ARROGANT AUSSIE; The Rupert Murdoch Story. By Michael Leapman. Lyle Stuart. 288 pp. $14.95.
POOR RUPERT MURDOCH. For quite a while now, the Australian media tycoon has had something of a love-hate relationship with his competitors and critics. Murdoch, it seems, is just the kind of man they love to hate.
A.M. Rosenthal, executive editor of The New York Times, once characterized Murdoch as "a bad element, practicing mean, ugly, violent journalism." Of Murdoch's number-one American newspaper, the New York Post, the Columbia Journalism Review concluded: "It is a social problem -- a force for evil." Columnist Mike Royko, who jumped ship the minute Murdoch took over the Chicago Sun-Times, offered the opinion that no self-respecting fish would care to be wrapped in a Murdoch-owned paper. And when Murdoch's acquiring eyes zeroed in on the venerable London Observer, one journalist told the Sunday Times: "Giving the Observer to Rupert Murdoch is like giving your beautiful daughter to a gorilla."
What is it about Murdoch and his brand of journalism that inspires such outpourings of enmity? The answer is spread throughout this new biography by British journalist Michael Leapman, but it has little to do with the book's anemic title -- a title so tame, in fact, as to be on the order of, say, "Uninvited Visitor: The Story of Attila the Hun." Murdoch may be plenty arrogant, but it's his ruthlessness in business and recklessness in journalism that have turned so many against him. His enemies list is loaded with an unusually large number of former friends, employes and business associates; familiarity with Murdoch and his methods, judging from this book, does breed contempt.
Murdoch, as Leapman notes, has some appreciation for the dimensions of his own image problem. In 1981, for instance, as he was tantalizingly close to sealing a deal for The Times of London, Murdoch went before members of its editorial staff in an attempt to assure them he wasn't all that awful. "I can sell myself to you," he sheepishly told them, "as the least of the alternative evils."
Leapman, a former U.S. correspondent for The Times (he left when Murdoch bought it), interviewed more than a hundred of Murdoch's detractors and defenders for this book, although his narrative reflects the relative scarcity of the latter species. As a consequence, the stories behind Murdoch's climb to prominence and power are told, more often than not, through the voices of the vanquished and victimized. Many of these episodes (run-ins with Rupert, to put it charitably) are merely eyebrow-raising; many more, however, are downright hair-raising. Murdoch comes across as the junkyard dog of journalism.
Nonetheless, Murdoch-haters are likely to be disappointed with Arrogant Aussie. It is not a hatchet-job. Leapman's approach, considering that his subject declined to cooperate, is admirably evenhanded, even though the portrait that emerges is far from flattering. Murdoch's record, after all -- like a New York Post headline -- screams for itself.
Throughout most of Leapman's book, Murdoch seems to be in perpetual motion: hiring, firing, wheeling, dealing, wheedling, browbeating, angling for some way to ambush or bamboozle his rivals. What his New York Post does to the news -- "Sock, sock, sock, day after day," as New York City Mayor Ed Koch put it -- Murdoch does to anyone brazen enough to get in his way. Murdoch seems to relish his don't- mess-with-me reputation almost as much as delivering the comeuppances that go along with it. "Someone can beat you up or run over you," he once explained, "but if you don't give them a few bruises in return, they can do it to the next person who comes along."
Leapman's version of the Rupert Murdoch tory can offer readers little in the way of rags-to-riches drama: Murdoch acquired his first newspaper the old-fashioned way . . . he inherited it. But it does provide fascinating, and telling, glimpses of Murdoch's childhood and early career. His father, Sir Keith Murdoch, had built a successful career in Australian journalism from the bottom up. Despite a stammer so severe that no editor on London's Fleet Street would hire him, he was persevering enough in his chosen trade to eventually become Australia's most influential newspaperman.
Sir Keith was a forceful but fretful father. He shipped his son off to Geelong Grammar, the most exclusive boarding school in Austrialia, even though young Rupert didn't want to go. And whenever Rupert returned to Cruden Farm, the family's country estate, he was not allowed to live in the house. Instead, under father's orders, Rupert camped out in the garden, sleeping in a hut lacking heat, electricity and running water. (He was, however, allowed inside the house for showers.) This went on for eight years. Such a regimen, Sir Keith believed, would make Rupert into a man -- and a worthy heir -- by strengthening his character and self-reliance.
