Several years ago, I paid a friend to read a boring book about British television so I could pretend to my Channel 4 bosses that, as head of news and current affairs, I had done so. I bought her a slap-up meal, from my own pocket, in recompense. Her job was to report back to me on any points of interest. There were none.
I am for you, dear readers, that friend who reads a poor book about television on your behalf so you can pretend at dinner parties that you have read it.
This book chronicles the recent history of Fox News and its relationship with the Murdoch family. An important subject. Without the support of Murdoch and Fox, there may well have been no President Trump. A good subject but not, sadly, a good book.
Perhaps to excite the reader, author Michael Wolff refers to the television drama Succession, which is allegedly inspired by the Murdochs. The difference between the drama and this book is not that the central character in Succession is called Logan Roy whereas here Rupert Murdoch is called Rupert Murdoch. The distinction is that Succession was created by the brilliant screenwriter Jesse Armstrong, and there is no great writing in The Fall.
Let me provide two brief excerpts to give you a flavour. Here is a passage about the vile Fox News presenter Sean Hannity: “Hannity, the everyman on air, was actually, an everyman in person … And, unlike most everymen, he could speak in full sentences. But his body was everyman. He was relaxed, uncaring, a large body going where it pleased. So loose. Unprotected.”
And another glorious one: “And yet Hannity was impatient and seemed to traverse from doing the right thing to now needing to get on to so much more important business. Fox business. Trump business, whatever. Power exists. Even without [Fox News CEO, Roger] Ailes. Fox now was up for grabs.”
As a journalist I look for evidence that what I am reading is true. But here, where I wanted sources, I got unattributed gossip. Entire conversations between the Murdochs and their apparatchiks are recorded without the reader being given supporting evidence. (In the acknowledgements, Wolff refers vaguely to “many sources who have helped me … best thanked by not being thanked here”.) Murdoch and his family “grumble” or “scowl” as they speak, but there is no indication the author was there to hear or see them, or who might have witnessed them in his place. Motivation is ascribed to key characters, again without attribution. He says, for example, of the ghastly presenter Tucker Carlson, “He was starting to see himself as a human Rorschach blot”. How on earth does Wolff know that? The reader isn’t told.
Wolff tells us at the start that it will be a rollicking tale of “upstairs-downstairs shenanigans” and “broadside characters”. Of course, were this book a brilliant comedic work, it might have been worth reading. We might have enjoyed some of its gossipy stories, although most don’t surprise. It is no news that Murdoch thought Trump “an idiot”, “a fool” and “plainly nuts”. Fox CEO Ailes supposedly says, with a chortle, that Trump is ignorant and incompetent. Again, no surprise that many within Fox told each other the truth about Trump but gave another version to their audience. Wolff tells us Fox News is “a nest of vipers” where executives call each other words such as “prick”, “loonie”, “crazy”, or “wacko”. I can also believe that they refer to people as “poofters” and “sluts”, but it was shocking to read. As an important aside, I objected to Wolff’s description of Elisabeth Murdoch, whom I know to be a significant force in UK television, as “blond” and “skittish”. I didn’t notice the hair colour of Lachlan and James Murdoch being deemed relevant.
But the problem with this book is far more serious than the bad writing, the unsourced gossip and the extraordinarily high count of the word “fuck”. Wolff opines, “To appear to take the real Fox News, and, in the mind of the left, its almost war-criminal stature owners, less than seriously, to treat the Fox phenomenon and the Murdoch family as a cultural confection ripe for comedy, may be dangerously close to liberal sacrilege.” But you don’t need to be a lefty or to connect Rupert Murdoch to war crimes because his media outlets supported the Iraq war, or to give credit to the religious concept of sacrilege, to find this book seriously wanting. The recent story of Fox News is not a comedy, it is a tragedy for America.
The book we need, the book that would be worth you spending several hours reading, would be one that does indeed take Fox News seriously because of its role in undermining public trust in the results of the 2020 presidential election, thereby putting US democracy itself at risk. Fox News is the dominant US news network. As Wolff says himself, it does not just report events, it causes them. When Fox said that the election had been “stolen”, its reputation gave credence to the lie. Those who marched to the Capitol on January 6 had watched Fox. Afterwards, Fox News had to pay $787.5m (£634m) to settle the claim brought by Dominion Voting Systems after the channel had stated on air that it helped fake the election result. Fox was forced to acknowledge publicly that it had spread falsehoods while some of its own presenters and executives knew privately the claims were untrue. The lie lives on, and may well contribute to Trump being re-elected.
Wolff says that the foremost mission of Fox is not in fact political, but the creation of a successful television product. Ailes is quoted as saying that news is a variety show. This is the problem when television news is unregulated. In so much of this book, men, and they are almost all men, talk about the news as if it’s a game. The one group of people who should read this book are those in Britain who campaign for the abolition of our rules requiring news to be fair, accurate and duly impartial. Fox has profoundly influenced news and politics in the US. In the UK, the BBC is the most used platform, with 73% of adults watching or reading online. I know which I prefer. Wolff predicts the demise of Fox, and last week Rupert Murdoch announced his retirement. I won’t be missing either.
• 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 buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.