Rupert Murdoch has backed politicians as eclectic as Hillary Clinton (at least in New York), the Australian trade unionist Bob Hawke, and an ex-employee dismissed for fabricating quotes called Boris Johnson. But one of the media mogul’s early endorsements was perhaps the strangest of all.
In 1960, the young Australian publisher visited an island nation ruled by a charismatic rebel who had riled Washington. On his return Murdoch wrote what biographer William Shawcross described as a “starry eyed” piece demanding the US end its hostility.
Fidel Castro of Cuba had probably never heard of the Sydney Mirror or its owner Rupert Murdoch. But countless politicians would come to understand — and fear — the prize that is a nod from Murdoch, and the primal forces it can muster in any election campaign, often through tabloids like the Sun and the New York Post.
Murdoch is well known for staunch anti-elite, low-tax, defence-heavy conservatism. But if there is a Murdoch Method to picking politicians, it has proven much more chameleon-like in its pragmatism over the years.
The choices are never straightforward, and they have become more complex as Murdoch’s clout has grown. Now at 91 he might face one of the trickiest calls of his career, with implications for his influence and the profit machine that is Fox News. What to do with Donald Trump?
Murdoch is a past master at taking the measure of a politician and sensing their sell-by date. Over half a century he has slipped allegiances, and sometimes switched parties, with timing that amplified his perceived power.
He insists profit is not a factor — “I have never asked a prime minister for anything” — but his dexterous choices often furthered his commercial ambitions. When he backed Tony Blair’s Labour party before the 1997 election, Murdoch likened it to “making love like porcupines” — something to be done “very, very carefully”.
Even more care may be needed with Trump’s prickles. Murdoch was reported to have been initially deeply unimpressed by Trump in 2016 but soon realised his shameless grandstanding had captivated Republicans. Trump’s rise was also undeniably good for Murdoch’s business: Fox News thrived, with record profits, record audiences and unparalleled influence.
The calculus has since changed. Murdoch’s US newspapers have turned on the former president, with the New York Post revelling in casting “Trumpty Dumpty” as a deluded election loser. Trump looks decidedly out of favour.
But the die has yet to be cast at Fox News, the organ through which Murdoch and his heir Lachlan could decisively influence the Republican nomination for president. The network’s anchors were relatively muted when Trump declared his candidacy last month. That absence of enthusiasm was telling, but far from hostile. The news channel that helped make Trump president appears that it has yet to decide how far to back him.
Consider what is at stake. Murdoch has known presidents since John F Kennedy. But no relationship compared with Trump. It wasn’t just that Trump watched Fox News and hired its anchors, the president also regularly called Murdoch for advice. “For Rupert, it was priceless, the greatest entertainment,” said one former aide.
There is no denying the Trump decision also has financial implications. Fox News — boasting margins close to 50 per cent — is the powerhouse of a cable division making almost $3bn of underlying profit. Fox News ratings have trounced rivals this year. But its prime time audience has never returned to Trump-era highs, and it is dominated by over-55s.
Trump brings ratings, but also trouble. The post-Trump hangover for Fox News included two multibillion-dollar defamation lawsuits served by voting technology companies. Fox denies wrongdoing, but some of its big shareholders say they are resigned to hefty settlements.
More worrying for Murdoch long term is the way Trump has divided his audience. Since 2020, “trust” in Fox News among right-leaning voters has dropped from 73 per cent to 56 per cent, according to surveys by the Reuters Institute at Oxford university.
This is alarming for a Murdoch media machine that prizes one mantra above all: give people what they want. Can Murdoch deliver in 2024? Fox News might find a saviour from the Trump choice in the Florida governor Ron DeSantis, or it might just hedge its bets and bank on cosying up to the former president if required. But this election, the dilemmas will be sharper, and the stakes higher — even for Rupert Murdoch.