Monday, November 11, 2013
Wolff: Happiness comes to Rupert Murdoch
Story originally appeared on USA Today.
Despite the hacking scandal, life is good for the 82-year-old media tycoon.
The trial of some of Rupert Murdoch's close associates, accused of telephone hacking, bribery, obstruction of justice and conspiracy, is now underway in London, threatening to expose ever-deeper veins of skulduggery in Murdoch's company. Surely a low point in his 60-year career.
And yet, Murdoch is telling people he may never have been happier in his life.
This is partly because he believes that he and his family have largely beaten the rap. But it is also a personal trait of Murdoch's, being able to write off the past, with both finesse and brutality. And for everything to turn out well for him.
His personal life, his work life and his family life, despite the threat of hackinggate, have all come into alignment. At 82, he believes he has set the stage for another 15 years.
Hackinggate rather seems to have given him the impetus, in some Godfather fashion, to settle scores and take care of business so he can get on with the next chapter of his epochal story.
First, he dealt with the long-standing friction of his marriage. Try as he might, for the 15 years he's been married to Wendi Deng, 39 years his junior, he has never wholly managed to effect a rapprochement between her and his adult children, who are, for Murdoch, the tent poles of his life. At the same time, he has found it hard to admit that his marriage was in difficulty, even as he and Deng increasingly lived apart.
It was Deng's telling moment in the sun — stepping between Murdoch and a pie wielder when he was called, two years ago, to testify about hacking before Parliament — that he has told friends crystallized his anger. He realized he did not want her protecting him now — making him look old, he felt, and weak — or his legacy later.
With the encouragement of his children, he began to plan his exit — his resolve aided by his closer monitoring of her personal life. In June, acting on new reports about her involvement with Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, he summarily ended his marriage — to no one's greater surprise than his wife's.
His own hurt feelings have been soothed by a new romantic interest, a younger woman who has been traveling with him — his massage therapist — who, he has told friends, has made him very happy.
Oh, yes. And a month before he ended his marriage, he bought a $29 million vineyard in Bel Air, in the hills above Los Angeles, real estate (and a new hobby) his wife had no interest in. His decision to buy the vineyard, friends say, foreshadowed her fate.
Last June also saw the completion of the split of his company between its newspapers and its entertainment businesses. For almost 10 years, Murdoch had been facing continuing and ever more pointed complaints about the papers, about the money he spent on them and the time he put into them. Then, with hackinggate, the papers became an even fiercer lightning rod.
And so this painful split was forced on him. A business nadir.
But now he finds himself with a new company, with $3 billion in the bank and a rising share price — a company whose very purpose is to manage newspapers. Nobody is telling him he shouldn't be concerned about newspapers anymore. He's back in the proprietor's seat — in the action.
Nor, he has found, does he have to pretend anymore to be all that concerned with television or the movies, businesses always far more interesting to him for their profits than for their challenges. In Chase Carey, the chief operator of the television and movie company, Twenty-First Century Fox, and in Roger Ailes, the chief operator of Fox News, its most profitable division, he has found two adroit men who, with suitable obeisance, make him a lot of money and leave him little to do.
What's more, they have solved the pressing and at times intractable problem of his son James.
James is the forceful, aggressive, know-it-all son, whom almost everyone blames for mishandling the hacking scandal and to whom, for whatever reasons, the father has never been able to say no. Now saying no, and maneuvering James to where he can do no harm, is Chase Carey's job.
Still, of course, there is succession, which has always nagged at Murdoch — not just how to build a dynasty, but which child to choose to run it.
But now, instead of having only one company to give his children, he has two. The new company, with its big revenue coming from pay TV in Australia, is being specifically tailored for his son Lachlan, who lives in Sydney. Murdoch, at the behest of his executives, forced Lachlan from his heir-apparent post almost 10 years ago. Murdoch has felt guilty ever since. He's determined, with the new company, to right the wrong.
Meanwhile, he and his daughter, Elisabeth, have been at odds because of her public distancing from the family. Aided by her husband, Matthew Freud, a London PR man whom Murdoch has never liked, Elisabeth — whose company, Shine, is one of the largest independent television producers — has positioned herself as the anti-Murdoch Murdoch.
But Murdoch is said to have been full of admiration when, last week, Elisabeth hosted a birthday party for her husband — and the entire British establishment showed up. All those who had been tooting the end of Murdoch power in Britain, even celebrating the trial in London, were suddenly back in the Murdoch fold — including David Cameron, the prime minister, and his wife, Samantha, center stage on the dance floor.
Oh, and in an errant message meant as an instruction to the New York Post instead of as a request to the general public, Murdoch tweeted, " 'Please expose Eric Schmidt, Google' etc. Just wait!"