Rupert’s Adventures in China: How Murdoch Lost a Fortune and Found a Wife (Penguin Books, 2008)
Few of Rupert Murdoch’s former employees are eager to write about him. Likewise, few of his publications are eager to review a book about him. This review was turned down by the Far Eastern Economic Review, which is part of Murdoch-owned Dow Jones, after it was initially accepted. Nor has it been reviewed by the Murdoch-owned Australian or the Australian Literary Review.
Such is the real or imagined damage that Rupert Murdoch could inflict on a media career that few of his minions have been so bold as to write a kiss-and-tell account of their time at his elbow.
I can think of only one; Harold Evans, the ex-editor of London’s Sunday Times who Murdoch tapped to be editor of London’s Times after buying it in 1981. Evans lasted a year, resigning in high dudgeon over the editorial independence the man Britons call “The Dirty Digger” — pace his Australian antecedents — supposedly guaranteed to secure the purchase.
Evans’ splenetic book Good Times, Bad Times became a best seller and his joust with Murdoch did his career no harm — he later ran Random House, edited some worthy U.S magazines and penned magisterial histories. Like Murdoch, he became a naturalized American. Unlike Murdoch, he was knighted by the British establishment in 2004 for “services to journalism.” There are other tomes posing as Murdoch insiders like ex-Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil’s Full Disclosure and the hugely funny Stick It Up Your Punter: The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper but they are better assessed as snapshot newspaper biographies.
For a businessman who has left such a mark – many would say stain – on the world’s media, Murdoch is personally under-analyzed; a gap in our understanding of this most powerful of media proprietors, a man perceived to be able to buy and sell governments and anoint leaders with so much as a casual invitation to lunch. Murdoch’s cryptic remarks are near as scrutinized as the asides of the chairman of the U.S Federal Reserve.
Thrice-married, Murdoch’s private life has been very much off limits. Careerist rival editors who might commission, let alone publish, such studies are reminded that Murdoch’s tabloid empire – London’s Sun and News of the World, the New York Post and most of his Australian fleet – are vengeful beasts taking few prisoners. Thus the great irony – the life of a man who has made a fortune in the infotainment of examining the sordid entrails of the rich and famous is itself beyond proper examination.
So Bruce Dover, the Australian ex-journalist who was Murdoch’s ambassador to China for much of the 1990’s, is to at least be commended for his bravery in going where others cast from the Murdoch mafia have dared not stray, in Rupert’s Adventures in China: How Murdoch Lost a Fortune and Found a Wife (Penguin Books, 2008).
If the thick-hided warhorse much cared, Murdoch probably wouldn’t like some of Dover’s racier anecdotes told against him. And he would hate any discussion of Wendi Deng, his China-born wife and a woman half his age (Dover claims to have introduced them). But it's difficult to see the hard-headed businessman coming to any conclusion other than the inevitable one at which Dover arrives, that Murdoch’s efforts to conquer China failed miserably and expensively. What is strange, as Dover explains, is that it took such a long time for the man famed for his corporate perspicacity in most places he plunders to see that the same weapons he wields to build the world’s biggest media empire – influencing political outcomes in the world’s Anglophone democracies -- shoot blanks in one-party communist China.
Dover enthusiastically describes Murdoch’s bumbling about China. But the most damaging anecdotes are when he fleshes out what has often been rumored, how obsequious Murdoch’s elongated kowtow has been. Dover relates the many times the Murdochs went out of their way to out-purple the prose of Beijing’s party propagandists; Rupert’s pulling the publication of the memoirs of Hong Kong’s last British colonial governor Chris Patten; paying millions to publish Deng Xiaoping’s daughter’s unremarkable hagiography of her father; Rupert’s demolition of the Dalai Lama as “a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes;” son James’ description of the Falun Gong spiritual movement as a “dangerous apocalyptic cult.” The most revealing anecdote concerns Murdoch’s apology to the notorious “Butcher of Beijing” Premier Li Peng, lest Li get the wrong idea about Murdoch’s fateful 1993 “totalitarian regimes” speech after he’d bought the Hong Kong-based satellite broadcaster Star TV. It was “probably the costliest (remark) ever uttered by an individual” according to Dover, who describes Murdoch’s unconvincing argument that he was actually referring to the then recent break-up of the Soviet empire.
Other revelations are fun, portraying Rupert as anything but a megalomaniac media mogul; a bored Murdoch walking out of the official Hong Kong 1997 handover ceremony and getting lost in Tsimshatsui’s rain swept backstreets; “Mr. Grumpy” ordering a $3500 bottle of wine in a sleazy Beijing bar in a fit of corporate pique; almost being mown down by a bus as he crosses Shanghai’s Bund and delightedly crowing about the $1 haircut he received on a Shanghai sidewalk.
Dover was the envoy of the “The Sun King” in the Chinese court and his book reads, unsurprisingly, a little like those memoirs that ambassadors write after they’ve stepped from a post in which they’ve been an intimate to history being made. There’s plenty of rollicking anecdotes, some disarmingly brutal, but the reader still comes away with a nagging feeling that the author has held back on the better ones. With diplomats’ books, it’s usually for reasons of state. Their tomes are vetted by foreign ministries lest diplomatic secrets be revealed. With Dover, still very much involved in the media post-Murdoch (he runs a state-owned Australian satellite TV channel) might it be self-preservation? Then again, as so often with Murdoch and his family, there is sometimes, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “no there there” with them.
A strength of this book is just how human Murdoch appears, a descendant of emigrant Scottish Presbyterian stock, modest to the point of parsimony. If a little bit obsessive, Dover mostly presents Murdoch as normal, even a bit gormless, not a description one usually prescribes to a man who can sway governments, though pointedly not China’s. His third wife Wendi is often presented in the non-Murdoch press as a gold-digger, as she may well be – Dover quotes her telling colleagues at a staff party in 1997 just before she began her affair with Murdoch that her idea of a perfect husband was a “rich older guy” - but she too comes across as unremarkable, barely equipped with the stuff to inherit the empire. Dover contrasts Murdoch’s backroom building of Chinese guanxi with the Hollywood-style hoopla employed by Time-Warner, notably its ex-chairman Gerald Levin. In the end neither tactic succeeded.
This is not a book that will tax the reader, but it’s not designed to be. Dover writes in an easy if occasionally clichéd style – China’s rulers are inevitably “iron-fisted,” and there’s the inevitable banquet misunderstandings – as might befit a former correspondent of one of Murdoch’s more populist Australian dailies. I started it an hour into a seven-hour flight and completed its 302 pages well before landing. And it could’ve had a tighter hand in the editing, though to be fair that would’ve required someone with some China business sensibilities, rare in Western publishing. Murdoch didn’t sell Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post in 1997, it was 1993. And was it $45 million, $100 million or $120 million of News Corp shareholders’ money that son James and his Xuzhou-born stepmother blew in ill-conceived Chinese dotcoms? Still, none of these minor errors detract from Dover’s essential message; that Murdoch’s careful cultivation of China’s party potentates – the less charitable would and do describe his kowtowing as shameless sucking up – did him little good.
The book deserves to sit on the same bookshelf, albeit more prominently, as those myriad other tracts about cracking China. That it’s about Murdoch, and written by a once-trusted lieutenant, gives it obvious spice but it would still be lively were it about a widget-maker that lost its way in China, making all the wrong moves.
Eric Ellis is Southeast Asia correspondent of Fortune Magazine.