For a billionaire chairman and CEO of the world’s second largest media conglomerate, Rupert Murdoch does a decent impression of an 81-year-old who’s going slightly gaga. Sure, he is 81. But such was the widespread impression in the aftermath of his evidence to British parliamentarians given in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal last year. In his halting expressions of contrition, amnesic failure to recollect his activities and a delivery that might charitably be called measured, many found it difficult to reconcile such a diminished prune-like exhibit with his fearsome reputation as the ultimate éminence grise of British politics, the scourge of left-wing politicians for a generation.
Indeed, other octogenarians suffering such a pronounced annus horribilis might be tempted to sink into a retirement of card playing and 9-iron swinging. Followers of Murdoch’s Twitter feed, an intemperate volley of vituperation aimed at those with a worldview alternative to that of R. Murdoch, might suspect otherwise. (‘Why is Jewish owned press so consistently anti-Israel in every crisis?’ he enquired yesterday to general consternation). And so it is being proved: from the ashes of disaster and ‘the most humble day of my life’ come the roses of (potential) success. 'Rupert has his mojo back,' says Todd Juenger, a media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. 'The stock is up, investors are happy with the company’s recent decisions.' Buoyed by the troubles at his old nemesis, the BBC (‘Look to new CEO to shape up NYT unless recalled to BBC to explain latest scandal’, he gleefully posted last month, killing two much-loathed birds with one tweet), Rupert’s ready to go shopping again.
News Corp’s ultimately ill-fated $1.6 billion cash offer for Pearson’s Penguin publishing house is emblematic of this new resurgence. Relinquishing its $12 billion bid for the portion of BSkyB that it did not already own gave News Corporation ample cash to consider other acquisitions, and top of the list could be a 49 per cent stake in the Yes Network in New York, an investment that could help create a new nationwide sports network to compete with ESPN. What’s more, despite the publishing arm of News Corp taking some heavy knocks in the third quarter of this year due to lower advertising revenues – the group reported a 48 per cent drop in operating income to $57m – strong profits from its cable television networks ($2.2 billion in the three months to 30 September) depict a company in rude financial health.
Such a commanding position, moreover, gives Murdoch the chance to indulge himself in his love of newspapers. Rumours abound (despite being officially denied) that News Corporation has been talking to the bankrupt Tribune Company, who is looking to offload such struggling titles as The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune; and plans for total structural reorganization at the company are allegedly underway, involving the transferral of all underperforming publishing assets into a separate publically traded entity. The implication is clear: the Sun King is far from ready to abdicate. Wapping may not be Versailles, but the Murdoch empire is powerful, far-reaching, and isn’t finished expanding – yet.