Rupert Murdoch, a hands-on newspaperman
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Rupert Murdoch, a hands-on newspaperman

To illustrate the extent to which Rupert Murdoch used to micro-manage his newspapers, a one-time Murdoch editor told an anecdote about a typical board meeting at the mogul's UK newspaper arm in the 1980s.

world Updated: Jul 19, 2011 18:41 IST

To illustrate the extent to which Rupert Murdoch used to micro-manage his newspapers, a one-time Murdoch editor told an anecdote about a typical board meeting at the mogul's UK newspaper arm in the 1980s.

News International directors, including some of the most powerful newspaper editors in Britain, would solemnly assemble in a board room within Murdoch's fortress-like publishing compound at Wapping, not far from the Tower of London.

Once assembled, Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor who ran Murdoch's raucous daily tabloid the Sun between 1981 and 1994 and made it the most influential newspaper for much of the Thatcher era, would ask: "Right. Who's going to ring Rupert, then?"

The anecdote was delivered with a smile. But senior journalists and corporate officials who have worked at the highest levels of the Murdoch organisation in Britain say it encapsulates a deep truth about the way the Murdoch newspaper empire has traditionally been run.

Former senior Murdoch employees in Britain, Australia and the United States say Murdoch is a hands-on media proprietor, as ready with an opinion on a story as he is to dispose of any editor who regularly takes a different stance from his own.

Reports of Murdoch pressuring editors until their newspapers reflected his own political leanings are common - if more frequent at his tabloids than at his quality publications. Sometimes, Murdoch does not even have to pick up the phone.

"When I was last at News I was astonished how some editors would almost factor in Rupert even though he was 12,000 miles away," Bruce Guthrie, a former editor at Murdoch's Herald Sun in Melbourne, said.

"You could almost see them thinking, 'what will Rupert think of this?'"

News International said it does not comment on Murdoch's level of involvement in his newspapers. Dow Jones & Company, which owns the Wall Street Journal, declined to comment. Parent company News Corporation would not comment.

Reuters is a competitor of the Journal and of Dow Jones Newswires, the financial news agency that News Corp acquired along with the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

Anticipating the boss
To get an idea of how deeply Murdoch sometimes sought to steer what his newspapers were saying, former Wapping insiders point to his relationship with one of the more respected of his British media properties, the Sunday Times.

Towards the end of a typical week, says a former senior News International figure, the owner would routinely ring the paper's editor - from the mid-1980s a voluble Scotsman named Andrew Neil but more recently John Witherow, a genial, low-profile South African - and grill them about the stories being worked on.

One person who was present at one of these sessions said Murdoch would ask his editor to run through the list of stories reporters were chasing. He would then critique them one by one.

Eventually Murdoch would hear a story he liked and make his interest apparent. That story would then become a main candidate for the front page.

Roy Greenslade, a media commentator for the Guardian who worked as a senior editor at both Murdoch's Sun tabloid and the quality Sunday Times, said that from what he saw and heard, Murdoch's personal editorial involvement was much deeper with his British tabloids than with his two up-market papers, The Times and the Sunday Times. Current and former employees of the Wall Street Journal say that's the case at that paper as well.

In his earlier days as a UK media mogul, Murdoch was known for literally dictating what tabloid editors would put in their papers, Greenslade said.

But Greenslade and other News Corp editors also said that as Murdoch's empire expanded, the Australian-born mogul had less time to micro-manage operations at individual papers.

At the same time he was still able to exert editorial influence by selecting editors who would anticipate his editorial views and whims.

"As an editor you were never in any doubt about what pleased him," Greenslade said.

In 2007, Murdoch himself told a House of Lords committee looking at media ownership and the news that he was a "traditional proprietor" at the Sun and News of the World, according to the committee's minutes of a meeting with the media boss. "He exercises editorial control on major issues - like which Party to back in a general election or policy on Europe," the committee noted.

Rebekah Brooks, editor of the News of the World when some of the phone hacking occurred and head of News International until last week, told the same committee that she was "very lucky to have a traditional proprietor like Mr Murdoch, coupled with always having Les Hinton (then head of News International) there as well, who, as you know, was a journalist. Yes, I do seek advice from them and, yes, it is a consensus issue."

First Published: Jul 19, 2011 18:36 IST