Beware, Fox News – you’re Michael Wolff’s real target

Sean Hannity, pictured on Fox News in March this year
Sean Hannity, pictured on Fox News in March this year - Invision

Michael Wolff is the biographer who, in his 2018 book Fire and Fury, brought us the image of Donald Trump tucked up in bed by 6.30pm, watching three screens simultaneously while eating a cheeseburger. Never mind the politics, it’s that image of the US president living out a 10-year-old’s dream existence that proved to be the book’s most indelible portrait. Wolff is good at gossipy, greasy detail.

There’s plenty of that in The Fall, in which he turns his attention to the final years of Rupert Murdoch. And the two subjects overlap. The dysfunctional family under the microscope here is not so much the Murdoch clan – although the rivalries between his children are covered at length – but the wingnuts of Fox News.

That’s how Rupert Murdoch sees them, anyway – or so Wolff claims. Hannity, supposedly, is “a crackpot”. Trump himself, as vital a cog in the cable-news network as any of its presenters, is “a f---ing idiot”. The grand irony at the heart of the book is that Murdoch is an old-school conservative – “anti-Left, pro-business, suit-and-tie stuff… Reagan, Thatcher: good” – and hates everything that Fox News stands for. The Murdoch children are global, elitist, liberal-minded, which is everything that Fox News hates.

But it is precisely those opinions, and their appeal to millions of Americans, which turn a profit. And Murdoch is a tabloid newsman who believes that journalists should be able to say what they like. What to do? It’s a billionaire’s dilemma.

“Yes, yes, here is quite a bit of the raw inspiration for Succession,” Wolff says at the outset, but what we get is more akin to newsroom drama The Morning Show. Wolff extensively quotes Roger Ailes, the monstrous former CEO (ousted for sexual harassment, now dead), who summed up the network: “Everybody is insane. It doesn’t matter that it’s a conservative network, it’s f---ing television. Everybody is demented.”

To British audiences, the names may mean little. There are chapters devoted to Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. For the Brits, Piers Morgan makes a brief appearance, a hiring dismissed (by whom, it’s not quite clear) as an “a-hole, tragic folly, not worth another thought”.

Rupert Murdoch emerges badly from Wolff's book, writes Anita Singh
Rupert Murdoch emerges badly from Wolff's book, writes Anita Singh - PA

But if you are interested in the rise of Fox News and its heartland, there is a lot to savour here. Trump is dumb, Ailes says, “but smart is what people hate”. Carlson ponders a future beyond the network: what to do if he loses his place as “the second-most-famous and -hated person in the country? His only alternative might be… to run for president.” He refuses to insure his Florida beach house, which was in the path of Hurricane Ian, because “insurance is for pussies”.

Where does Wolff stand on all of this? He certainly doesn’t come across as a tutting liberal, and his coverage of the misogyny surrounding “Fox blondes” – Ailes chose them according to whether they looked as if they would give oral sex and “with what verve and style” – is notably free of censure.

For Succession fans, the backstabbing and power-positioning will be enjoyably familiar. At one point, Lachlan Murdoch wants network CEO Suzanne Scott to take the fall for the station’s misdemeanours, but has a problem in the fact that she made none of the decisions and was so low-key as to be practically anonymous. So, it’s claimed, the Fox PR machine ensured she gave a profile-raising interview to the New York Times, “precisely so she could be fired”. (She nonetheless remains CEO today.)

With the exception of Ailes, no sources are named. Some scenes are so richly detailed, stretching to pages of dialogue, that you’re left wondering whether Wolff has used some artistic licence, or if someone was taking notes at the time in order to screw people over later. There are set pieces which could have come straight from the HBO series, including Hannity and co en route to Ailes’s funeral by private jet, bickering and drinking screwdrivers for breakfast.

This vagueness about sourcing, however, means that we’re never quite sure where the bitching has come from. The other weakness is the chapters about the Murdoch children, because there are only so many ways to say they’re jockeying for position and agonising over the direction in which Fox should go, but Wolff keeps going over it until the reader loses the will to live.

Michael Wolff's The Fall is published by Little, Brown
Michael Wolff's The Fall is published by Little, Brown - Reuters

Lachlan is vying for the crown (and secured it this month, replacing his father as chair of Fox and News Corp). James wants to make Fox “a force for good” – good luck with that. Elisabeth is the smartest one. There is also Prudence, the daughter from Murdoch’s first marriage, who likes to stay out of it as much as possible. Wolff doesn’t explain why Murdoch is a terrible father, simply dropping us into the narrative at a point – around 18 months ago – where the children cannot abide him. Towards each other, they are “not just enemy camps but nearly foreign entities”.

Murdoch is portrayed as a man in his dotage, a mumbling blancmange unable to make decisions or choose his own outfits, slipping into a “fugue state” mid-conversation at which his attendants reassure people that he’s not dead. More than once, and with no evidence, Wolff implies that he is on the “spectrum”. He is strangely attracted to women who put him down. Jerry Hall – perhaps the only person to come out of this book in any way a likeable character, and still really not that likeable – berates him in public for Fox’s Right-wing rhetoric.

At least he extricates himself from a prospective marriage to Ann Lesley Smith when, in one of the funniest scenes in the book, the couple invite Tucker Carlson over for dinner one Friday evening at Murdoch’s Bel-Air vineyard. “As dinner was served, Smith put her hand on Carlson’s and said, ‘I believe you’re a prophet from God.” The engagement was over by Monday. The final chapter begins: “He dies.” Wolff can’t wait for the post-Rupert Succession power struggle, so he has willed it onto the page.

The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire is published by Little, Brown at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books