Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Scandal

03.29.12

Rupert Murdoch’s Twitter Account Has Made the Mogul a Figure of Fun

Having recently discovered Twitter, the News Corp. mogul is sounding a lot like a social-media King Lear—but the real danger, for him, is that we may learn not to fear him.

There’s always been something quite Shakespearean about Rupert Murdoch, his media empire and his dynastic family story. Indeed, when the hacking scandal first broke last summer there was an entire #shakespeare4murdoch hashtag that trended highly for several days on twitter.  But the tweet tirades of last night, railing at other news outlets for publicizing allegations of pay TV piracy in his empire, sound more like King Lear raging on the heath (“I shall do such things, I know not yet what they are, but they shall be the terror of the earth!”).

Apparently Steve Jobs is to blame. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography, Murdoch met Jobs a couple of times around the launch of the iPad. He thought it was a “game changer” for publishing and newspapers—obviously someone gave him an iIPad for Christmas. The rest is a gift for historians and comedians.

When Murdoch started tweeting on New Year’s Eve there was much incredulity in the twittersphere. Though the account was verified, so was another account from Wendi Deng (which turned out to be fake) and a read of Rupert’s account will give many unintentional moments that verge on parody. In his early days, Rupert was content to plug some of his company’s new movies or paper columnists, or bang on about his pet theme, education. But then the Republican primaries began, and his political colors began to show.

Then, after various “Obama out to lunch!”  expostulations, and some incoherent ramblings about piracy during the SOPA debate (rather ironic if any of the pay TV piracy allegations ever pan out), Murdoch began to tweet regularly with the same gruff insouciance of an opinionated old uncle, or perhaps a Simpsons' character.

Until, that is, he returned to England in February to launch the Sun on Sunday. With the Leveson Inquiry showing none of the usual obeisance among the British political class to Murdoch’s papers, Rupert starts gunning for David Cameron. Or rather he starts gunning for the whole nation, by praising the leader of the Scots Nationalists and encouraging the breakup of Britain.

Last week, the grudge against Cameron became even more personal. As Murdoch’s Sunday Times exposed a “cash for access” scandal in the Conservative Party, Rupert twisted the knife into the Tory leader that all his papers had supported in the previous election.

There’s still bite in the old dog yet.

It’s always been a little ironic that one of the world’s most powerful media moguls, a man who has hundreds of newspapers, magazines, TV channels, and book publishers under his control, should use social media in order to get his voice heard.  But whatever the incoherence of many of the tweets, there’s no doubt Murdoch still has relish for the fight. Though he rarely responds to replies, it’s clear he reads them.

But we do care, Rupert. Your 200,000 followers care!

Famously reticent, socially awkward (though apparently charming one on one) Murdoch’s desire to make himself heard through Twitter is either the disinhibition that comes with age, a second wind of combative polemic, or just a chance to do what he’s always wanted to do: to communicate his ideas, without the encumbrances of editors or producers, PR managers and spin.

Whatever the incoherence of many of the tweets, there’s no doubt Murdoch still has relish for the fight.

Michael Wolff, Murdoch’s semi-official biographer who, five years ago, noted how Rupert was irritable, slightly deaf, and liable to go off the reservation without a cohort of media handlers, thinks the recent tweets are a PR disaster. I’m not sure I agree. I think they show the true Murdoch—opinionated, given to bursts of generosity, but amazingly lacking in self-knowledge or current political awareness.

You want to laugh. You want to shake your head. You want to lead this man carefully away from the iPad, and put him on a deck chair somewhere in the sun.

Twitter may yet destroy Murdoch’s reputation and mystique, not because it makes him disreputable, bad or mad—but because we cease to fear him.