Saturday, November 29, 2008

Luddite-lite Murdoch spurns technology

Michael Wolff spills the beans on tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who apparently covets the ownership of the New York Times, in the current Spectator.

To be with Murdoch, to view him, to get inside his head, and to understand how he does business, you have to take away all technology — that is, all the web-searches, all the data, all the correspondence, all the communications resources, that executives everywhere rely on. Murdoch, at 77, can’t use a computer, doesn’t get email, can’t get his cell phone to work properly, can’t even imagine changing the variables on a spread sheet. (The fact that News Corp, which owns MySpace, often bills itself as a technologically farsighted, aggressive and clever company is amusing to everyone there.) During the campaign to take over the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch’s spies and surrogates would email Murdoch’s 39-year-old wife, Wendi, and she’d read to him from her BlackBerry. Indeed, while many people at News Corp were trying to talk about the cross-platform synergies at the Wall Street Journal and the future of electronic publishing, Murdoch was only ever talking about a newspaper.

Psychologically, he is far from modern too. He can’t question his own motivations (a curious problem for a biographer). He truly doesn’t believe in interpretation. His face draws back, and he scowls in a remarkably dismissive way if you try to suggest that there might be a deeper pattern to his actions — that there might be meaning beyond living to fight another day. (When I asked him if I could interview his 99-year-old mother in Australia, he said, ‘I guess you need colour.’) Accordingly, he has surrounded himself with a cadre of unanalysed people who believe it’s best to act before thinking too much. Curiously, his children are reasonably nuanced thinkers, which is perhaps one reason he thinks they are the most brilliant people in the world.

He has no historic interest — even in himself. This sets him at odds from most men of accomplishment, who generally cherish all their achievements. Murdoch hardly remembers his. The past has receded. He cuts himself off from it. In conversation, he often loses or transposes decades. This is only partly age. More to the point, he obviously has no use for memory. That’s a distraction. He is not demoralised by defeats. He’s not aggrandised by victories. When you interview him, you can’t, profitably, ask about what has occurred, you can only engage with him if you talk about what’s going on now. What’s on your mind this morning, Mr M? Who are you feeling competitive with today? What fly is buzzing near your face?

He is, and runs his company like, a newspaper man. He’s a city editor. No more, no less. No better, no worse. What he values is the ability and inclination to make split-second decisions. He’s rather proud when that ability is not slowed by too much information or explanation. He is most motivated by the last interesting thing someone told him — whether it is true is not as important as how it will read. Sitting with Murdoch for so many months, I’d regularly see the odd bits of information come in (my stock obviously went up when I offered him a tidbit), and be directed to a news desk, or become part of his world-view or some instant business decision-making process. (At a cocktail party, he meets someone from Afghanistan, who suddenly informs his view of that conflict; at another party he meets someone who knows a policeman on Long Island, and that colours his view about buying Newsday, the Long Island newspaper.) He has no interest in understanding himself, because he sees himself as an everyman. He’s Mr Basic, Mr Uncomplicated; he has no airs, no fancy aspirations. He can trust his own gut. And why should he remember the past, he has to get out tomorrow’s paper? And once again beat the competition.

I have sometimes had the feeling, over the past year of talking to Murdoch and News Corp executives, that his people are humouring him. That he is not so much, in Andrew Neil’s formulation, the Sun God, who people cannot question, but instead a sort of long-running joke in which everybody at News Corp — so many of them career employees — is complicit. The joke is that this greatest of modern businessmen, the architect of the synergised, cross-platform, integrated, global media company, has no vision, no method, no strategy. Nor, likewise, does this man, perhaps the individual with the single most powerful political voice of our time, have any politics — save for what makes for good newspaper copy (‘Vote for Obama,’ he advised me, during the presidential primary season, ‘he’ll sell more papers’), or puts money in his own pocket. Rather it’s all made up — what he buys, how he spends, what he believes, who he supports — on the fly.

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