdoch

I sat there with Mr. Murdoch, staring at the clock behind him. I remembered a documentary I once saw about the eponymous media mogul that was the head of Newscorp. The Murdoch empire had as its emperor, a former aid to Mr. Murdoch told the documentary crew, a man who doubted himself regularly. The story went something like this. Murdoch turned to his former aid - or butler even, he was that well dressed - and said something like this: “You know my problem? I’m lacking in confidence.” The aid/ butler, bewildered by what he had heard, was taken aback. This was the owner of one of the biggest companies in the world, with a shady influence that you could neither confirm nor deny, a ghostly kind of power which the powerful feared - they don’t call him kingmaker for nothing - saying that his problem was low self-esteem.

He was very cordial when he sat down. I was surprised he agreed to the interview at all. He was an old man, the wrinkles on his face told that story like the rings of a tree. Yet, behind his glasses lay a pair of sharp eyes. Old, yes, but sharp. Not evil, not benign, yet cunning? To take this man at face value, to give an unbiased account of the man behind the myth: was this even possible?

I remembered an Adam Curtis blogpost which described how Murdoch went up against the British establishment, scandalising the upper class in the sixties and seventies with his particular brand of tabloid sensationalism that we have come to know so well. Curtis held that Murdoch thought he was some kind of revolutionary, railing against the old elites and remnants of the British upper classes that were unwilling to move with the times. Against the charge that he was corrupting British society he painted himself as the victim, as an outsider, a kind of breadth of fresh air that you breadth in after someone attempts to suffocate you with a pillow. It’s very easy to say to Mr. Murdoch “Play the other one, why don’t you.” The problem is, to whatever extent, he might actually believe this.

After all, his family were getting death threats. The wife of one of his employees was kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity. She was later killed. Jesus. It could have been Murdoch’s wife. The family moved to America not long after that. And Murdoch came down like a ton of bricks on the English media; strangling the unions by setting up alternative printing presses; gaining ownership of huge areas of the media after given the keys to the treasure chest by the Iron Lady herself.

Was he the slave hitting back at the master, a kind of self made man at odds with the establishment, a Randian hero, an deep existentialist perpetually perpetrating the question of his own being within a society so at odds with his own selfhood?

The only thing about all this is that, on the other side of things, I am now sitting opposite possibly one of the most ruthless men in the world. Every media market he has entered he has ruthlessly tried to crush the competition. Newscorp is now making a fortune in the coupon business. In fact they have a monopoly over it right across the world. And, in keeping with Murdoch’s other business endeavours, Newscorp are ruthless in this area also. The head of the coupon division in Newscorp gave an interview where he basically said that he worked for a man with limitless ambition, so he would follow suit.

The seat Murdoch is sitting in is cushioned on the back and below, with a gold plated wooden frame. He makes a joke and smiles at me. I laugh at his joke. The man who would be king.

He is Macbeth. Initially reluctant to kill the king and take the throne, he is egged on by his wife, his desire. This is a man at odds with himself, a man who sees himself as the eternal victim, and yet acts as a dangerous predator, a shark silently swimming, watching everything, waiting for the right moment ...

He is Macbeth, reluctant, unwilling, modest yet capable. He is Macbeth, steely eyed, ruthless, cunning, willing to do anything to succeed, driven so utterly and completely by his desire.

Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher who slurps a lot, tells offensive jokes and looks like that crazy guy on the side of the street with wild eyes who tells you that you must repent because the end is nigh, he once said something insightful. The man who would be Shakespeare’s jester showed how ruthless, terrible men sometimes can have very benign personal mythologies. Hitler was a vegetarian who loved animals and playing with children. Heidrich Reinhart, architect of the Holocaust, loved to play classical music in an orchestra. Zizek’s point is not that these men are mired in contradiction. It is rather that these things are needed to sustain them, to bring themselves to perpetrate these acts. The purer they become in their own view of themselves, the easier it is for them to kill millions. Or ruthlessly crush the competition. ‘Cause you’re the victim, and They are the bad guys, and as the Tabloid media always maintains, bad guys must get their comeuppance.

So what to ask this man, who genuinely believes himself hard-done-by, who sits atop one of the most powerful companies in the world - though it is a strange sort of power. You can’t accuse him of anything directly, because his personal mythology will allow him to label you as one of them. It will have to be something else, something that appeals to or upsets his ego in some way.

I came up with it last night. He may simply deflect it away. Ah well, here goes: we exchange pleasantries, and it’s all very cordial. We then talk about criticism of fox news and the hacking scandal. I then ask if he understands these criticisms, or is he just stupid, quickly adding "Because you don't seem like a stupid man to me, Mr. Murdoch."

A silence descends for a moment, and I imagine I see a steeliness in his eye that I hadn’t seen before.

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