Rupert Murdoch: From Tabloid Boss to Tabloid Quarry

The British media culture he helped shape is doing him few favors as he deals with divorce proceedings

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Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng Murdoch leave the High Court after Rupert Murdoch gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on April 26, 2012 in London.

There’s little more enjoyable for Britain’s most-popular red-top tabloid than to splash on a celebrity breakup. But the Sun‘s coverage of the implosion of one of the world’s highest-profile celebrity unions, between its proprietor Rupert Murdoch and his glamorous third wife, 44-year-old Wendi Deng, is notably terse.

“Media magnate Rupert Murdoch has filed for divorce from from his wife Wendi Deng. Mr Murdoch, 82, the head of the Sun’s parent company News Corporation, filed a petition with the New York Supreme Court stating their 14-year marriage had ‘broken down irretrievably.’ They have two daughters.”

And that was almost the full extent of the report posted early Friday on the Sun‘s website. The item—bereft of the Sun‘s hallmark tongue-in-cheek humor, salacious detail and intimate quotes from unnamed “friends”—concludes with a note of reassurance for any concerned Sun readers, shareholders or employees: “A News Corp spokesman said the divorce will have ‘zero impact’ on the firm.”

But it’s anyone’s guess as to the impact of Murdoch’s firm on his marriage. Divorce, as psychologists have long warned, is contagious—and News Corp has been negotiating its own painful split for some time. On June 11 its board secured the agreement of shareholders for the terms of separation. The longstanding union of multiple business interests is slated to divide at the end of the month: into a news-focused division bearing the company’s original name and housing titles such as the Sun, the Times of London, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, and a second entity, the cutely-updated 21st Century Fox, incorporating film and broadcast interests responsible for such rollicking fantasies as Avatar, the X-Men franchise and Fox News. The split follows revelations of a hacking scandal that in 2011 shuttered the Sun‘s sister red-top, News of the World, prompting two parliamentary inquiries, three separate police investigations into phone hacking, computer hacking, bribery and corruption, and an independent probe into the role of the press and the police led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson. And that was just at home. In the U.S., the scandal also attracted the attention of the Department of Justice.

If this has all been a heavy burden for an old man to bear, at least Murdoch had the support of Deng, 38 years younger and apparently so hardwired to protect him that in July 2011 she famously leapt to his defense against a comedian wielding a shaving-foam pie who infiltrated one of the U.K. parliamentary hearings. Murdoch has consistently denied knowledge of any illicit practices allegedly deployed to secure News of the World scoops but has issued apologies for any wrongdoing that may have occurred. At times during his testimony to parliamentarians and to the Leveson Inquiry he appeared confused, diminished, more of a King Lear than a Master of the Universe. “This is the most humble day of my life,” he confided to the Westminster committee shortly before the foam pie flew.

After expressions of sorrow and regret, amid the pain of divorce and corporate turbulence, and in the twilight of his years, surely Murdoch has earned a little sympathy? If so, it’s hard to find in Britain, a country whose media landscape he has shaped and whose political life he still seeks to influence. Today every broadsheet, including his own Times, carries news of his marital difficulties on its front page. “HACKED OFF—WITH EACH OTHER,” declares the headline in the Independent above a photograph of Murdoch and Deng in happier times. Hacking-themed jokes also dominate the social media response. “Murdoch files for divorce. Can everyone please respect his privacy at this difficult time,” tweeted Chris Atkins, a documentary filmmaker, whose 2009 film Starsuckers laid bare some of the unholy alliances between the British tabloids and their celebrity quarry.

The Leveson Inquiry also sought to illuminate the sometimes Byzantine workings of the media and the skein of potentially corrupting relationships between its practitioners and its subjects. Its recommendations for a new regulatory system, issued in November, were intended to bring about improved transparency and a healthier culture. Critics of Leveson warn that vital media freedoms risk being sacrificed in a “witch hunt” primarily directed against the tabloids. There are genuine grounds for concern and neither politicians nor media organizations have found agreement amongst themselves much less with each other on the best way forward.

In the meantime, Murdoch’s own contributions to the debate have done little to help his image as a penitent or store up reservoirs of goodwill he might call on during his own sudden and uncomfortable moment in the spotlight. Last October the tycoon took to Twitter after hearing of a meeting between Prime Minister David Cameron and the actor and hacking victim Hugh Grant together with other well known members of Hacked Off, a group campaigning for stricter press regulation. “Told UK’s Cameron receiving scumbag celebrities pushing for even more privacy laws. Trust the toffs! Transparency under attack. Bad,” snarled @rupertmurdoch, an inveterate tweeter since the start of 2012. Nor did Murdoch hide his glee when newspapers, his own included, reported that two lawyers working on the Leveson Inquiry had holidayed together on the Greek island of Santorini. “Married mum-of-two Carine Patry Hoskins, 40, is now dating perma-tanned lawyer David Sherborne, 44,” reported the Sun. “Ho! Ho!,” responded Murdoch on Twitter. “Leverson becomes Loverson! Can affirm Santorini very romantic.”

Since the breaking news of Murdoch’s breaking news there have been no more such tweets, no more of the often near-daily insights into his thoughts or glimpses of his private life. For so many years the greatest proponent of invasive, no-holds-barred journalism, Murdoch is now its prey. Speculation is rife about the reasons for his split from Deng. The BBC’s business editor Robert Peston added to the Twitter excitement: “Am also told that undisclosed reasons for Murdoch divorcing Deng are jaw-dropping – & hate myself for wanting to know what they are.”

At bay, without Deng to shield him from foam pies and mud flinging, where might Murdoch turn? One answer might be within the pages of his very own Sun. Deirdre’s Photo Casebook, the newpaper’s long-standing advice column, invites readers to share their personal issues, which are then spun into photographic cartoon strips. Among the current dilemmas posed: “I bedded ex-wife’s lesbian lover and we want to do it again.”

“Back away now and perhaps no one will be hurt,” the Sun’s agony aunt responds. “Find someone you can have a proper relationship with.” It’s sage advice of the kind anyone in Murdoch’s position might do well to heed.