He'll Always Have Twitter
The End of Rupert Murdoch?
When word broke of his resignation from the News International board, Rupert Murdoch was faffing about on Twitter.
‘Britain more an entitlement state,’ he explained to his 300, 000 or so followers. ‘Bigger than ever with growing debts. Is it too late to change culture and restore energy?’
NI seems to have been asking similar questions. Ever since the phone tapping scandal, the corporation has been operating like a sleigh hurtling along the Russian steppes, keeping the wolves at bay by tossing out passengers one by one. First went specific journalists, then disposable editors, then the entire News of the World. But the bleeding didn’t stop: Tom Crone; Les Hinton; even Rebekah Brooks, a woman whose well-being Murdoch had declared his first priority, only five days before she got the chop.
So is Rupert next? Are we seeing his withdrawal from Fleet Street, the psychological core of his media empire?
NI says no, of course – but then again it’s News International, so, you know, lies.
You can get a sense of Murdoch’s problems by looking at him Twitter. Indeed, he’s difficult not to watch: since December last year, @rupertmurdoch has been as compelling as a digital car wreck, crashing daily in 140 character installments.
At the start, Murdoch didn’t quite grasp how the platform functioned, with his early tweets almost da-daesque in their incomprehensibility. Two messages consisted merely of the names of associates, almost if he understood social media as a kind of summoning spell, where, if, you typed @AndrewBolt into Tweetdeck, the Herald Sun’s star columnist would manifest through the screen to receive the day’s orders.
Later, when Murdoch had mastered the mechanics sufficiently to produce tweets that madesense, he settled into a persona that seemed almost a conscious parody of the fusty tycoon from the board of the Parker Bros Monopoly game.
‘Maybe Brits have too many holidays for broke country!’ he mused, while vacationing in the Caribbean. Then he snapped into the full Monty Burns:
‘Back to work tomorrow. Enough idling!’
Naturally, his employees around the globe barked and clapped their fins together in enthusiasm at their master’s fresh hobby.
‘Rupert Murdoch decided to do his own columnising – in the coolest new medium,’ the aforementioned Andrew Bolt gushed. ‘Today’s tweets show he’s nailed it.’
(This was, mind you, the same Andrew Bolt who had previously told readers that ‘tweeting is for morons’.)
But it wasn’t merely that the nervous grins of flunkies hinted at a certain internal disquiet at Murdoch’s new enthusiasm. No, like every other social media over-sharer, Rupert blurted out the real issue himself.
‘I’m getting killed for fooling around here and friends frightened what I may really say!’ he tweeted, as happily as a drunk revving up a high-powered sports car.
But the more he confided in his followers, the less he seemed capable of divulging anythingworth hiding, simply because it became increasingly apparent he no longer grasped how the world worked.
‘Good to see santorum surging in Iowa!’ he tweeted, and the entire Twittersphere guffawed in unison.
In Murdoch’s tabloid heyday, his subeditors were acknowledged champions of the double entendre. You might even say that, with their distinctive formula of big tits and baby animals, short articles and celebrity gossip, his papers mastered internet culture before internet culture was even a thing.
But that was in a different medium and during a different era. In cyberspace, their CEO presented as a clueless chump, with far less media savvy than the movie starlets and the MTV moppets his company used to so effortlessly exploit.
‘Seems impossible to have civilised debate on twitter,’ he bleated. ‘Ignorant,vicious abuse lowers whole society, maybe shows real social decay.’ (sic)
The Murdoch press – and, later, the Murdoch cable shows – pioneered a debased ‘gotcha’ discourse, of which phone taps and blagging were merely the most egregious tip. It was a Murdoch paper that published a cover photo of mining unionist Arthur Scargill with his arm raised next to a headline ‘Mine fuhrer!’, and then followed up with a description of the striking miners as ‘Scum of the earth!’
Ignorant, vicious abuse? It’s the Sun, as much as any other institution, wot won that particular battle, as an early exemplar of the brash, aggrieved Tory populism that, in its Americanised form, works so well for Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.
But the internet generation, of course, now takes that pitiless culture for granted. Twitterlives and breathes snark, and Murdoch’s apparent incredulity at the trolling everyone else accepts as a given, simply revealed how out of touch he’d become. Here was the original Wizard from Oz (Melbourne, to be precise), singlehandedly tearing away his curtain of omnipotence to reveal an elderly man stabbing confusedly at his iPad while everyone LOLed at him.
During the twentieth century, Murdochism meant a new commercialisation of the newspaper business, one that forced earlier notions of journalistic quality to adapt to the implacable logic of the dollar. The empire was built by unleashing market forces to destroy the clubbish traditions of older newspaper patriarchs. That’s the basis of Murdoch’s self-perception as a perpetual outsider. He tweeted recently: ‘Enemies many different agendas, but worst old toffs and right wingers who still want last century’s status quo with their monoplies.’ (sic)
Well, the classical Marxists used to quote Horace: ‘change the name and the story is told of you.’ The papers are dying because their only raison d’être is profit and the rivers of gold that once ran through them have increasingly gone online. Murdoch remains an old newspaper man but the forces he set in play have turned against him. The market knows no loyalty, and it’s now doing to Rupert’s papers what it did to the ‘old toffs’ he screwed over last century.
That doesn’t mean that NI is finished, of course. On the contrary, the whole point of the current shuffle seems to be to distance the more profitable parts of the empire from the dead weight of the past. But in that re-positioning, hard-nosed corporate executives might well decide that even Kim Kardashian has more of an idea how new media works than the cranky old duffer complaining about the entitlement of ordinary people.
Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chips wrappings, as the veteran journalists used to say – and fish-and-chips wrappings get thrown away.
That may well be what we’re seeing now: the unsentimental disposal of yesterday’s story, the end of the last of the newspaper barons.
Oh, well. He’ll always have Twitter.
Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland literary journal and the author of the forthcoming Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.