Throwing Knives at Rupert Murdoch


The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Media Wizard

By Neil Chenoweth

Crown Business -- 398pp -- $27.50

The summer of 1996 was a busy time for Rupert Murdoch. In New York, the transplanted Australian was calling in political favors to get News Corp.'s (NWS ) Fox News channel on Time Warner Inc.'s cable-TV system, plotting to grab a string of TV stations controlled by financier Ron Perelman, and suing the former head of a News Corp.-owned company for fraud. That case also featured a raid of the unit's Jerusalem offices by Israeli tax collectors.

It is enough to make your head swim--but such moments are not unusual in the life of the media magnate. In the past 49 years, since taking over his late father's debt-ridden newspaper in Australia, Rupert Murdoch has built one of the world's most complex, far-flung empires--a globe-girdling collection of satellites, newspapers, TV stations, and film studios. It hasn't always been easy. The 71-year-old Murdoch struggled with junk-bond debt in the mid-1980s and nearly lost his company to a banking consortium in 1991. His TV operations have at various times been outlawed in China and India, and he was investigated by the Federal Communications Commission for providing misleading documents about the ownership of his U.S. TV stations.

In short, Murdoch is no stranger to controversy. And in Rupert Murdoch: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Media Wizard, Australian journalist Neil Chenoweth amasses what seems like every detail of Murdoch's life, encompassing his early Leninist leanings, his three marriages, and his numerous convoluted business transactions. "He is probably the most influential and powerful media figure in the world," Chenoweth writes in his introduction.

Chenoweth is an able wordsmith, but this is not an easy book to negotiate. It's larded with minutiae that often lack an organizing principle, and the author has a tendency to skip back and forth in the narrative like a VCR switched between fast-forward and rewind. There is a stupefyingly large jumble of characters. Moreover, for those who know Murdoch, this book is hardly the "untold story" promised by the subtitle. Chenoweth's book is an amalgamation of everything that has ever been written about the man, from William Shawcross' Murdoch: The Making of a Media Empire to Ken Auletta's The Highwaymen: Warriors of the Information Highway.

Of greater concern is that Chenoweth spies a Murdoch-led conspiracy at every turn, despite evidence to the contrary. Did Murdoch really hoodwink a sophisticated investor like Ron Perelman in the aftermath of News Corp.'s $2.48 billion purchase of Perelman's TV stations? Perelman was hardly "in the dark" that the newly diluted stock would drop following the deal. Certainly, Murdoch sometimes plays fast and loose with the rules: He used his New York Post to pressure Time Warner to carry Fox News, and in the early days, alleviated a cash crisis by selling News Corp. shares to a company-owned Australian newspaper. But News Corp. is no Enron. I suspect that Chenoweth, a reporter for The Australian Financial Review, is yielding to a native journalistic predilection, "the tall poppy syndrome," under which journalists get high marks for cutting down major public figures. In Australia, few are as tall as Rupert Murdoch.

The book also has its share of errors. Chenoweth describes a heart attack that News Corp. General Counsel Arthur Siskind says he never suffered. Murdoch's supposed fall into a river during Herbert Allen's fabled media conference in Idaho is footnoted with the explanation that "an alternative version of this story puts this incident in Alaska." With facts this slippery, it's difficult to accept the accuracy of conversations that, Chenoweth alleges, occurred as Murdoch and cable titan John C. Malone schemed to carve up the media world.

Chenoweth is on firmer footing when he turns to well-known events. A fluid writer, he recounts in sharp detail the 13 months of labor unrest that followed Murdoch's construction of a new printing plant for his British newspapers, laying off printers in the name of new technology. He impressively describes the tax-shelter countries that are home base to some of Murdoch's companies, and the use of arcane Australian accounting rules that made News Corp.'s assets more appealing to prospective lenders. And Chenoweth dazzles as he takes us through Murdoch's complex 1990 renegotiation of a $1 billion loan that almost sent his company into liquidation.

The most riveting part of this book, however, deals with News Corp.'s supersecret News Digital Systems unit, an Israel-based outfit that provides encryption devices to secure programming on Murdoch's worldwide armada of satellite services. Here Chenoweth uses court documents to detail the illegal activities of British-born Michael Clinger, who ran the outfit for Murdoch and is now a fugitive on various securities violations. Not surprisingly, Chenoweth sees conspiracy. "What part of News Corp.'s management culture allowed it to employ a fugitive?" A good question, but not one that should be directed at Murdoch, who was clearly duped and is still trying to collect a $56 million judgment awarded him by a London court that found Clinger guilty of overcharging Murdoch for the security devices.

Whatever bumps he faced, Murdoch continues to build his empire. He may soon get the U.S. satellite-TV service he has long desired. Federal regulators have rejected a sale of General Motors Corp.'s DirecTV service to EchoStar Communications Corp. (DISH ) If the company is again put up for sale, Murdoch says he may bid it. Of course he will.

By Ronald Grover

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