Early in his life Rupert Murdoch learned two things that would be crucial in his path to becoming the archetypal mega media mogul. Any examination of Murdoch’s relationship with the disgraced head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, any attempt to assess the interdependence of the two men, indeed any scrutiny of the dark arts of the Murdoch empire, needs to begin in the summer of 1953 when Murdoch was 22.
For a few months Murdoch was an intern at the Daily Express in London. He was not looking for a job. He had inherited a small provincial newspaper group in Adelaide, Australia, and he was going home to take charge of it.
The Daily Express was a Fleet Street phenomenon. It sold 4,300,000 copies a day but it was not a tabloid. In Britain newspapers were still the nation’s first resource for news. Television news was little more than radio with pictures. The Express was finely tuned to a middlebrow sensibility that appealed to a rising, post-war middle class.
In the newsroom Murdoch saw the sharpest journalistic operation in Britain up close. The paper had a prodigious editorial budget. It had correspondents in every major capital in the world. Wherever a big story broke the Express had by-lined reports, throbbing with clichés like “I flew into riot-torn…”. In London there was a team of 50 photographers ready to go anywhere.
Behind this largesse was the paper’s owner, Lord Beaverbrook. The staff knew that the final editor of everything, and often the instigator of assignments, was Beaverbrook himself, referred to as “the old man” – he was in his seventies. Canadian-born, Beaverbrook was always open to requests from newspaper interests in the colonies to place novices like Murdoch in his newsroom for a crash-course in Express techniques.
Murdoch was awed by the Express and by Beaverbrook—he called the paper “the Beaverbrook brothel.” In one sense this was literally true. One of His Lordship’s sports was to arrange for attractive young women to join him in the bedroom of his villa on the French Riviera wearing only a fur coat that was to be slowly and elegantly shed. At least one of these paramours was on the paper’s staff.
“You’ll never be a millionaire working for me,” Beaverbrook told promising journalists, “but you’ll live like one.” One of the most creative skills encouraged in the newsroom was the composition of expense accounts; foreign correspondents elevated already generous allowances with limitless extras for “entertaining contacts.” I know this because for five years (several years after Murdoch’s internship) I was an editor at the Express who had to authorize the expenses.
A darker side to Beaverbrook was his vindictiveness toward those whom he thought had crossed him. I discovered this the hard way soon after joining the paper. I assigned a story on the great playwright, director, pianist and social wit Noel Coward. A higher-placed editor spotted this and told me to kill the piece at once—“he’s on the black list” he said. It was a long-held grudge: Coward directed a war film in which a British frigate was sunk and, floating among its wreckage was an issue of the Express with the front page headline “No War This Year” —reminding the audience that Beaverbrook had seriously misjudged Hitler’s intentions.
There were many names on the covert list of non-persons. Sometimes nobody could figure out why they were there. Even people close to Beaverbrook and expert at sensing his whims were baffled as they executed the orders, an experience common to the courts of despots but not normal at this level in newspaper newsrooms.
In that newsroom Murdoch would have immediately seen another Beaverbrook-mandated effect in action, the intense competitive reflexes. Scoops great and small were required daily. Beaverbrook himself fed tips from his ring of highly-placed political sources. He also relished scandalous gossip and the paper, restricted by Britain’s aggressive libel laws, became adept at innuendo that only its savvier readers could decode.
Murdoch saw the polished craft of the editors—crisp, succinct writing, grabby headlines, striking photography. And it was this level of craft that was the first of the skills that he absorbed himself and would subsequently always demand in his own journalists. The second lesson was to appreciate the importance of owning a paper and, like Beaverbrook, having his way with it. Many years later when he was acquiring businesses in the U.S. he stressed the need for 100 percent ownership: “Then you don’t have to take any crap from anybody.”
Probing the vocational DNA of a man as complex and elusive as Murdoch can only go so far. But his brief time in that London newsroom was imbued with the thrill of the age of hot metal publishing at its peak; when the press run began with a first edition early in the evening the whole newsroom rode the rumble like a boat on a wave. For a budding Charles Foster Kane it was mesmerizing.
Eventually, Murdoch’s perception of journalism’s true market value went beyond its accepted professional constraints. He grasped what others had not: news could be monetized as a universal mass commodity. To do that required a far looser boundary between news and entertainment. And, at another stage in its evolution, news needed to be aggressively non-elitist, to appeal on a more primal level to base instincts—to play on fear, prejudice and grievances. (The most successful of Murdoch’s tabloid editors defined his target reader as “the bloke you see in the pub, a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs [people of color] back, buy his poxy council house [public housing]. He’s afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and the weirdos and drug dealers.”)
