On Page 3 of the Sun, I once saw the central i of the word “tit” asterisked out, not four inches away from a topless pair of the genuine article. So there’s always been a ludicrous coyness to Rupert Murdoch and his many works. But surely we are not really to believe that the media mogul this week ditched his highest-rating news anchor, Tucker Carlson, for referring to a woman as a “cunt” in an email? This is the take of the Wall Street Journal – proprietor: Mr R Murdoch – which explains: “Tucker Carlson’s Vulgar, Offensive Messages About Colleagues Helped Seal His Fate At Fox News”.
Righto. It’s fair to say the Wall Street Journal is not alone in the quest to make sense of Murdoch’s recent behaviour. The week after he paid $787.5m to settle the lawsuit brought against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems – Dominion’s lawyers were going to force him to take the stand – Murdoch sacked Carlson via his son Lachlan. Media outlets have been scrambling to find logical explanations for actions that arguably, to deploy a euphemism, defy logic. After all, this is a 92-year-old who only weeks ago was delighting us with news of his impending fifth marriage – a whirlwind engagement to a former dental nurse turned prison chaplain, which was hastily called off a mere fortnight later. Apparently, Murdoch had become “increasingly uncomfortable” with his fiancee’s “outspoken evangelical views”. Again: really?
The one thing we can say with certainty is that Murdoch would want us to pick over his actions and ask if he was still playing with a full deck of Happy Families cards. For decades, his newspapers have lasered in on public figures as they reach their twilight, premature or otherwise. Back in the day, a paparazzi picture of a painfully thin Freddie Mercury limping across the street was glossed with the Sun’s front page inquiry: “ARE YOU OK FRED?” – one of those newspaper questions to which the answer is patently: no. No, he’s not – what does it effing look like? So in the same solicitous spirit we must survey the recent actions of the mercurial mogul, and ask, in the way he taught us: ARE YOU OK RUPE?
Put candidly … what does it effing look like? Last October, Murdoch announced plans to merge both his public companies, Fox Corp and News Corp, before being forced in January to abandon the scheme in the face of shareholder bafflement and dismay. March brought news of the bonkers betrothal and Murdoch’s bizarre interview about how he “dreaded falling in love”; April saw the engagement’s abandonment. Murdoch was supposed to end the month testifying in the Dominion lawsuit; having settled that, he set about blindsiding even his allies by sacking Carlson. While legacy media oblige their own moguls by suggesting lucid cause-and-effect, some of the upstarts are finally breaking the glass on the word “erratic”.
“Erratic” was certainly a word that came to mind when reading the epic recent Vanity Fair article on Murdoch, in which every line was a marmalade-dropper. Take the single paragraph that revealed Murdoch had fallen and seriously injured himself on a Caribbean superyacht trip with his now-former wife Jerry Hall. Though it hastened to dock to get him to hospital, the boat was too big for the pier, resulting in Murdoch having to be precariously lowered down, after which he spent a night under a tent in a car park (the local hospital was closed). He was finally medevaced out, but, according to a family friend, “kept almost dying”. LA medics discovered a broken back, noting from the X-rays that he had previously fractured vertebrae. The paragraph concludes: “Murdoch explained it must have been from the time his ex-wife Deng pushed him into a piano during a fight.” (Ms Deng did not respond to the publication’s requests for comment.)
It feels particularly piquant that all this is taking place against the backdrop of the final series of Succession. Murdoch is extremely, extremely relaxed about the show, to the point of having it written into his divorce settlement with Jerry Hall that she was banned from speaking to its writers. Jerry reportedly realised the Oxfordshire house she got in the settlement was rigged with cameras still beaming their footage back to Fox HQ, a discovery that prompted Mick Jagger’s security guy to come and dismantle the apparatus for her.
Despite settling with Dominion, Murdoch’s unfortunate courtroom dramas continue. This week, Prince Harry’s phone-hacking case alleged Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers reached a huge settlement with Prince William, but requested it be kept secret so as not to affect their ongoing legal battles with other claimants. Pleading favours off the establishment he has always regarded as his lawful prey – perhaps Murdoch is not so very different from other unhappy kings. Harry’s statement suggested he had bonded with Rupert’s boy James when they had met at some Google event / creche for megarich estranged second sons. “He made a real effort to try and come and talk to me,” recalled Harry of James Murdoch. “I got the impression that, having broken away from the cult that is the Murdoch dynasty, he was starting to show signs that he wanted to do things differently … Given that he had broken away from his family’s history, and I was about to do the same with mine, I felt that we were kindred spirits of sorts.” Real rebel hearts. As Succession’s Connor Roy once put it: “The elites are scared.”
But are the shareholders a little on edge too? There is something increasingly preposterous in the spectacle of media outlets searching for rational explanations to explain Rupert Murdoch’s recent antics. Surely at some point soon, we might need to consider irrational ones instead?
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