‘Rupe Group’ theory explains multiple Murdochs

WE ARE ENTERING that part of the summer when denizens of the news business bemoan the absence of “hard news,” so perhaps it’s time to examine an oddball theory that’s making the rounds of the media community. To wit: That there really is no Rupert Murdoch but that the vast empire known as News Corp. is run by a post-Murdochian junta of faceless apparatchiks who are making decisions in his name. “Absurd!” you might say. Murdoch is a mainstay of the business. He is ubiquitous, at any given time closing immense deals in Buenos Aires, Berlin and Beijing. But that, of course, is exactly the point. How could any one man appear in all the places Murdoch is supposed to have been, the conspiracy theorists ask. How could a 65-year-old individual simultaneously be coping with Star TV partners in Asia, UTV allies in India, and Canal Fox associates in Latin America, while at the same time be realigning the digital TV future of Europe and fervently celebrating the success of “Independence Day” in Hollywood? By the way, this alleged Murdoch also managed earlier this month to sneak in a $2.5 billion buyout of Ronald Perelman’s New World, thus sinking the shaft into King World, which thought it had also closed a Perelman deal.

GIVEN THIS WHIRLWIND, it’s little wonder that conspiratorial types have propounded the theory that Rupert Murdoch had actually been overthrown in a silent coup amid his financial crunch six years ago, to be succeeded by a committee of fearsome activists. The apparent contradictions in the behavior of the “alleged Murdoch” represent a significant clue, they argue. If there were actually one Rupert Murdoch, the argument goes, how could he be at once a rampant ideologue and a cool-headed pragmatist? How could he be such an ardent purveyor of tabloid trash, and also admire good art and music and pursue a personal lifestyle embodying good taste? If there were a single Rupert, how could associates laud him as being a gracious and supportive boss, but also fear him for turning on employees so coldly? How could he be so adept at piling on debt, yet so persuasive with bankers about wanting to reduce it? Again, if Rupert were really one person, would he really give a damn about clinging to a paper like the New York Post at a time when he was redrawing the map of TV and sports all around the globe? Why would he care?

NOW I PERSONALLY DISCOUNT the multiple Murdoch theory, but, on the other hand, I can also testify to having witnessed these oddly divergent traits. I remember running into him at the first public screening of 20th Century Fox’s Arnold Schwarzenegger epic “True Lies,” which opened not all that long after Schwarzenegger’s Sony debacle. Filing past his ashen, pinch-faced executives, Murdoch saw me and quipped, “Well, I sure hope this doesn’t turn out to be ‘The Last Action Hero, Part II.’ ” Rupert enjoyed this mordant jest; a couple of his executives looked like they were about to have a seizure. On the other hand, I have been with Murdoch when, in response to a question, his face would tighten and his eyes screw up as he recited from memory the most arcane data of some complex international co-venture.

THE RUPERT WHO ENJOYS gossiping about the foibles of rival megacompanies — a truly humorous and charming Rupert — can just as quickly become a somber, gray-faced analyst of how to cope with Chinese bureaucrats or European “left-wingers.” I have rarely witnessed anyone so eminently reasonable transmogrify into anyone so supremely doctrinaire. Do I believe there are multiple Murdochs? No. Do I believe Rupert exhibits symptoms of a multiple-personality syndrome? Possibly. Do I believe that any 65-year-old man can single-handedly mobilize so many deals in so many places? Not quite. One long-term associate of his put it this way: “As Rupert gets older, he keeps turning up the energy level, making more and more demands on himself. It’s daunting.” Hearing this, I couldn’t resist asking him, “Do you think there’s really one Rupe or rather a Rupe Group?” Turning away, he snapped, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.” Then he looked back at me for a beat and said, “Do you mind running that theory by me one more time?”

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