Murdoch discovers life after Wendi

Rupert Murdoch is divorcing his wife Wendi Deng, because – he is alleged to have said – she doesn’t deserve to be his widow. (Christian Hartmann/AFP)

Rupert Murdoch is divorcing his wife Wendi Deng, because – he is alleged to have said – she doesn’t deserve to be his widow. (Christian Hartmann/AFP)

Several years ago, Rupert Murdoch became interested in my personal life as revenge for the book I wrote about him. He had me followed and my house staked out by photographers sitting for long periods in junky cars.

I am afraid my interest now in his personal life may be as lip-smacking as his apparently was in mine (Murdoch, a gossip-hound, often announced during our conversations that he had damaging pictures of this or that enemy).

Although I have yet to stake him out, I am as close to the gossip flow about his recent marriage break-up as his photographers were to my door. Conveniently, almost all the gossipers call me to crosscheck their gossip — I hardly have to leave my house.

But let me be more circumspect than he was about me, I can only vouch here for the gossip: not the facts. On the other hand, all the gossip is coming directly from Murdoch's family and close business circle: it's their spin, the story they want told.

In part, this is tactical stuff, a concerted effort to get out in front of what might otherwise be a negative portrayal. (Murdoch is, of course, often portrayed negatively, but he still bleeds.)

But it is also a story so juicy and so novelistic that even his closest associates and family can't resist it — they can hardly believe it themselves. They all want to be part of it and want you to know they have compelling views about it.

"A terrible person"
They feel obliged, too, as insiders, to militantly close ranks around him. In their telling, his wife Wendi is simply "a terrible person", which, they whisper, everybody but Murdoch always knew: her social life is out of control.

The partying has been non-stop. She spends money "as if there were no tomorrow". All discretion is gone.

In this novelisation, then — she is Anna Karenina.

The rumour of her connection to Tony Blair, in sudden circulation after the divorce announcement, began with News Corp people promising: "It's a world leader."

Blair's office was obliged to issue a flat denial of the story. (Of note, the back-channel briefs all come from executives in the new newspaper company, which holds the name News Corp, rather than from the entertainment company, 21st Century Fox, which is trying to keep its distance from Murdoch taint and lore.)

She was embarrassing him: that, too, is a repeated phrase. She talked openly and volubly about their marriage. That's another theme: Wendi was disloyal. Murdoch himself is said to have told his daughter Elisabeth: "She [Wendi] doesn't deserve to be my widow."

Murdoch's legacy
His people offer a PR interpretation. He could have stayed married to her. They could have easily occupied separate spheres in the Murdoch empire. In fact, that's what they have been doing: they have many houses, after all. But that would leave her in a position to claim his legacy someday — to upstage him.

The pie incident — her reflexive dive between Murdoch and his would-be pie attacker during a parliamentary hearing in London two years ago — is now rendered with some rancour. Not only did Wendi claim the spotlight for herself, she also showed him to be needing her protection. In that moment, he aged before the world.

And yet, curiously, there is a different story too, one coming from friends to whom Murdoch talks directly. This is a story not about legacy, or tying up loose ends, or the lion in winter. He is not Lear.

Instead, it is about a new beginning and his belief that he has another 10 years. Indeed, now travelling with a retinue of health and body retainers, he has never felt better. In this telling, Rupert's outlook turned positive at the end of last year.

Since the announcement of his divorce, he has been reassuring people that things have happened in his life to make him happier than he has ever been — his new newspaper company among them, but also a set of new people coming with it. He can't believe his good fortune.

He has the opportunity to do it all again is what he has said publicly. That is echoed privately, too.

"This is not about Wendi," cautioned a gossip who has been speaking to an exuberant and unrestrained Murdoch. (And the recent release of a secret tape with him contradicting almost all his public apologies related to the charges of corruption at his London newspaper is the unfiltered Murdoch I know — the man really can't keep his mouth shut.)

In a way, the view of Wendi as she-devil is what his children and close circle would prefer it to be — a poor old fool tale. The latter view, which promises all sorts of new complications for the people around him, is what he wants it to be: everything in front of him still.

He's on his boat now and is, I am told, happy. Over the moon. So far, his estranged wife's camp remains mute.

Media mogul says free is folly
Rupert Murdoch believes that everything, in his media future, will have to be paid for. And loyal lieutenants, launching the big publishing offshoot we must learn to call a diminished News Corp, naturally sing from the same hymn sheet.

Robert Thomson, deputy supreme commander, talks about bringing "Murdochian magic" to smartphones so that the boss "owns" screens great and small.

Mike Darcey, who sold Sky subscriptions before he moved to Wapping, jeers at rival papers the Daily Mail, the Guardian, and more that give content away free and notch up big audiences in the process.

Who needs the "reach" of huge website numbers? asks Darcey. It's just "a long trail of passing trade" and that's only "good for the ego".

Free is folly. Free is futile. Free is fatuous. Look at the record of total paid sales for the Times: 140 000 paid-for digital subscribers and 395 000 paying print buyers. Add those together and the Times actually has more people paying for it now than in 2010.

End of argument? Of course not. First, Darcey's statistics are open to challenge. He appears to have used 36 000 free bulk and foreign copies to hit his touted 395 000.

And second, of course, the advertising agencies that helped to pay his salary back at Sky care just as much about the people who visit websites as those who visit TV screens.

Verified figures
Add the Daily Mail sales and British monthly web visitors plus print reader numbers from the latest verified print and digital figures and the Mail clocks up 18 837 000, the Guardian has 12 459 000 and even the Independent (7 159 000) leaves the Times (5 402 000) for dead.

Advertisers like to pay for something, too. But if you really want to test the free versus paid-for debate, take a more startling set of statistics.

When Alexander Lebedev (now mercifully free from the threat of prison) bought the London Evening Standard for £1 in 2009, it was losing more than £28-million a year

. Even the magic of the Mail ownership had failed to come to its rescue. But he (with help from Andy Mullins, the managing director of the Evening Standard and The Independent) decided on a remarkable strategy.

He produced a thick, full-service Standard, but gave away its entire daily run of more than 700 000 copies for free.

Madness? Certainly, Murdoch, Darcey and Thomson would say so. But the Standard has just recorded an £82 000 operating profit for 2012.

Advertising, including the take on a burgeoning website (up 20% in May), pays all the bills that cash paid to newsagents could never manage.

While other evening paper circulations around Britain plunge by 10% to 15% a year, the Standard has a future, one that must surely grow brighter as the economy recovers. There are no fixed rules in the survival game. Free can be fantastic. You can pay nothing for something. — © Guardian News & Media 2013

Michael Wolff is a columnist and author. He wrote The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch



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