In the fading fruit bowl of global media memes, Wendi Deng Murdoch is the perfect peach—the story so eternally delicious that if she didn’t exist we would have to make her up.
Sometimes we do.
She never disappoints. From the many conflicting accounts of how she and Rupert Murdoch discovered true love two decades ago, to the colourful details of her first marriage written by Wall Street Journal staff (who turned out to have strangely limited career prospects); on to the Murdoch family brawl over her children’s inheritance; slugging the pie-thrower who attacked Rupert at the UK parliamentary committee in 2011; all before her special friendship with former UK PM Tony Blair: Wendi has always been the best story in town.
And who can forget Clive Palmer’s fanciful (and entirely unsubstantiated) Twitter claims that she was a secret Chinese agent tasked to infiltrate Rupert?
But Wendi and the Panama Papers? The latest theory can be filed under the modest label, How Wendi Helped Bring Down Western Civilization (subtitled Or At Least The Hillary Clinton Bits Of It).
The New York Times and the Financial Times have been excited this year by the revelation that Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka until late December was one of five directors of a trust that holds $US291 million in News Corporation and 21sty Century Fox shares for Wendi’s daughters, Grace and Chloe Murdoch.
Really? As Wendi stories go, it’s a little disappointing. She and Ivanka have been tight forever, or at least since Wendi engineered Ivanka’s marriage to Jared Kushner in 2009, and the trust is plain vanilla.
Is that the US media’s best shot? She’s a Murdoch, after all, and Murdochs require a spectacular suspension of disbelief. It’s obligatory.
They’re missing the big story. The big Russian story of the election. Vladimir Putin . . . ring any bells? And Wendi Deng looks to be right in the middle of it.
Of all the wonderful and wacky Wendi Deng stories, the absolutely tippy top tale began last March with the words, “How’s this for a new couple alert? The rumor circulating around the corridors of power — from Washington, D.C., to Europe and Asia — is that Vladimir Putin and Wendi Deng, Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife, are dating. See more photos of Wendi here.”
The story was written by Sierra Marquina, the West Coast editor of Us Weekly, who spends her time reporting Hollywood goss (“Hilary Duff Admits She Used to Hate Her Legs: ‘I’ve Learned to Love and Celebrate Myself’”).
Her sources? Well there was this rumour. And also, “one insider close to the powerful leader tells Us Weekly the relationship is ‘serious’.”
That’s it, then: the insider close to Putin, who chose to break the global story by confiding in the gossip columns of Us Weekly, in California.
You know, the way that huge Russian geopolitical gossip stories always break in LA. It’s the only thing they have to fill those column inches not devoted to Hilary Duff’s legs.
The story, like Berlei bras, had no visible means of support, but it was taken up zestfully by journalists around the world, mostly because they desperately wanted—needed—it to be true. Recently there was even a fake photo of the pair, a digitally altered picture of Wendi and Ivanka with Putin shopped in.
In an engaging shrug at substantiation, the original story and all the follow stories pointed out as the clinching argument that Wendi was a guest on the yacht of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who is besties with Putin.
None of the stories mentioned Wendi’s longstanding close friendship with Abramovich’s wife Dasha Zhukova.
Going out on a limb here, there’s absolutely no truth to the Deng-Putin claim. But timing is everything and the story came out just days after Rupert married Jerry Hall on March 4.
That’s just over three weeks from the happy nuptials to the publication of the Wendi-Putin fake news story. Who on earth would make up a wacky claim like that? It’s almost like a bit of point-scoring, a wizard wheeze put out there to annoy the Murdochs, a little private joke among friends. Who knows? It could have been anybody.
The Putin story did make for some very gratifying comparisons.
Marina Hyde in the Guardian began her piece: “Look, I’m sure Jerry Hall is perfectly nice. But does she have nuclear weapons?”
Talk about blowing away Jerry.
Then in July, another friend of Wendi, Vogue editor Anna Wintour,
ran a glowing profile, ‘Wendi Murdoch Is Nothing Less Than a Force of Nature’, where Wendi put the kybosh on the whole Putin story: “a sort of wish fulfilment for those who over the years have cast Murdoch as a fearless hunter of big game. Untrue, alas. ‘I’ve never met Putin,’ she says. ‘But wow, so much press about it. Why did they choose me?’”
Ivanka, who was cruising the Adriatic with Wendi in August on David Geffen’s yacht, tweeted the article: “#WendiMurdoch is the friend that encourages you to be better. Her story was told in this month’s @voguemagazine.”
In September the three of them—Wendi, Ivanka and Dasha—were together in Geffen’s box watching the tennis at the US Open in September, along with Jared Kushner, his brother Josh, and Josh’s girlfriend Karlie Kloss.
It’s a warming tale of cameraderie.
But not everyone appeared to enjoy the humour in the Wendi-Vladimir linking, which turned out to be really unhappy timing.
On Monday March 28 last year, the Kremlin made extraordinary claims about a pending “information attack” that would target Putin’s wealth and his ties to billionaire oligarchs in Russia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) had contacted the Kremlin seeking comment on dozens of questions concerning “Putin personally” as well as “information about his family, childhood friends,” and business allies.
Peskov said there were also “questions about some sort of offshore companies,” Bloomberg reported on March 29. Other “amusing” requests included whether Putin had more than $40 billion and if he owned yachts.
Russia has “available the full arsenal of legal means in the national and international arena to protect the honour and dignity of our president”, he said.
