Recently, Rupert Murdoch held a Christmas party to celebrate his return to the UK political scene. Commentators noted that half of the UK Cabinet was present. For many observers the event marked a triumph for Murdoch. After the bad publicity of a criminal trial for phone hacking and the Leveson Inquiry, he executed a pragmatic reputation management strategy. He took a number of tactical steps to rehabilitate his public image. With the company’s existence at potential risk, he acted boldly. He closed the News of the World, restructured his company, and helped the police prosecute some of his company’s reporters and sources.
On the surface, his return is a success. The Guardian, long a critic, noted his rebirth. Their article suggested he was celebrating with Cameron who was now unafraid to be seen with his media patron. The Guardian argued he followed a seven step process to rehabilitate his public image. However, if we look closer, this is a not a return. It is Murdoch’s swan song. A cursory glance at his rehabilitation shows the cracks and fissures. They show a man in the twilight, a diminished figure, desperate to protect his corporate and personal legacy with a final show of public power.
His return is a last hurrah.
He professed public humility was a tactical ploy for it was empty of true contrition. Aside from his well-publicised public (private) act, he has not apologized to any other victims. The move helped to reduce public pressure on his company and would have contributed to the overall efforts in the public trial. The company has settled its lawsuits and the criminal investigations have concluded, which helps Murdoch. However, the relationship with the police is changed. The government now have something on News Corp should future misdeeds resurrect the case. The company has to look over its shoulder.
Murdoch support for Rebekah Brooks reveals a deep structural weakness. Mrs Brooks is the closest he has to a corporate heir as his sons display little appetite for the dirty work of tabloid journalism. They prefer the glamourous and less tawdry life of corporate patrons instead of the brutal, vicious, near extortionary tabloid business. Murdoch knows that News Corp is the source of his political power as his scouts and spies, (editors, reporters), power his empire. Most importantly Roger Ailes shares Murdoch’s outsider’s edge. It is what Murdoch’s children don’t have, which creates a succession fault line.
Mrs Brooks works to staunch the company’s financial losses created by its weak digital media offer. News Corp trails its digital media rivals while it loses ground to the technology platforms turned media companies. Even the government’s attack on the BBC is easily reversed. The politicians know that despite its flaws and weakness, the BBC remains an important bulwark against his media monopoly. Even politicians that rely on Murdoch still need someone to keep him in check.
Murdoch’s return is a final attempt to ensure his legacy. His empire crumbles for no one is left to continue as he started.