Will Rupert Murdoch really jettison James as NewsCorp’s heir?

October 19, 2011

It’s possible that Rupert Murdoch allowed himself the ghost of a smile on hearing that Michael Wolff – one of his most vociferous and tiresome tormentors – had been defenestrated from his fastness at AdWeek.

We might like to think of AdWeek as a trade magazine covering the US advertising, media and marketing scene. But for the past year it has been hijacked by Wolff’s anti-Murdoch agenda and shamelessly exploited by the former editorial director as a scandal-sheet covering every last detail of the so-called “Murdochcalypse”.

Murdoch will have been a good deal less pleased by what he read in the New York Times yesterday. Wolff is a gadfly, but the NYT is a seriously influential enemy which has taken it upon itself to drive a wedge between Murdoch and his presumed heir, younger son James.

It is not so much the content of the article as its timing that is so troubling. Murdoch and his brood are just days away from NewCorp’s annual general meeting that could theoretically see them unseated as directors. The last thing they need is another stinkbomb.

As it happens, the NYT article fails to come up with anything stunningly original. Provocatively titled ‘In Rift Between Murdochs, Heir Becomes Less Apparent‘ , it dwells on tensions – real and possibly imagined – between the two men in the hope of creating so much further bad blood that Murdoch père will eventually perform an Abrahamic sacrifice of his son’s career prospects in order to save his own skin.

Certainly Murdoch senior has been performing a skilful dance of the seven veils to protect his reputation. First he closed News of the World, and abandoned his cherished bid for BSkyB.  When that didn’t work, he sacrificed his faithful retainers Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks. The tide of effluent still failing to ebb, he contributed millions, individually and corporately, to the Milly Dowler Fund.

For a while, the NewsCorp share price appeared to bounce back. Then came the hammer blow: a major shareholders’ revolt, partly sustained by new evidence of malpractice in the NewsCorp empire, this time at The Wall Street Journal.

Something like 25% of investors are expected to vote against the re-election of the Murdoch board on Friday. In almost any other public company that would mean curtains. But not at NewsCorp, where – unluckily for the institutional rebels – nearly 40% of the voting shares are owned by the Murdoch family.

So not much is really going to happen in the short term. Except some searing humiliation, fanned by the NYT. The worse it is, the poorer James Murdoch’s chances of eventual survival.

And that’s before his return for further grilling by the House of Commons media select committee, over the porkie pies and half-truths uttered during his last appearance.


AdWeek’s Michael Wolff on the Murdochs, an everyday tale of Mafia folk

August 9, 2011

Reading AdWeek these days, I’m irresistibly reminded of Spike Milligan’s old bestseller: “Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall.”

It’s not Spike’s obvious irony I’m talking about here, either. Michael Wolff, a talented enfant terrible now editing the venerable US trade magazine, is deadly earnest in trying to slay single-handedly the apotheosis of all evil. Only, for Hitler and the Third Reich read instead Rupert Murdoch and his Evil Empire.

Media don Rupert Murdoch

“Pugnacious”, “relentless” and “fearless” are words often found in close proximity to “Wolff” on the printed page. His anti-Murdoch crusade does not disappoint in any of these respects.

Wolff established his credentials as chief Murdoch-baiter with a biography which, when it came out over 2 years ago, had the satisfying effect of all but sending the usually unflappable old boy into a fit of apoplexy.

Since then, every twist and turn of what Wolff likes to call the Murdocalypse (that is, the phone-hacking scandal and its aftermath) has been chronicled with gleeful and sardonic attention to detail on the pages and website of AdWeek.

Here’s the man in action, just after the Murdochs, père et fils cadet, had made their woeful appearance before our parliamentary select committee a couple of weeks ago….

James in prison in just a few days time, and the old boy himself safely behind bars by the end of next year – doesn’t pull his punches, does he? Of course, it’s nothing personal, he just hates the bastard and all he stands for. In the land of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Tea Party partisanship, what could be fairer than that?

I mention all this in the light of Wolff’s pièce de résistance on the Murdochs, out this week, in which the family is convincingly portrayed as a mafia clan. No idle parody this – Wolff creates some compelling parallels. Here’s a short extract that gives the flavour:

Both the New York Post and Fox News maintain enemy lists. Almost anyone who has directly crossed these organizations, or who has made trouble for their parent company, will have felt the sting here. That sting involves regular taunting and, often, lies—Obama is a Muslim. (Or, if not outright lies, radical remakes of reality.) Threats pervade the company’s basic view of the world. “We have stuff on him,” Murdoch would mutter about various individuals who I mentioned during my interviews with him. “We have pictures.”

Vito Corleone to a T. And who’s the urbane young fellah with him? Michael? er, James?

What all this may be doing for AdWeek readership I’m not sure. Wolff, whose father was an adman, has a seigneurial disdain for the dull, grubby detail of everyday adland which, if not exactly ignored, is relegated to the nether reaches of the site map. He seems intent upon recasting AdWeek as Vanity Fair, with only a nod to the business readership which has, in some measure at least, loyally supported the title these past 33 years.

Adweek’s current publisher, Prometheus Global Media, appears to be 100% behind Wolff’s mission to expunge “robotic trade journalism” from the title in the cause of creating broader readership.

Which is just as well, because the danger is the title will lose all relevance outside those interested in Wolff and Wolff’s chosen hobby-horses.

Personally, I hope Prometheus has very deep pockets. Long may it subsidise Wolff’s zealous mission to excoriate, educate and entertain. But I rather imagine the commercial department is tearing its hair out as it watches the last vestiges of market share trickle over to humdrum old AdAge.

Coming shortly: The Borgias – A modern-day makeover, with Lis as Lucrezia.


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