Murdoch turns on Trump

After 45 years, the marriage of convenience between Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump is over.

With Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal urging Trump to resign, Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson calling him ‘reckless’ and the New York Post admitting, finally, that ‘there is no defense’ of the President, the most commercially and politically fruitful relationship in modern American history has collapsed.

It began in 1976 when Murdoch bought the New York Post and transformed it from a liberal broadsheet to a scandal-mongering tabloid just as Trump, the 30-year-old son of a wealthy real estate developer, sought media fame. Introduced to one another by infamous fixer and lawyer Roy Cohn, Murdoch’s Post facilitated Trump’s ascent - despite writers like Susan Mulcahy calling him out. “He’s a pathological liar,” she said recently. “I’ve been saying it since the 80s.”

Murdoch’s background in the hard-bitten world of the Australian media, where his father Sir Keith Murdoch built a national radio and newspaper network, then in the UK with the Sun and the News of the World, equipped him to parley media influence for political protection. In the mid-1980s, this approach hit paydirt with Ronald Reagan: new broadcasting regulations eased cross-media ownership and allowed Murdoch’s brand of entertainment and political content. By the same token, Reagan flourished at the ballot box. “Without the Post, Reagan could not have carried New York,” said Cohn in 1983.

Sir Keith Murdoch laid the groundwork for his son Rupert’s political horse trading. He was a trusted go-between in for British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Australian leader William Morris Hughes in the 1910s. He claimed to have won elections for Australian politicians, battled trade unions, promoted technical innovations and fiercely opposed communism. Rupert inherited and displayed all these traits in building his Australian, UK and US media empires after assuming his father’s business in 1953 at the age of 22.

In the UK, Murdoch became infamous as the owner of the Sun and the News of the World, with their fierce right-wing sympathies, deriding the Labour Party and bolstering the controversial regime of Margaret Thatcher. This period included the print workers’ strike of 1986, defeated by Murdoch, with muscular support from Thatcher after a year of hostilities. It significantly weakened the British union movement.

Murdoch’s anti-unionism, amid years of pro-Conservative headlines and coverage, convinced many of his engrained right-wing views. Yet Murdoch refused to accept this characterisation. In 1993, at a News International party in London, I tackled him on the subject. “How can you claim not to support the Tory Party, when your papers are so extreme?” I asked. “I’m not right wing,” he said. “I’m radical.”

Defined as ‘advocating complete political or social change’, radicalism does not belong to one party or another. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher’s successor John Major, freshly re-elected in 1992, did not enjoy Murdoch’s support. Already, a more radical figure had appeared on the left: Tony Blair, with his own pro-business agenda through which he remodelled the British Labour Party.

Blair, like Thatcher and Reagan before him, fully understood the benefits of a warm relationship with Rupert. Never mind welcoming him to Downing Street, in July 1995 Blair flew halfway around the world to attend a News International conference. Murdoch joked that if the rumoured Blair-Murdoch ‘flirtation’ were ever consummated, “I suspect we will end up making love like two porcupines – very carefully.”

The careful union lasted for a decade, from Blair’s 1997 election victory until his resignation in 2007. Once again, a political successor failed to light Murdoch’s fire and Gordon Brown crashed to election defeat, pilloried by Murdoch’s media, in 2010.

Murdoch entwined his family with Blair’s, making the British politician Godfather to Grace, his daughter with third wife Wendi Deng. (The relationship cooled to freezing point, however, in 2013, when Murdoch discovered messages suggesting that Blair and Deng were having an affair.)

None of these political relationships prepared the world for the Trump-Murdoch love-in. Since their introduction in the mid-1990s, the two men came to understand one another on a visceral level. “Both of these guys are extremely transactional,” said Lloyd Grove, a former writer at the New York Daily News who covered their friendship. “They have no permanent bonds, they just have permanent interests.” When Murdoch put the New York Post up for sale in 1988, Trump unsuccessfully tried to buy it, then pleaded with Murdoch to return. “Rupert, come back!” he said, bemoaning the new ownership.

As with Blair, Murdoch promoted cosy family relations with Trump: Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump double dated Murdoch and Wendi Deng in the 2000s and Ivanka acted as a trustee for a $300 million fund set up for Murdoch’s daughters with Deng. At the same time as Trump rose to political prominence on Murdoch’s Fox News, his daughter looked after Murdoch’s family finances.

Mutual advantage once more cemented the bond: in 2017 Murdoch’s cable network was reeling from sexual harassment suits and had already paid millions in settlements. Trump helpfully commented: “I don’t think Bill [O’Reilly] did anything wrong,” despite Fox News settling a $32 million sexual harassment suit against him. Trump also fired US attorneys thought to be hostile to Murdoch and relaxed media ownership rules, to Murdoch’s advantage.

In return, Murdoch’s papers including the Wall Street Journal and New York Post acted as apologists for Trump all the way from his primary battles to his supporters’ final convulsions on Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021. Still more important was the support of Fox News, which beamed pro-Trump propaganda into American homes for all four years of his presidency, amplifying his falsehoods and excusing his multiple failings. A study from the Harvard Berkman Klein Center published in late 2020 showed that, contrary to the belief that Twitter and Facebook convinced American that the election was stolen, “this highly effective disinformation campaign…was an elite-driven, mass-media led process” orchestrated largely by Fox News. “Social media played only a secondary role,” the report concluded.

Now that Murdoch has disavowed Trump and Trump, never knowingly out-insulted, has turned his attack troops on Murdoch, the path lies clear for Murdoch – as he approaches his 90th birthday in the company of wife number four, 64-year-old Jerry Hall – to woo another young firebrand, willing to advocate radical political change, to protect and enhance Murdoch’s assets and whose outspoken views can entertain a cable audience of millions.

What do you think Josh Hawley, could it be you?