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Arrogant Aussie : The Rupert Murdoch Story by Michael Leapman (Lyle Stuart: $14.95; 277 pp.)

June 09, 1985|Sam Hall Kaplan | Kaplan, The Times' urban design critic, was assistant managing editor and chief editorial writer of The New York Post in 1977. and

One of the more engaging traits of Rupert Murdoch when I worked for him at The New York Post was that he was a "hands on" publisher, very much involved in the daily look and tone of the paper, reading most stories, editing copy, writing headlines and enjoying it. No doubt, if Michael Leapman's effort to expose Murdoch's phenomenal rise to power as an "international press lord" was placed under Murdoch's own piercing gaze, he would first take exception to the title. For one thing, there is no active verb in it.

"Boring," Rupert would say with disdain. In his employ, it is worse to be boring than to get a fact wrong or to embellish an expense account. Rupert would pick up a pencil and edit Leapman's title to read perhaps: "ARROGANT AUSSIE ATTACKS : Murdoch Marching on Capitol," or better "MURDOCH BLITZES MEDIA." And no doubt he would then sit back, chew on the end of the his pencil, break into a boyish grin and ask what you thought--as if it mattered.

When it comes to headlines, as well as the play of stories, Rupert sheds with ease, if not relief, his Oxford prejudices, intellectual pretensions and the mannerisms of his wealth to display a crassmanship uniquely geared to attract the lowest common denominator of reader. It was this crassmanship that--despite my respect for his enthusiasm and delight in his rambunctiousness--eventually prompted me as it prompted legions before me to leave his generous employ. As Leapman notes: "If there were a club for ex-editors of Rupert Murdoch's publications, it would be the least exclusive in the international news business. Editing a Murdoch publication is a high-risk operation."

Leapman sets out to chronicle how at age 22, Murdoch inherited his father's fledgling newspaper empire and how he expanded it: with verve across Australia in the 1950s, with controversy in England in the 1960s and with gall and considerable financial acumen in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the publication of Leapman's book, Murdoch has expanded his empire even further to become a movie mogul at 20th Century Fox, where as a partner, he is at present seeking to buy the nation's largest group of independent television stations.

Leapman's account of Murdoch's rise seems competent if less than engaging. More disturbing are errors in his narrative of Murdoch's first year at the helm of The Post, a period with which I am familiar. Among other things, "slim Ed" Bolwell, the paper's first executive editor under Murdoch, was neither slim nor Ed; Steve Dunleavy was not unleashed as metro editor until much later than indicated; and events behind the paper's support of Ed Koch as mayor were somewhat different than Leapman reports. These and other errors raise doubts about the accuracy of the reporting of events I did not witness.

Leapman's instincts for a story are good as far as they go. Murdoch has found the free-wheeling newspaper marketplace a marvelous arena for the exercise of his fierce competitive spirit, and Leapman lets us see that spirit in action. What his book lacks is some hint as to where Murdoch's pursuit will next take him. Leapman offers a lame concluding statement that "he will continue to survive dangerously, bidding for almost anything that is going and buying some of it; hiring, firing, cajoling, telephoning, browbeating employees and politicians alike, living out of a suitcase, flying by the seat of his well-tailored pants." Much more than this is called for.

Is it healthy in a democracy for one person, and an enigma at that, to control as large a share of the communications industry as Murdoch controls? The question is one that undoubtedly Murdoch himself would expect his chronicler to explore. He might also expect him to ask whether, as is now being widely suggested, Murdoch's crassmanship has failed so badly as a newspaper strategy in the United States that his advance into television is actually a kind of retreat. Hearst and Hughes always made good copy. Murdoch would want copy about himself to be no less good, beginning with a good active-verb title like "MURDOCH BARES ALL."

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