TV Review: In ‘The Rise Of The Murdoch Dynasty’, The Empire Strikes Back

Rupert Murdoch is a man that everyone should know well. After all, he has single-handedly controlled the swing of the political pendulum since the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. The Australian media mogul started out inheriting just one newspaper in Adelaide, but rose to control the Sun, the Times, Fox News, Sky, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the former News of the World, to name but a few. He is a man who has essentially dictated which way the political wind has blown for half a century; however his own story is, ironically, rarely told.

The Rise Of The Murdoch Dynasty, a three-part documentary, first aired on BBC Two on July 14th, tells the story of the rise, the fall, and the rise again, of Murdoch and his media empire. It reveals how Murdoch came to dominate the political landscape in the Western World, by infiltrating government itself, and at times dictating national policy. The documentary investigates three lines of inquiry into Rupert Murdoch: his political affairs, his companies, and his personal life. Each episode continues chronologically, but these three issues are the focus of the documentary, as they frequently intertwine and coalesce.

The documentary sets out the political meddling of Murdoch first from 1995, at a management conference on Hayman Island, where Murdoch chooses to abandon the current UK Conservative government, and switch sides to support Tony Blair and the Labour Party. This continues through the early 2000s, where the documentary reveals the extent to which Murdoch had direct control over the Labour government and their policies.

This close relationship between Murdoch and UK politics continues its trajectory through Gordon Brown and into the 2010 Conservative coalition, under David Cameron. The phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, and the subsequent 2012 Leveson Inquiry, whilst thoroughly concentrated on in the second episode, seemed largely ineffective in restricting Murdoch’s power, who later returned to be a decisive force in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the election of Donald Trump in the US, as portrayed in the final episode.

“The series portrays Murdoch’s empire as something so colossal that it could not be destroyed, even though it was a real threat to the political system.”

The documentary depicts Murdoch’s blasé approach to politics; deciding to back the best candidate for his business interests, rather than that of the country itself. Producers David Glover and Cate Hall made sure that the point was clear: Murdoch was not committed to either side of the political spectrum. On the contrary, his sole concern when switching sides from John Major to Tony Blair, and then from Gordon Brown to David Cameron, was whether it would propel his company further forward. This demonstrates not just the political duplicity of Murdoch, but also his total contempt for the British people, who have been constantly exposed to, and at the mercy of, his media companies and their journalistic depravity.

The path of his media corporations is closely interconnected with Murdoch’s political affairs. The documentary makes it clear that Murdoch held total and unbending authority other all of his media networks, with his opinions and perspectives mirrored in his companies’ final prints and productions. This is most ruthlessly shown in the first episode when Neil Wallis, the former deputy editor of The Sun, tells the documentary how before the 1997 election, was directly told by Murdoch that “[The Sun] are not just backing Tony Blair, but [they] are going to back the Labour Party and everything [Tony Blair] does in this campaign 200%, and you’ve gotta get that right!” This perfectly demonstrates how Murdoch manipulated and controlled his editors and everything they put in his papers. Independent journalism is not something that Murdoch holds in high office.

The phone hacking scandal and Leveson Inquiry is depicted in the documentary as attempting to seriously reduce Murdoch’s influence in public and political life. However, as with similar investigations, the Leveson Inquiry did not follow through with its recommendations for an independent press regulator and a second, more thorough inquiry. The series portrays Murdoch’s empire as something so colossal that it could not be destroyed, even though it was a real threat to the political system. Indeed, Hugh Grant states in the documentary that “Murdoch’s a proper danger to liberal democracies, if liberal democracy is your thing”.

“The documentary shows that Murdoch was constantly battling on both business and personal fronts, sometimes facing the same problem in both.”

It is within this concoction of political interference and media supremacy that the documentary injects Murdoch’s personal life, and that of his children and spouses. It details the power struggle between his three eldest children, Elizabeth, Lachlan, and James – the three are presented in the first episode as all fighting to eventually be handed the keys to the company. However, over the course of the documentary, Elizabeth and James abandon their hopes of inheriting the company, until it is only Lachlan who remains. This struggle between the three is further complicated, as the documentary portrays, by the emergence of Rebekah Brooks, who rose to become the CEO of News Corp UK. The documentary initially portrays her as a potential candidate for succeeding Murdoch, but after the phone hacking scandal, her chances were all but decimated.

The documentary also portrays Murdoch’s divorce from his second wife of 32 years, Anna Maria Torv, and his third marriage (to Wendi Deng) as being another decisive factor in the power struggle between the three children. The inclusion of Murdoch’s family affairs is an interesting one because at times, it cannot be separated from his political and business affairs. The documentary shows that Murdoch was constantly battling on both business and personal fronts, sometimes facing the same problem in both.

The use of a tree diagram throughout the documentary to visually represent the Murdoch empire and its reach is an essential tool. Though by the end of the documentary it had turned into more of a spider’s web, the diagram depicts how Murdoch’s enterprise was heavily invested in the UK and US political systems. It was vital tool in exposing the links between media CEOs and high-class politicians, which without a visual representation would have largely gone unrecognised.

Overall, the documentary is a vital piece of televised journalism, drawing on interviews from many well-known public figures, such as Andrew Neil, Nigel Farage, Steve Bannon and Alastair Campbell, as well as journalists who worked for both The Sun and the News of the World. It is widespread in scope, yet when it does focus on particular events, it does so with depth and intricacy. The narrator describes Murdoch at the outset as an “enigma”. Personally, a more appropriate description of the man is given by the late playwright, Dennis Potter, who, in the last interview before his death, said:

“There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press [than Murdoch], and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life”.

The three-part documentary is now available on BBC iPlayer.

Words by William Cooper

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