REALLY bad career moves? I’ve got it completely covered.
Decyphering Rupert Murdoch is like doing a cryptic crossword. You either get this stuff or you don’t. His influence on world media, and the power that gives him, is so pervasive that keeping track of his latest moves is a legitimate, and I believe important, exercise. It’s a job, it’s a story, it’s nothing personal. But in such a pursuit, one thing is clear: you need to put your own personal history clearly on the table.
I almost worked for Rupert Murdoch. For ten minutes I regarded myself as virtually on the staff.
Ten minutes isn’t a long time, if you’re running a worldwide media empire. It does tend to drag a bit when you’re waiting to get a job. In February 1988, after returning to Australia impoverished from the Middle East, I went looking for a job at my old paper, Chris Mitchell’s alma mater, the Brisbane Telegraph. If Telegraph editors had a life ambition, it was to wrap a higher quality piece of seafood. But I was broke. And they had promised they would always have a job for me. Newspapers always say that. They can’t help themselves.
It would be wrong to say that they laughed when I arrived to make my little pitch. My former colleagues held their heaving sides and actually rolled on the floor, howling all the while. You may not have seen a large number of journalists beside themselves with mirth. It’s not picturesque. Every few minutes one of them would muster enough strength to stop laughing for a moment and try to tell me why my job request was so intensely amusing. But then a new spasm of mirth would convulse them, and the contortions and gargling would resume. Ten minutes later, the editor entered the newsroom to announce formally what they had been trying to tell me: that the new owner, Rupert Murdoch, was closing the Telegraph that day. He wished us luck finding another position.
Rupert Murdoch had saved me from the fishwrappers, and as I wandered off into the wilds of television and magazines, I was mildly grateful. My journalistic pursuit of his empire has not been animated by rancor. Actually my interest in Murdoch began with a really bad career decision. I blame the whole catastrophe on Martin Peers.
Peers is a media writer with the Wall Street Journal. At least he is today, but in 1990 he worked in Sydney for the Australian Financial Review. The first time I came across him, he managed to spoil an entirely drinkable cup of coffee. By then I was Brisbane correspondent for a magazine called Australian Business. In my experience, working as a correspondent fosters—actually it requires—a natural tendency to indolence, and a vast feeling of self-satisfaction. So it was really very annoying, one morning in April 1990 as I sat back to drink a cup of coffee and scan the morning papers, to read a disgracefully good story that Peers had written about a mysterious stock deal by Rupert Murdoch’s family company. The deal involved the company that published the Brisbane Telegraph.
It was outrageous. I was the LOCAL CORRESPONDENT. The living authority on the north-east quarter of Australia. And Peers, a bigshot out-of-town journalist, had sniffed out this fascinating story without even leaving Sydney. It was almost too much to bear. Not the least of my complaints was that in the course of reading this story my revolting instant coffee had grown first tepid, and then cold.
Twelve months later, my attempts to follow up Peers’ story had triggered an inquiry by the Australian Securities & Investments Commission into the Murdoch family companies. ASIC was talking about reversing a secret 1987 stock deal, and sending Murdoch bankrupt (though of course nothing like that happened). For me, the ASIC pursuit spelt professional calamity. In a country where Rupert Murdoch owns 70 per cent of all the newspapers, starting something like this is so dumb it goes off the scale. You have to consider whole new classifications of Stupid. Of course, by then there was not a lot left to lose. And there was very little competition. No one else swimming in the pool. A niche market, really.
I became a Murdoch watcher because Rupert Murdoch was always the best story in town.
Martin Peers owes me another bluddy cup of coffee.
Author’s Note from Rupert Murdoch, Crown Business (New York) 2002