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March 5, 2021

Murdoch family civil war

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Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng in 2012. The pair's public divorce has resulted in much media speculation. Photo AFP/Justin Tallis
Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng in 2012. The pair’s public divorce has resulted in much media speculation. Photo AFP/Justin Tallis

But don’t write Rupert off yet

Stephen Mayne, Journalist and Australian Shareholders’ Association monitor

The Australian Financial Review’s Neil Chenoweth and New York-based media writer Michael Wolff are the two best-informed observers of all things Murdoch. The two collaborated last week as Chenoweth produced a fascinating feature on what he calls the Murdoch family ‘reality show’ across two pages of the Weekend Fin.

The latest Rupert divorce is at the heart of the battle, but to understand the history here is a useful internet guide to the key revelations as they unfolded…

  • August 6, 2013: Michael Wolff reveals in USA Today all sorts of alleged affairs and alliances around the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks.
  • November 10, 2013: Michael Wolff writes in USA Today that Rupert filed for divorce from Wendi after media reports that she was romantically involved with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and that Rupert was now romantically involved with his massage therapist.
  • November 23, 2013: Original Mail on Sunday piece on Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch falling out over alleged Blair-Wendi ‘multiple encounters’.
  • November 30, 2013: Mail on Sunday follow-up piece as the Blair and Rupert camps go to war in excruciating detail.
  • January 18, 2014: Neil Chenoweth pulls it all together in the AFR, including unprecedented on-the-record comments and denials from both sides of the warring family. Rupert’s spokesman told Chenoweth the world’s most powerful mogul ‘is not and has not been dating anyone’.
  • January 18, 2014: Andrew Hornery buries a line in his Sydney Morning Herald ‘Private Sydney’ column that ‘there is a new woman in the 83-year-old’s life, a media executive in Sydney in her early 30s, who is well known to the extended Murdoch family. While the rumoured relationship is yet to be confirmed, friends of the woman are said to be gobsmacked by the news.’

Chenoweth’s response to this new revelation on Twitter was simply: ‘Oh golly’.

Elisabeth Murdoch’s husband Matthew Freud appears to be co-ordinating the family attack on Rupert and Chenoweth finished his Saturday piece claiming that Freud was ‘Wendi Deng’s best friend’. A former Freud PR staffer is acting as Wendi’s publicist.

Wolff also told Chenoweth that he doesn’t see compelling evidence confirming the Blair-Wendi affair and that Rupert simply went after Blair because he sided with Wendi as his third marriage broke down.

So, what is to be believed in this environment of extraordinary claims and unprecedented revelations from inside the warring Murdoch family?

It’s not in dispute that Blair and Wendi had a series of meetings that Rupert didn’t know about ahead of the divorce, but it is entirely plausible that these were ‘purely platonic’ as Blair claims. Blair was godfather to one of Wendi’s two daughters with Rupert, and Blair had built a relationship with Wendi as he attempted to ‘handle’ Murdoch while British prime minister.

If Wendi was miserable about the marriage, Blair was an obvious shoulder to cry on and even the Mail on Sunday claim about Wendi’s note to herself suggesting a ‘crush’ on Blair in no way confirms that he took the next incredibly risky step of conducting an affair. Besides, there is no public sign of any stress in the Blair marriage.

If Rupert has instigated an ambush divorce of Wendi based on a false rumour that he then propagated through the press, then Wendi does deserve sympathy and the support of people like Freud. In this scenario, Blair has also been spectacularly shafted by Rupert and joins a long line of former political leaders harbouring great animosity towards him.

Why on Earth should Blair be collateral damage as the Murdoch adult children finally won their battle to have Wendi thrown out of the family scene?

The other key question around all of this goes to whether the ‘Rupert Murdoch era’ is over, as claimed by Guardian writer Steve Hewlett on January 6.

Say what? Rupert has just helped change the Australian government, Fox News is bigger and more profitable than ever and the value of the family fortune has doubled to a record $14 billion since the depths of the phone-hacking firestorm. I can’t see how anyone can declare Rupert’s influence is over, or even particularly in decline.

He’s now the chairman of two mighty companies, News Corp and 21st Century Fox, and retains voting, board and management control over both of them. For instance, there is no way 21st Century Fox would have announced it was delisting from the ASX without Rupert’s say so.

Sure, he’s now facing more determined enemies – including from inside his own family – than ever before, but none of them have any real power to curtail his record 61-year run as the CEO and ultimate controlling influence over the most extraordinary and powerful media empire ever assembled.

 

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