On the death of his father in 1952, Rupert, then only 21 years old, took charge of the family's evening and Sunday newspapers in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. Yet he yearned for something more. In 1958, he bought a local television station, and two years later successfully invaded the Sydney television market. Toward the end of the 1960s, Murdoch set his sights on London, where he picked up Britain's best-selling Sunday newspaper, the News of the World, and a foundering daily, the Sun.
But Murdoch was mesmerized the most by the vast American media market. After snatching up three newspapers in San Antonio, Texas, in 1973, he launched the National Star, a clumsy imitation of the National Enquirer. Nobody paid Murdoch much attention, though, until he bought the New York Post in 1976 and soon after that acquired New York Magazine and the Village Voice.
From here on in, Leapman's book races along at a breakneck pace, as it trails the maneuvers of a man who collects media properties the way Malcolm Forbes collects toy soldiers. He bought The Times of London and its sister paper, the Sunday Times, in 1981, the Boston Herald American (which he quickly renamed the Boston Herald) in 1982, and the Chicago Sun-Times in 1984.
THE TRUNCATED title of the Boston paper seems an apt reflection of Murdoch's way of doing business. He never has been comfortable with American editors, who seldom adapt very well to his management style. "Survival of the fittest, that's how you run a newspaper," Leapman has Murdoch telling a subordinate. "You've been reading too many of your management books." And because American editors tend to view journalism as more of a profession than a produt, they rarely seem to share Murdoch's philosophy of newspapering. As a consequence, Murdoch's most trusted lieutenants nearly always have been imported -- veterans of Australian and British tabloid journalism.
They know exactly what Murdoch expects. "We look at a newspaper somewhat differently than many other publishers," explains Bob Page, vice president of Murdoch's U.S. holding company, News America Publishing. "We want control of the news room. We want to put out the type of newspaper we want."
Murdoch himself once put it a little less deftly to an editor at the New York Post. "Americans," he said, "don't know how to do journalism."
So what is Murdoch's idea of "doing" journalism? Leapman points to a pre-and post-Murdoch study of the Chicago Sun- Times by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The study statistically illustrated what to many seemed so transparent: under Murdoch's ownership, the Sun-Times had more pictures, more coverage of crime (especially rape) and more stories on entertainment, celebrities, accidents and disasters.
Murdoch came to have faith in this formula with the astounding success of the Sun, which he transformed into Britain's biggest newspaper with the help of high-voltage headlines, photographs of bare-breasted women and circulation- boosting bingo games. Murdoch's aggressive efforts to clone The Sun's success in the United States, however, have largely failed. Advertisers apparently do not want to spend much money reaching the "downscale" readers Murdoch's formula attracts. (Leapman relates the now famous, perhaps untrue, line tendered by a Bloomingdale's media buyer when Murdoch asked why the store didn't advertise in the New York Post. "But Rupert, Rupert," she said, "your readers are my shoplifters.")
Leapman's book is at its best in exploring how Murdoch comes up with the cash to satisfy his seemingly insatiable appetite for acquisitions. His media properties haven't generated enough (The Sun and the News of the World are the only big cash cows of his far-flung empire), so Murdoch has tried other techniques. On one occasion, for example, he raised more than $50 million by liquidating extensive bauxite holdings in Western Australia. In his first big corporate squeeze play, a failed attempt to take over Warner Communications in 1983, Murdoch cleared $41.5 million (and recouped the $8 million in expenses he had wagered). In his second Wall Street raid, an unsuccessful bid to acquire St. Regis Corp., the paper and forest-products company, Murdoch walked away with a profit of $36.6 million.
These days, though, Murdoch seems to be savoring the sure thing. Since this book was written, he's been reshuffling his multinational media empire to make way for his biggest deal yet: the acquisition of six major-market television stations from Metromedia. (Murdoch already has sold the Village Voice, and he ay have to sell the New York Post to comply with the Federal Communications Commission's ban on owning a newspaper and TV station in the same city.) For some time now, Murdoch has dreamed of forming a fourth network in the United States. Why? Murdoch's Canadian counterpart, Roy Thomson, said it best: owning a television station is a license to print money.
So read Leapman's book, but don't weep. We shouldn't feel sorry for poor Rupert at all. He'll be laughing, longer than any of us realize, all the way to the bank. By Bill Hogan; Bill Hogan writes for The City Desk, a Washington news burea many city and state magazines.