Fifteen years ago, Michael Wolff wrote a study of Rupert Murdoch entitled The Man Who Owns the News. It benefited from access to the media mogul and those around him, and was full of quotes, references, attributions – it even had an index.
A lot has happened since that book. Murdoch has not only divorced his then wife, Wendi Deng, but also married and divorced his fourth wife, Jerry Hall. He sold a large chunk of his business empire, including 20th Century Fox and Sky TV, and recently announced his retirement from the Fox News and News Corp boards.
It has been an eventful time for Michael Wolff, too, who managed to get a reportorial seat in Donald Trump’s White House and then wrote the scurrilously brilliant international bestseller Fire and Fury, arguably the best and most revealing account of Trump’s berserk turn as US president. He followed up with two further Trump books, Siege and Landslide.
In many respects The Fall, which is subtitled The End of the Murdoch Empire, owes a greater debt to the Trump trilogy than it does to The Man Who Owns the News. It is more impressionistic, gossipy, rich in conclusive statements that arrive unburdened by attribution, and doesn’t feature an index.
He was pressured by a disapproving [Jerry] Hall, and nearly all his children, to reform the cable TV channel that was held responsible for tearing apart the American body politic
There are no major or shocking revelations this time round, but instead psychological portraits of the main characters in Murdoch’s American business, specifically Fox News. These include Murdoch himself, his two warring sons, Lachlan and James, the leading Fox presenters Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, and several high-level executives.
The picture Wolff paints is of an ailing patriarch and businessman, struggling to reconcile his rivalrous children, and his and their distaste for Fox while loving its enormous profits. Under its original CEO, the serial sex pest and arch misogynist Roger Ailes, Fox enjoyed a kind of moral and structural autonomy, free to explore the farthest reaches of batshit politics, as long as the money kept rolling in.
But when Ailes was ousted for sexual harassment in 2016 – Wolff suggests his defenestration was orchestrated by James and Lachlan – Murdoch himself ostensibly took control. Knowing little about TV, he briefed his executives in an increasingly vague manner that was not always distinguishable from senility.
Pressured by a disapproving Hall, and nearly all his children, to reform the cable TV channel that was held responsible for tearing apart the American body politic, Murdoch appeared indecisive and impotent – not a combination that had made his name and fortune.
His failure to get a grip was especially pronounced in the case of Donald Trump, a man he described as “a fucking idiot” but who was nonetheless running the country, in significant part because he had in effect hijacked Fox News. Things came to a head when Trump lost the 2020 election but used Fox to spread baseless conspiracy theories about a rigged vote.
Dominion Voting Systems sued for defamation, and Fox ended up paying out $787.5m to settle the case. Murdoch blamed Trump, whom he wished dead, for the loss, but Trump’s biggest cheerleader, Hannity, survived. In Wolff’s depiction, Hannity comes across as a high-functioning imbecile (but one who has apparently amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in wealth) and what might be termed a total anchor.
Not so lucky was Carlson. Fox’s biggest draw was ruthlessly axed a few days after having dinner with Murdoch and his then new fiance, Ann Lesley Smith, a full-blown conspiracy theorist who told a bemused Carlson that he was a “prophet from God”. One of Jerry Hall’s friends informs Wolff that “Murdoch married every woman he had ever slept with and proposed marriage on the second date”.
In the event, Smith was dumped almost simultaneously with Carlson. That he could have been readying himself to marry a woman whose politics were to the right of Fox, while vainly attempting to detoxify the Fox brand, shows how far from the plot Murdoch’s once terrifyingly astute mind had wandered.
But then the question is how had this old-school capitalist and trenchant neocon managed to build a TV channel so hostile to traditional Republicanism and, indeed, all forms of mainstream politics? According to Wolff, Murdoch supported Obama, yet he owned an outfit that conjured up the vilest and most racist attacks on the president.
The answer seems to be as simple as money. The multibillionaire was paralysed by the relentless flow of cash that Fox earned by spreading an ideology that denounced political competence as elitism and celebrated Trump’s narcissism as a kind of iconoclastic purification.
No one emerges from these pages with much credit. It is like an unfunny version of Succession, populated with cowed senior executives, desperately trying to parse Murdoch’s every mumbled utterance for some kind of directional sense, and then, on failing to square the circle of taming a highly lucrative but out of control “news” channel, lining up somebody to blame and sack before they can be blamed and sacked themselves.
On a basic level it’s a very old story – one of immense greed and its corrupting influence – but Wolff modernises it with endless layers of psychological insight that become a little repetitive and redundant. As with Succession’s Logan Roy, Murdoch’s apparent withdrawal from the fray hasn’t clarified the issue of who is going to inherit his mantle or what will happen to his companies. At the moment, Lachlan is in the driving seat, but on Murdoch’s death (he’s 92, and no amount of money can long forestall the inevitable), the critical voting rights will be divided between the four eldest of his six children (the two with Deng are excluded).
In theory this means James, who dreams of turning Fox into a “force for good”, could wrest control from the brother to whom, Wolff reports, he has not spoken in five years – if he can get his two (more liberal) sisters on board.
As things stand, for all his dubious and impressive achievements, Murdoch seems destined to be remembered as the man who made another fortune from igniting a culture war in America, but who had no idea – short of the unthinkable step of losing money – how to put it out.
• The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire by Michael Wolff is published by The Bridge Street Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.