During a trip to Indonesia a few months ago I was browsing the bookstore on Jakarta airport before departure, when I saw the book “The Man Who Owns The News: Inside The Secret World of Rupert Murdoch” by Vanity Fair journalist Michael Wolff. Murdoch and the News Corp conglomerate that he built over the past decades fascinate me for quite some time already, so I decided to buy the book. That was a good decision, I enjoyed reading it and learned a lot. If you’re interested in media and how the media works, this is probably a good read for you. But the flaws of the book will likely make the book less enjoyable for most readers.
For one thing, the book is too long. I don’t mind long books, but sometimes a writer should come to the point more quickly. The core of the book is the batlle to take over the Wall Street Journal. Certainly an interesting episode in Murdoch’s career but because Wolff spends about half the book writing about Murdoch’s obsession with the WSJ and all the details of the negotiations of the take-over, it gets boring at a certain point. Even worse, because of this other things that happened during the same time are only touched upon. For example the whole MySpace episode should have taken a much bigger part in the book in my opinion. The same for Murdoch’s ventures in China, they are mainly mentioned as background to describe the role of his latest wife, Wendi Deng. Of course I am biased working in the Internet industry in China, but I think Wolff focuses too much on traditional media in the US (and the UK & Australia) instead of new media and instead of up-and-coming countries like China. Some more things are missing. The book mentions that Rupert Murdoch was almost bankrupt in the early 1990’s, but does not describe what exactly happened, nor what tricks he needed to pull of in order to survive. I think that’s actually a very important part in the history of News Corp, and it deserves a much more detailed place in this book.
But apart from these points the book paints a vivid picture of who Rupert Murdoch really is. Michael Wolff had full access too both Murdoch and all of his family members, including his old mother who is still living in Australia. Murdoch does not come over as a very likeable person. He does not even want to be likeable, not to his staff and not even to his family. He is described as a merciless predator, not somebody who you would like to do business with. But despite these character traits (or maybe because of them) he became the biggest media mogul on this planet. The book does not really make clear how he did this. It describes a lot of the deals, but once a deal is done it moves on to the next one. I wonder how Murdoch was able to manage them all and to make sure that they would not work against each other. That’s what I would have liked to read more about. I still don’t understand why his business is so successful. Is he so good? Was he lucky? I think it’s a combination of both. He took enormous risks at the right moment (especially in the 1980’s) to grow his businesses, and that eventually paid off. That together with his excellent dealmaking skills and the ability to motivate his staff to do everything for him. Don’t underestimate the last part, I think most of the people working for him fear him, but still everybody wants to please him.
If you like some juicy gossip about his family and especially his relationship with his Chinese wife Wendi Deng (who is almost 40 years his junior), you will also enjoy this book. Michael Wolff seems to enjoy to dig into his private life and does a good job explaining all his family relationships. Having access to all his kids certainly helped him, especially to the ones that felt that they were not treated very well by their father. Rupert Murdoch is a ruthless business person and because he cannot distinguish between private and business life he uses the same business approach to managing his family. I hope my kids will see me in a different light when they grow up!
After reading the book I still admire Rupert Murdoch for what he achieved. But I see him differently than I did before I read this book. He lives for his business and I don’t think he can ever say goodbye to it. He just does not have another life, everything is business. I don’t think I came across any real friends in the book for example. I also wonder what will become of News Corp if Murdoch will ever pass away (something that’s also touched upon in the book). That may still be years from now (his 99-year old mother is still alive and doing well), but I wonder if there is really somebody who can hold the ship together. I will keep on following News Corp much more closely from now on, it’s a fascinating company with an even more fascinating CEO.