The Sun never sets: how Rupert Murdoch built News Corp

How did Rupert Murdoch build a media empire?

Early life
Rupert Murdoch (born 1931) was the son of Keith Murdoch (1885 – 1952), one of the most powerful newspaper barons in Australia. He described himself as “Presbyterian, Calvinistic” and “a bit dull and humourless”.

Murdoch attended Oxford University where he gained a reputation as a left-winger. He received a third class degree in politics, philosophy and economics.

After university, Murdoch worked for two months as a sub-editor at the Daily Express, where he learned Beaverbrook-style journalism, characterised by a “piquant, personal, sometimes mischievous style … with an impish but finely honed sense of news”, according to Roy Reed of the New York Times. The period was formative for the young man, as he later reflected, “my outlook, energy, self-assurance and sense of social purpose were fashioned in the slightly mad meritocracy that is the newsroom”.

Rupert Murdoch in 1970 by Godfrey Argent. Image used with permission from the National Portrait Gallery.

Murdoch gained control of the Adelaide News following the death of his father in 1952.

The Sydney Daily Mirror was acquired in 1960. Murdoch was now a major force in the Australian market.

Murdoch launched The Australian, the first national newspaper in his native country, in 1964. He was the fourth largest newspaper proprietor in Australia by the end of the 1960s.

Murdoch acquires the News of the World and The Sun
Murdoch acquired control of the News of the World of London in January 1969. The newspaper had a reputation for “oleaginously written sex stories, crime and sport”, according to Anthony Lewis of the New York Times. It had the highest circulation of any newspaper in the Western world, with over six million copies sold every Sunday.

Murdoch relocated to Britain to manage the News of the World. Investigations and sports coverage were increased. Murdoch outsourced the public relations operations to cut costs, and increased the marketing spend. He vowed not to interfere with the political stance of the paper.

Following a controversial decision to serialise the Christine Keeler memoirs, Murdoch was interviewed by David Frost, and was “annihilated” according to Hugh Hebert of The Guardian. The episode convinced Murdoch that he would always remain an outsider amongst the British establishment.

His wife, Anna Murdoch, later commented:

Great Britain will accept you if you’re willing to join and play by the rules. Rupert wasn’t willing. He went to Great Britain to challenge Fleet Street, not because he loved Great Britain.

The Sun of London was acquired from International Publishing Corporation, the owner of the Daily Mirror, for £250,000 in November 1969. The loss-making broadsheet newspaper was immediately converted to tabloid format. Larry Lamb (1929 – 2000) was appointed as editor and he suggested that the paper would be left-of-centre “on general issues [and] reflect the political feelings of its readers”. Murdoch described the newspaper’s politics as “uncommitted”.

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The Sun was based on a “formula of sex, sport and sensation”, according to The Times. Lamb doubled the circulation figures of the newspaper within one year, and introduced Page 3, a regular topless girl feature, from November 1970.

The Murdoch newspapers “regularly espoused his anti-Labour Party philosophy” by the mid-1970s, according to Judy Klemesrud of the New York Times. Murdoch’s philosophy, as far as there was one, was that he was an agent of change. He said:

I’m not the Roy Thomson type of newspaper proprietor, just making money out of newspapers. I get a lot of kicks out of the political side of it.

Murdoch expands into the United States
Flush with the success of his British venture, Murdoch determined to conquer the media market in the United States. He relocated to New York City from 1973. He acquired a Texas newspaper, the San Antonio Express.

Murdoch believed that most American newspapers were aimed at “the rich and the intellectual” and characterised by “worthy and lazy” journalism. He believed that he could exploit this underserved market.

Murdoch acquired the New York Post for $31 million in 1976. New York magazine was acquired for around $8 million in 1977.

Murdoch builds his British publishing empire
The Sun overtook archi-rival the Daily Mirror in circulation figures from 1978.

Murdoch acquired the loss-making The Times and the Sunday Times for £12 million in 1981. For biographer Michael Wolff it was the “most substantial and complicated takeover of [Murdoch’s] career”. For Dan van der Vat of The Times, the acquisition transformed Murdoch into “the most powerful figure in Fleet Street”.

Harold Evans (1928 – 2020), who served as editor of The Times under Murdoch, argued:

the wellsprings [of Murdoch’s conservatism] are the retention of power and money, its methods are manipulation and the adroit manufacture of alliances … it can be jettisoned at any moment for advantage. Politicians are endorsed when the calculation is that they will win power and patronage.

Murdoch expands his media interests
Murdoch used the cash generated by The Sun and the News of the World to borrow money in order to build a media empire in the 1980s.

50 percent of 20th Century Fox was acquired for $250 million in 1982. The remainder was acquired for $325 million in 1984.

A 65 percent stake in Satellite Television of Britain was acquired for £5 million in 1983, and Murdoch renamed the business Sky.

Murdoch relocated his British printworks to a new site at Wapping in London’s Docklands in 1986.

Metromedia was acquired for £1.5 billion ($2 billion) in 1986, and Fox was launched as the fourth national television channel in the United States.

The Herald & Weekly Times group of Australia was acquired for £1.48 billion in 1987 to give Murdoch control of around 60 percent of Australian newspaper circulation.

Harper & Row, a United States publishing house, was acquired for around $300 million in 1987.

Forbes assessed Murdoch as the eighth richest man in the United States in 1987.

Triangle Publishing, a magazine publisher best known for TV Guide, was acquired for $3 billion in 1988.

Murdoch controlled around one third of British newspaper circulation by 1988.

Williams Collins, one of the largest publishers in Britain, was acquired for £403 million in 1989. Collins was merged with Harper & Row to form HarperCollins.

Murdoch struggled to make Sky profitable, and merged the business with British Satellite Broadcasting to form BSkyB in 1990.

News Corp was the second largest media company in the world by 1992.

BSkyB won the five-year rights to broadcast all live Premier League football games for £304 million in 1992.

Murdoch acquired almost two thirds of Star TV, an Asian satellite broadcaster, for $525 million in 1993.

Fox News began to broadcast in the United States in 1996. Murdoch had identified an underserved market for television news with a right-of-centre view.

Recent changes
News Corp formally changed its headquarters from Australia to the United States in 2004.

Murdoch acquired Dow Jones, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, for $5 billion in 2007. The Wall Street Journal had the second-highest circulation of any newspaper in the United States. Murdoch promised to increase investment in journalism.

News Corp changed its name to 21st Century Fox in 2013. The publishing assets were spun-off as News Corp.

21st Century Fox sold its 39 percent stake in Sky to Comcast for £11.6 billion in 2018.

21st Century Fox was sold to Disney for $71.3 billion in 2019.

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