Llewellyn King: Murdoch profits richly by mining resentment, tribalism and sex

  Rupert Murdoch.

Rupert Murdoch.

Rupert Murdoch stands astride the Atlantic. He is the most successful newspaper publisher in the United Kingdom and the proprietor of Fox, the most successful cable news channel in the United States.

While he has many other spectacular holdings in the U.K., the United States, Australia and Asia, those are the two pillars on which the empire stands now that he has sold 21st Century Fox Entertainment to Disney.

I believe the two pillars are linked by what amounts to the Murdoch formula: find a chauvinistic, nationalistic vein and mine it.

Murdoch blew on the embers of resentment and stoked the fires of tribalism through The Sun, his big British moneymaker, and Fox News, his American gold mine.

He understood this social stratum, whether it was in working-class Britain or spread across what we now call the Red States in America. This audience felt ignored, put upon and unloved. Its traditional champions on the left — the unions, the Labor Party and the Democratic Party — had condescended to it, but not celebrated it.

Murdoch articulated its frustrations and gave them voice not where you would expect it on the left, but on the right.

A new and exceptional book by Irwin Stelzer, The Murdoch Method, lays out how Murdoch did this and how he holds his empire together. Stelzer should know. He has been a friend and consultant to Murdoch and his many enterprises for 35 years.

Stelzer, whom I have known for 45 years, is worthy of a book in his own right. When he met Murdoch, he had already achieved success enough for many a man. He founded National Economic Research Associates and sold it well. Then, after a stint with Rothschild in New York, he enjoyed running an energy program at Harvard. Then came Murdoch.

Stelzer worked so closely with Murdoch that a rival newspaper in London described him as “Murdoch’s man on earth.” And he was.

He was sometimes the go-between for British prime ministers and leading American figures, from Richard Nixon to Richard Cheney. Stelzer made Murdoch’s case to the mighty, and he crunched numbers. Money and the power of media made this world go around.

As the title suggests, Stelzer explains in his book how Murdoch manages so diverse a company as News Corp. and how he created and grew it from the newspapers he inherited from his formidable father, Sir Keith Murdoch, in out-of-the-way Adelaide, Australia.

What emerges is a portrait of man who thinks of himself as an outsider, a loner: a practitioner of a kind of minimalist management out to war against theestablishment and its elites.

Murdoch, both as a publisher and a businessman, has been incredibly courageous. He flipped The Sun from timid left to truculent right. He also stripped the brassieres off the models on Page 3. Chauvinism, sex and celebrity gossip was what Murdoch offered, and the public could not get enough. He also broke the British print unions in a near-military move to a secret printing site in Wapping, East London, in January 1986.

In America, Murdoch pretty well failed with newspapers he purchased in San Antonio, Boston and Chicago. He has not exactly succeeded with The New York Post, but he keeps it going as a personal indulgence. He is doing well with The Wall Street Journal. But Fox News is the jewel in his American crown.

Stelzer’s Murdoch and his method is one of a small executive staff: excellent executives who are very well paid and prepared to answer a call from their boss day and night. He let really gifted people, like Roger Ailes, of Fox, run their enterprises until there was a scandal and then, bang, the locks were changed, and settlements were paid. Murdoch is generous and ruthless.

Murdoch and Stelzer were in a way made for each other, although they did argue and sometimes Stelzer lost, only to find out just how wrong he was — as when he opposed the creation of the Fox Business Network.

Stelzer acknowledges he does not like everything Murdoch does; and he should not. Murdoch has treated the world as a playground where you make money by making damaging mischief — so you hire people like Sean Hannity and tolerate the inanity. Or you court the Clintons, but back Trump.

Stelzer has been on a wild ride and he takes you along in clear, readable prose.

On Twitter: @llewellynking2
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of
White House Chronicle, on PBS. He is based in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.