Media power has historically accrued slowly, over the course of generations, which is one reason it tends to be concentrated in dynastic families. The Graham family owned The Washington Post for 80 years before selling it to Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos. William R. Hearst III still presides over the Hearst Corporation, whose roots can be traced to his great-grandfather, the mining-baron-turned-United-States-senator George Hearst. The New York Times has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family for more than a century. The Murdoch empire is a relatively young one by comparison, but it would be hard to argue that there is a more powerful media family on earth.
The right-wing populist wave that looked like a fleeting cultural phenomenon a few years ago has turned into the defining political movement of the times, disrupting the world order of the last half-century. The Murdoch empire did not cause this wave. But more than any single media company, it enabled it, promoted it and profited from it. Across the English-speaking world, the family’s outlets have helped elevate marginal demagogues, mainstream ethnonationalism and politicize the very notion of truth. The results have been striking. It may not have been the family’s mission to destabilize democracies around the world, but that has been its most consequential legacy.
Over the last six months, we have spoken to more than 150 people across three continents about the Murdochs and their empire — some who know the family intimately, some who have helped them achieve their aims, some who have fought against them with varying degrees of success. (Most of these people insisted on anonymity to share intimate details about the family and its business so as not to risk retribution.) The media tend to pay a lot of attention to the media: Fox News is covered almost as closely as the White House and often in the same story. The Murdochs themselves are an enduring object of cultural fascination: “Ink,” a play about Rupert’s rise, is opening soon on Broadway. The second season of HBO’s “Succession,” whose fictional media family, the Roys, bears a striking resemblance to the Murdochs, airs this summer. But what we as reporters had not fully appreciated until now is the extent to which these two stories — one of an illiberal, right-wing reaction sweeping the globe, the other of a dynastic media family — are really one. To see Fox News as an arm of the Trump White House risks missing the larger picture. It may be more accurate to say that the White House — just like the prime ministers’ offices in Britain and Australia — is just one tool among many that this family uses to exert influence over world events.
What do the Murdochs want? Family dynamics are complex, too, and media dynasties are animated by different factors — workaday business imperatives, the desire to pass on wealth, an old-fashioned sense of civic duty. But the Murdochs’ global operations suggest a different dynastic orientation, one centered on empire building in the original sense of the term: territorial conquest. Murdoch began with a small regional paper in Australia, inherited from his father. He quickly expanded the business into a national and then an international force, in part by ruthlessly using his platform to help elect his preferred candidates and then ruthlessly using those candidates to help extend his reach. Murdoch’s news empire is a monument to decades’ worth of transactional relationships with elected officials. Murdoch has said that he “never asked a prime minister for anything.” But press barons don’t have to ask when their media outlets can broadcast their desires. Politicians know what Murdoch wants, and they know what he can deliver: the base, their voters — power. [Continue reading…]