If Rupert Murdoch were a different kind of corporate czar--say, a Hollywood mogul or a computer magnate--the press would have fricasseed him over leaving his wife and taking up with a 31-year-old employee.
But there were no "RUPE FLEES TO LOVE NEST" headlines, either because the proprietor of the New York Post and the London Sun might strike back with his own snarling tabloids or because the media take care of their own.
Now Murdoch, 68, who rarely grants interviews, is talking for the first time about his divorce from wife Anna and marriage to Wendi Deng, as well as the low-rent journalism in which his company occasionally indulges. He said public figures essentially have no right to privacy.
Murdoch told Vanity Fair that he was "a recently separated, lonely man" when he asked Deng, a News Corp. staffer, out to dinner in London last year (and then "talked her into staying in London a couple of extra days"). He dismissed as "complete nonsense" suggestions that he began the affair while still married.
As for his marital split, "I was traveling a lot and was very obsessed with business and perhaps more than normally inconsiderate." With their children grown, Murdoch said, "the family home suddenly becomes a home for two people without their central shared interest. . . . We drifted apart to the point where things became very unhappy. . . . You go through a period of mixed emotions and self-doubt, but there it is." His kids, said Murdoch, "haven't pretended to like it."
When asked about Deng, Murdoch told the magazine that "to say that she is some business genius about to take over News Corp. would be funny if it wasn't believed by some people. . . . Wendi is busy working on decorating the new apartment. She's a bit frustrated by it--she'd love to work . . . but the fact is she cannot do that and travel with me."
The interview, by Murdoch biographer William Shawcross, in the October issue out this week, asked about the Sun's two-fisted reporting. Murdoch's answer is downright Clintonesque:
"There was a period when it savaged people. But it depends on what you mean by savaging people. There's nothing wrong with hitting your adversaries hard."
Asked if everyone deserved a private life, Murdoch said: "Not really. It depends on who you are and what position you've got." He admitted that "the British press has been pretty kind" to him, compared with its usual behavior.
What about the Sun's decision to publish that topless photo of Sophie Rhys-Jones just before she married Prince Edward?
"Terrible," Murdoch conceded. "It was an inexplicable mistake and a setback."
But he made no apology for the Sun setting up a phone number where callers could hear an intimate car-phone discussion between Princess Diana and one of her romantic interests. Murdoch said the Sun does "pander to people's low tastes" but also tries to discuss serious issues.
The founder of the Fox television network offered a less-than-ringing defense of that venture: "I think a lot of television, including Fox, is certainly a negative influence with some of the modern popular comedies." But he hailed "The Simpsons" as "the cleverest program on television."
Murdoch is unperturbed by such violence-filled Fox reality shows as "World's Wildest Police Videos" and "When Animals Attack," saying: "I think they're quite all right. No harm in any of that. It gets a bit repetitive. There's too much of it. But I don't have any worries about it or its effect on people."
Murdoch publications are known for their political crusades. He boasted about his New York Post helping obscure Republican George Pataki unseat then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994, saying: "I'd be a hypocrite to say I didn't enjoy that."
Ted Turner, Murdoch's archenemy, dumps on him at every opportunity. But Murdoch told the magazine that the two had been "rather friendly" until Murdoch announced the launch of Fox News Channel to compete with Turner's CNN. "Then he started calling me Hitler and any other abusive word that came into his head. . . . He trades on seeming crazy when he is not, or not totally."
Brushing off criticism of his journalistic efforts as the work of "middle-class intellectuals," Murdoch said, "People are jealous of success--it's natural."
CAPTION: Rupert Murdoch with then-wife Anna last year: "I was . . . perhaps more than normally inconsiderate."
CAPTION: Murdoch admits his London Sun does "pander to people's low tastes."