A first point is that McEwen could never have run the conspiracy via a competent, honest newspaper. The true story—abuse of state-security powers in political vendetta—would automatically cancel the gross fake and terminate Black Jack’s career. Second, though unusually reckless, Murdoch’s behaviour was characteristic of his editorial attitude. The record of wheeling, dealing, and dismissals is too long to set out here, but there are books that amply document it.

When Murdoch departed for London to command the News of the World he left behind a moribund Australian, and local management were allowed put Adrian Deamer in charge. That he turned the Australian around was no total shock, because people remembered Deamer’s father, Syd, saving two papers for Sir Keith. (And departing after a ferocious row: probably because Syd loathed intrigue as deeply as Keith loved it.) And the 1970s were a turnround opportunity. The economy was booming, Australia was in conflict over Vietnam (its army was engaged), over feminism, over sporting racism (sport being akin to religion), and over aboriginal land rights.

Deamer’s gift was organizing limpid, precise coverage however disorderly the news. It was the first paper in years to get educated Australians enthusiastic. Sales nearly trebled in two years, and everyone was happy.

Bar Murdoch.

Whenever Murdoch flew in to see Deamer, it seemed that the paper’s workings puzzled him. Riffling through editions, he would take an arbitrary item and ask, more or less: ‘What’s that doing?’ This drew answers in the general form: “Christ, Rupert, I don’t know. If you stick around while we’re getting the paper out you’ll find out these kind of things.”

Two notions of control collided. Some tabloids are pure confection. Their editors locate every piece of glazed fruit consciously. But in a real news machine, trying to keep simultaneous tab on every moving part actually induces the chaos from which Deamer had extracted The Australian. Like most great editors he set some principles, chose people, told them not to waste time, and practiced a peculiar talent for incessant refocussing without distraction or exhaustion. He expected many things in the paper to surprise him.

Unfriendly debate continued until Murdoch said: “You’re not producing the sort of paper I want.” Deamer said: “Rupert, I don’t think you know what sort of paper you want. So until you do I’ll go on producing the paper I want.”

That ended it, apart from the mechanics of isolating the editor from supportive colleagues and gathering-up disgruntled ones. Then it became clear what sort of paper Murdoch wanted: one which could turn into a propaganda machine for electing a Labor government in 1972—and three years later for removing it. Under Deamer it couldn’t have. Some things do run in families.

News Corp. as global phenomenon is the product of Murdoch’s wheeler-dealer trek, 1979-1997, through Reagan, Thatcher, and Blair territory, giving him Fox, the London Times group, and Sky satellite television. The key relationship was with Thatcher, and ironically the support she had from News Corp. contributed much to her regime’s demise.

Murdoch’s British papers ran clamorous campaigns for Thatcher in 1979, his U.S. ones for Reagan in 1980. It was lawful (if berserk) partisanship. The political affection that resulted was such that News Corp. was able to trash the laws of media competition in both Britain and the United States.
As people have noted—but rarely in proper detail—the Times Newspapers case is the one bearing most closely on the Wall Street Journal bid.

Bruce Page is the author and co-author of several books, including The Murdoch Archiplelago, published by Simon & Schuster in Great Britain in 2003. He has worked for several newspapers, including the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times of London, where he led the paper’s investigative teams. He was editor of the magazine New Statesman between 1978 and 1982.