He is 87 years old, and in his fourth marriage – to Jerry Hall, a celebrity and former model, who is several decades younger than him and who used to be married to Mick Jagger of Rolling Stone. He is an active, colourful man, despite his advanced age. Rupert Murdoch sits at the helm of the largest and most powerful media conglomerate in the world.
After the death of his father, a reporter and editor in Australia in 1952, Rupert formed his own company, News Limited. He went on from there to expand his media empire, acquiring titles in Australia and New Zealand, then moving into the United Kingdom and United States. Later, his holding company, News Corporation acquired Twentieth Century Fox (a film production company), HarperCollins (a publishing company), and the Wall Street Journal. He formed British broadcaster BSkyB and expanded into Asia and South America. Very soon News Corporation owned over 800 companies in more than 50 countries.
The Sun, one of his major newspapers, was credited with helping John Major defeat Neil Kinnock of Labour in the British General Election. The same newspaper, years later, would play a crucial role in swaying the British public to vote for Brexit.
The characteristics of Murdoch’s media operations included free market ideology and opposition to the perceived liberal bias in other public media.
Whether it was originally intended like that or not, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and other media in the stable have become the most powerful promoters of right-wing nationalistic, often anti-democratic leaders that are beginning to emerge across the world.
Fox News was launched in 1996 to fill what Murdoch saw as an unmet need for 24-hour news from a right-wing perspective. His instinct was spot-on. Fox News quickly grew to become the dominant subscription news network in the US, outpacing the other major news networks – CNN and MSNBC. In 2015, 81.4 percent of television subscribers in the US were receiving Fox News.
From the outset, the channel set a trend of biased news coverage and reporting, and also popularised the format of talk shows which was previously developed on radio, where popular voluble figures came on air to dispense their views, which were not required to meet the criteria or objectivity or even fairness. The staunch support for the Republican Party was evident from the days of President George W Bush.
During the Obama era, the network was regularly hostile and disparaging of the President and his plans and achievements. Fox News and its talk show hosts provided regular justification for the Republican legislators’ efforts to shut down Obama initiatives including the Affordable Care Act – designed to make health insurance available to economically and socially disadvantaged Americans.
In the elections that led to the emergence of Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch did not have a particularly high opinion of candidate Trump and did not think much of his chances. He also did not agree with some of his ideas, such as his views on trade and Immigration, which were out of step with mainstream Republican ideology.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law, did much to bring the two people together. At that time what Trump had in his corner was the ‘lunatic fringe’ right-wing press represented by brands such as Brietbart, who not only distorted news but also parlayed ‘conspiracy theories’ designed to stoke the paranoia of white supremacists. If Trump could get Rupert Murdoch, and through him Fox Media, on board, then he would have access to, and legitimacy from, not only the ‘Far Right’, but the mainstream ‘Right’, as well as the large number of ‘Undecideds’ that regularly tuned in the Fox.
The tactics of Jared Kushner worked. Murdoch, and Fox, moved solidly behind Trump. From that point, he became unstoppable, not only blowing his Republican rivals out of the water, but also acquiring that swing energy of the ‘Undecideds’ that would crucially coalesce to give him victory in the most shocking election outcome of the century.
The question has been asked – who used who?
Did Trump use Murdoch, and his Fox Network, to ride to power, despite the fact that he knew Murdoch did not consider him a ‘true Republican?’ Or has Murdoch used Trump to strengthen and consolidate his media empire, placing it in an unassailable position in the global media landscape? Murdoch, after all, was not averse to demanding and getting favours for his conglomerate from various Presidents he had helped in the past, including Reagan and Bush.
Will the ‘marriage’ between Fox News, which is now, in all but name, the ‘official news media’ of the government of the US, and Donald Trump endure, and help to win Trump re-election? Or will there be a fracture, as Murdoch tries to return to ‘true journalism’ – his original calling, after this spell of ‘business journalism’ in which he has turned biased news coverage and toxic commentary into high art for the consumption of a gullible American public?
The first signs of a cleavage may have emerged recently, when Fox News reported a national poll of potential voters in 2020 which clearly did not favour Trump. The President reacted by lambasting Fox, a most unusual occurrence. But that may just have been a storm in a teacup.
Meanwhile the rest of the press, principally CNN, is reacting with anger, frustration and hostility, making them a mirror image of Fox News. There is an increasing tendency to lace News with anti-Trump opinion. In that battle zone, there is no middle-ground.
It is a fine mess in the Fourth Estate of the realm, in the US, the land of the free.