The apotheosis of this formula, at least in print, was the revolting spectacle that unfolded in October 2013 at the Old Bailey criminal court in London. The newsroom of Murdoch’s largest selling tabloid, the News of the World, had practiced phone hacking in pursuit of scandal on an industrial scale: more than 7,000 phones had been hacked, most egregiously of a murdered schoolgirl as well as those of the families of victims of the 2005 London terrorist bombings and the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The case was so damaging that Murdoch closed the paper. The editor, Andy Coulson, was jailed for 18 months. But the chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspapers, Rebekah Brooks, was cleared of charges of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Brooks is now back in a senior job in the Murdoch empire, and Murdoch himself, having made a rather uncharacteristic public apology for the trespasses of his newspapers, escaped any lasting contamination.
However, Murdoch’s culpability doesn’t rest on any legal proofs. The journalistic black ops of his tabloids were part of a newsroom culture that was clearly driven by the editorial goals he set, if not requiring his direct involvement. Vendettas were conducted by his editors against perceived enemies with a vindictive savagery that makes Beaverbrook’s black list seem like mild reproof.
Indeed, there’s a cultural consistency in the behavior of all the tabloid news operations Murdoch has built. In television its most consequential creation is Fox News—a tabloid on steroids. Roger Ailes isn’t a journalist by any of the classic definitions of journalism but he has presided over and shaped the absolute and final expression of where journalism has been driven to by Murdoch. Ailes, the most gifted black ops schemer in modern politics, was able through Fox News to take those skills and use them to build a multi-billion dollar business based on the debasement of news.
And there are, it now seems, salacious echoes of that Fleet Street newsroom in the 1950s, what Murdoch called the Beaverbrook brothel. Andrea Tantaros, one of the former Fox News hosts now accusing Ailes of sexual harassment, described the newsroom as “a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny.” And the $20 million settlement to Gretchen Carlson in her sexual harassment case, plus undisclosed settlements in other cases, suggest a truly systemic pressure on women.
Once more, Murdoch has escaped any suggestion that he knowledgeably consented to this regime. And, to be sure, it is true that of all Murdoch’s news executives, in print and in television, Ailes was granted a freedom as close to autonomy as has ever been permissible in a Murdoch business—people who prove to be so talented that they begin to overshadow the boss are usually placed in the ejector seat, equipped with a golden parachute.
It’s only natural that Ailes should take a $40 million payoff and then, immediately, albeit furtively, become an adviser to the Trump campaign. What clearer synergy could there be than between the cynical catering to bigotry so well defined by that Murdoch tabloid editor (and so basic to the Murdoch brand) and the toxic narratives that drive Trump’s ascent?
Murdoch’s genius, if it is that, has been to devise a common language and culture between the messenger and the audience to an extent not seen before. Murdoch, Ailes and Trump have all argued that their narratives are directed at people not previously acknowledged to have existed by “mainstream” media. They provide, they believe, a countervailing force to elitism and political correctness, the only messengers who really understand the legitimacy of aggrieved nativism.
In sum, this is less an ideological movement than a cultural one. With Murdoch, attacks on his influence simply reinforce his conviction that his opponents are aloof and out of touch. In the 1970s, as he was building his businesses in the U.S., Abe Rosenthal, the executive editor of the New York Times, said that Murdoch was “a bad element, practicing mean, ugly, violent journalism.” To this day, if there are two journalistic institutions that Murdoch despises more than any others, they are the New York Times and the BBC—one of the few public service broadcasters still free of commercial and political agendas, in spite of efforts in Britain to undermine it by Murdoch and his henchmen.
The Murdoch tabloids and Fox News have carefully seeded their narratives with a whole set of toxins: anti-intellectualism, anti-science, hostility to “the other”—and, most poisonously, a contempt for truth. It’s not that they believe in cultivating an audience of know-nothings, it’s that they have discovered how to dictate to that audience what should be known and what should not be known—an alternative “truth” system.
This ethical inversion is proving hard to counter. Mockery and satire fall flat because it’s hard to be more bizarre than the narratives being mocked. Even talents as sharp as Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Jon Stewart can’t inflict harm. The simple discipline of fact-checking has no impact on the purveyors of fact-free news. Established norms of balanced reporting based on equivalence frequently fail to indict the absurd: gullibility is more decisive than knowledge. In this election all the old rules of journalism are in retreat and there aren’t any new rules to replace them. It’s a rush to the bottom, and one man led it.