In one of the early episodes of Succession, the highly popular TV series, the ageing patriarch, the self-made billionaire and media baron, Logan Roy, passes the mantle to his younger son, Roman and not to Kendall, the eldest and more qualified of the two siblings. In doing so, he creates enough fodder for the story to last four seasons. It becomes such a spicy saga that it turns out steady grime and gossip to keep millions of audiences engaged and inspires many memes, spin-offs and the like.
Logan’s tale with its remarkable similarities to Rupert Murdoch’s story, may as well, in time, pass off as the original screenplay of Murdoch’s life and times.
Michael Wolff’s ‘The Fall’ begins with Murdoch’s obituary written sometime in the future and tries to look at the final years of his life in retrospect. The issues he focuses on in the book are ones we have read a lot about in the contemporary press as most of these events have played out in front of us. At a time when there is saturation coverage of every event on all media formats, it’s difficult to write something about a popular person that we may have not read or seen already. Perhaps, beginning with an obit was the only way Wolff could have got our attention to a book on the media baron’s current life phase, given that none of the book’s material feels fresh or new.
The picture Wolff paints is of an ailing patriarch, who as a businessman has achieved much success with his drive and passion, single-mindedly pursuing the conservative right view of the world but who is now struggling to seek approval from his children who are firmly rooted to their liberal left view.
This brings forth the classic conflict between his love of the enormous profits that Fox News and his networks generate and his yearning to reconcile the absolute distaste and rejection of his right wing point of view by his liberal, but rivalrous children.
Michael Wolff is no stranger to Murdoch. His earlier book on him titled The Man Who Owns The News was a first-hand account of how Murdoch relentlessly built his Empire and media brands including Fox News, Sky TV, 20th Century Fox, NewsCorp & The Star.
‘The Fall’ is the sequel, a good fifteen years later, and it chronicles the events that led to the unravelling of the Empire including the sale of 20th Century Fox and Sky TV and his subsequent retirement from the Fox News and News Corp boards.
The Fox news empire was built by his charismatic CEO Roger Ailes and his original firebrand Fox anchor, Bill O’Reilly who ran the highest rated cable show for nearly two decades. But as soon as they were incarcerated due to the ‘Me Too’ movement accusations, Murdoch substituted them with moderately conservative presenters Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, who, ironically, played a major role in building Trump into a Frankenstein that threatened to gobble up the news network.
Michael Wolff, who too managed to get a reportorial seat in Donald Trump’s White House, chronicles in great detail Hannity’s unethical post-electoral support of Trump. That makes him privy to inside information on how the machinations worked up by Trump actually worked against him and the Fox news network. Those are the few interesting chapters in the book.
Under Roger Ailes, Fox and Bill O’Reilly blatantly played the conservative right card with complete autonomy, using nationalistic jingoism rather than fact based journalism. As long as they earned the ratings and the advertising money flowed by the truckload, Murdoch was blindsided. But when Murdoch brought in Hannity and Carlson as anchors, he played into the hands of Donald Trump, who used the opportunity to hijack Fox News to further his agenda. After Trump lost the 2020 elections, he used Fox to create and spread conspiracy theories about a rigged vote.
Hannity, on his part, did daily calls with Trump for Fox viewers and called Campaign officials on camera to give instructions and strategy during the campaign. But it was Hannity’s post-election coverage, an attempt to keep Trump in the news and build up the conspiracy theory, that hurt Fox the most. The agency that handled the electoral votes, Dominion Voting Systems sued Fox for defamation, and Murdoch had to shell out, to his utter dismay, nearly $800m to settle the case.
The book presents no major revelations, but instead presents vivid portraits of the main characters in Murdoch’s Empire as it unravels.
Much has already been written in the press about his two warring sons and their affiliations and roles in various board battles in the Empire. ‘The Fall’ details most of these battles and perspectives of the board members and the family.
Alternating chapters capture different players, particularly his anchors Tucker and Carlson, his four children James, Lachlan, Elizabeth and Prudence, his third and fourth wives Wendy and Jerry Hall and their role in “The Fall”. The differences between the family and that of his fourth wife, whom he had recently married and divorced, that broke the back of Murdoch as he tried to reconcile all the impossible contrasting viewpoints in the boardroom are well brought out.
Wolff frequently refers to the fact that Murdoch is in his 90s and is irked by the fact that his children, who are not on speaking terms with each other for years, are squabbling over how to get all the voting rights aligned for one of them to take over.
In spite of all that Wolff says in this book, Murdoch’s legacy will be the great brands he built and the powerful influence he wielded in American and British politics and the entertainment he provided through his TV networks globally for nearly seven decades.
Wolff’s unbalanced perspective at best remains a gossipy potboiler about people, their motives and their intentions. Read it only if family dramas excite you or if Succession draws you back to your TV every night.
(Naveen Chandra runs a film studio that focuses on producing regional language feature films)
Check out the book on Amazon.
About the book
Title: The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire
Author: Michael Wolff
Publisher: The Bridge Street Press/ Distributed in India by Hachette
Pages: 320 pages
Price: ₹699 (paperback)