Murdoch scandal follows classic media baron script

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Murdoch’s story bears a stronger resemblance to Beaverbrook, a turn-of-the-century entrepreneur who would help revolutionize London’s Fleet Street newspapers, according to Jacques Poitras, the author of “Beaverbrook: A Shattered Legacy.”

Born William Aitken in the small maritime province of New Brunswick, Beaverbrook had a modest start selling insurance and magazines door to door before moving on to bond promotion and striking it rich.

He moved to England, where he was knighted, invested in the populist Daily Express, and _ with the help of innovations such as crossword puzzles, gossip columns and society pages _ turned it into the biggest-selling paper in the English-speaking world. That title was later claimed by Murdoch’s News of the World.

“Both men published fabulously successful newspapers, and they were good at it,” Poitras said. “They knew what people wanted (and) they delivered it.”

Beaverbrook became fantastically influential, serving as a powerful Cabinet minister and Churchill adviser.

“His power in the 30s and 40s in London was unmatched,” said Poitras. “I don’t know if you could have someone of that clout now. … Murdoch is the only one who seems to have made waves in the same way.”

Compared to Beaverbrook and Murdoch, Maxwell and Black are a “second division of press baron,” said Curran, the professor of communications.

Black, a member of the Canadian elite, eventually came to own The Daily Telegraph, the Jerusalem Post, and a string of U.S. and Canadian newspapers before his embezzlement plunged his empire into crisis.

Maxwell’s rags-to-riches-to-ruin story is in some respects more compelling.

Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in the destitute Carpathian mountain region of what was then known as Czechoslovakia, Maxwell narrowly escaped a Nazi concentration camp to move to London. He set up a successful publishing company and moved into politics, throwing his support behind the left-wing Labour Party.

As early as 1969, there were signs of trouble. Britain’s trade department investigated Maxwell in the wake of a botched takeover deal, branding him unfit “to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company” _ nearly the same language used by Labour lawmakers to condemn Murdoch in a critical report on phone hacking published last week.

Maxwell survived the trade investigation, spending the next two decades expanding his empire and racking up an enormous pile of debt. By the time his body was recovered from the waters off the Canary Islands _ no one knows precisely how he died _ his company was more than 2 billion pounds in the red.

Murdoch, who outmaneuvered Maxwell and Black to stay at the top of the British newspaper scene, has so far avoided falling into the same abyss that swallowed his competitors. Even his most strident critics don’t accuse him of anything worse than “willful blindness.” He remains at the head of a fabulously successful media company, responsible for record-smashing films like “Avatar” or TV hits such as “The Simpsons,” and News Corp.’s share price is riding high.

His influence in Britain, however, has undeniably suffered. Politicians who once scrambled to kiss his hand are now lining up to boast about how independent they were. Prime Minister David Cameron, who in 2008 flew out to the tycoon’s yacht to seek his blessing, acknowledged last week that “we all did too much cozying up to Rupert Murdoch.”

In that respect, Murdoch’s isolation _ in Britain at least _ seems redolent of the last scene of Citizen Kane: Successful, wealthy, but unloved.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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