Peskov had stepped up his rhetoric by Wednesday March 30, warning that “some public organizations, non-governmental organizations, security services of foreign countries and certain media have joined an election campaign in our country before the start of said campaign.” Some of the journalists were actually intelligence agents, he claimed.
None of this was true.
It was unfortunate that the Us Weekly story that Putin was in a “serious” relationship with Wendi Deng came out right in the very middle of this process, on Thursday March 31, when Kremlin paranoia about a US destabilisation campaign was at its peak.
Russian media reported the Wendi story as part of an “information war” against Putin, which was the same way they described the Panama Papers, which ICIJ media partners around the world including The Australian Financial Review released on the following Sunday, April 3 (the morning of April 4 in Australia)
The reports, based on 11 million documents of Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca which had been obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitung, revealed the secret financial records of dozens of world leaders, including $2 billion moved out of Russia by associates of Putin. The stories ran for weeks.
On April 4 the Kremlin press office emailed an American journalist,
“There is no truth in the story published in Us Weekly stating that the President of Russia is in a relationship with Wendi Deng,” at the same time that it was denying the Panama Papers stories.
In the Kremlin’s view, the two stories seemed to be conflated
The Russian government had found allies, including WikiLeaks. RT reported Wikileaks’s Twitter feed claims that it was all the work of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), “which targets Russia and [the] former USSR.”
Wikileaks walked back its position somewhat in a later tweet: “Claims that #PanamaPapers themselves are a ‘plot’ against Russia are nonsense. However hoarding, DC organization & USAID money tilt coverage”. By that stage Putin had moved on to blaming Goldman Sachs, which he mistakenly believed owned Süddeutsche Zeitung. It was all over the place, but Putin clearly believed (mistakenly) someone was out to get him.
Fast forward to January 7 this year, when Washington released the US intelligence report on Russia’s attempt to sway the US presidential election. What has gone largely unreported is that the report identified the most likely triggers for the Russian action, besides Putin’s longstanding hostility to Hillary Clinton:
“Putin publicly pointed to the Panama Papers disclosure and the Olympic doping scandal as US-directed efforts to defame Russia, suggesting he sought to use disclosures to discredit the image of the United States and cast it as hypocritical.”
While the doping scandal broke in mid-2015, the release of the Panama Papers coincided directly with a dramatic increase in Russian hacking. The timeline went like this:
February 21 2016: ICIJ partners begin contacting companies and individuals named in the Panama Papers, including Putin’s associates. Major figures received a barrage of queries from media organisations around the world. And with no knowledge of the other inquiries, each would think that they were the only person being targeted. This mistaken first impression would prove difficult—even impossible—to shake.
March 6: The ICIJ put questions to Mossack Fonseca in Panama.
March 11: ICIJ partners began putting questions to Mossack Fonseca as well.
Russian intelligence had access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks from July 2015, but it was only in March 2016 that the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) began its operation to compromise the personal email accounts of Democratic Party officials and political figures through a spearphishing campaign.
March 19: Hillary’s campaign chairman John Podesta’s email was compromised by Fancy Bear hackers after he is mistakenly told that an email apparently from Google asking him to change his password is legitimate.
March 22: Billy Rinehart, a former DNC employee working for the Clinton campaign, clicked on a link in a similar email and gave Russian hackers access to his account. From there, the range of targets broadened.
“By May, the GRU had exfiltrated large volumes of data from the DNC,” the US intelligence report said.
March 28: Putin’s spokesman claimed a pending “information attack” would target Putin’s wealth,
At least in the Russian government’s mindset, there was a hint of symmetry here. Putin was facing what he saw as a US-sponsored exposure of his private affairs, which coincided or was soon followed by an exposure of the private affairs of expected next US president, Hilary Clinton. History as a product of paranoid fantasy and misunderstanding.
There are many ways these two threads could interact. The simplest is that Putin’s government saw the Panama Papers as an infowar strategy by the US and responded by the GRU operation to target the DNC. A second possibility is that while Panama Papers was not the direct trigger for the GRU, it helped determine how the information obtained form the DNC emails was handled.
Other factors were at play here. Nevertheless when Russian officials decided in May that they would release this email information to damage Hillary’s campaign, to a greater or lesser extent Panama Papers had become wrapped up in the way they saw Russia’s relationship to the US.
It’s in this atmosphere in late March, where Russian leaders were forging their response to what they see as the Panama Papers “information war”, that this very personal story about Putin’s love life broke in Us Weekly.
Picture Putin, reviewing this tale of imagined slights and woes, where Wendi sits as the cherry on top of the cake. His favourite wealthy cello player exposed, and now fake news about his own love life?
It’s too much, Putin says. “This,” he growls forcefully, perhaps without his shirt on, “means information war.”
You can see the London Sun’s headline for Trump’s subsequent election victory: It Was Wendi Wot Won It. Or maybe that should be just An Unfortunate Series of Events.
Of course there was an upside for Putin. In the first two weeks of April, while all those stories about Putin and the cello player were trundling out, large parts of the Western media, with heroic disregard for plausibility, were busy reporting that Putin was secretly holidaying with Wendi on Abramovich’s yacht at St Barts in the Caribbean.
So how did Wendi really feel about Rupert divorcing her and marrying Jerry, who is 12 years older than her?
“Mmm, next time you interview me we can discuss that,” she said when the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman asked her last October.
She’s not talking, but she’s OK with it, which is just as well. As Vogue puts it, she’s got the whole force of nature thing going. If this is being OK with Rupert, what would happen if she really got snippy?