There’s more than a whiff of sanctimony in some of the moral outrage expressed by commentators on the Fox News sexual harassment scandal. It doesn’t pass the Captain Renault test from Casablanca: “I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here.”
Reading these commentators, you could easily get the impression that Fox stands out as an egregious exception in the mega-media business as a place where horny old guys are coercing the female talent into sexual submission as the price of career advancement.
What’s new here is not that sexual harassment has been and remains a peril in any career where there is an imbalance of power between men and women, which is pretty much everywhere in the TV and movie businesses. After all, the casting couch has a long history as the gateway to stardom and is still by no means limited to Fox News as a continuing blight.
No, the difference here is quantitative: how pervasive sexual harassment apparently was at Fox, to the point where it seems to have become institutionalized. And just as new and, hopefully, consequential is the courage displayed by the women who have exposed the rotten culture. Because of these women 21st Century Fox will be the first media empire to pay the due cost of such courage and the readjustment of executive power that it demands. (It most surely won’t be the last.)
Clearly many women at Fox felt that they were working in a place where the management operated by the rules of a bordello, in the same way that a madam would pair the most powerful clients with her most nubile and ambitious recruits. The allegations against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly (which both of them deny) are, at the very least, horrendous and deeply disreputable.
Behind this wretched picture there are, however, special circumstances that are probably unique to Fox. The work culture at Fox was in the hands of a generation of managers who felt free to behave as though it was still the 1960s and ’70s when urgent priapic needs could be more easily excused as part of the new sexual liberation—a kind of mutual pact between the sexes that all inhibition could be cast to the winds.
And this brings us inescapably to the presiding mogul and his own role and influence in shaping the corporate culture.
To properly understand this it is necessary to begin where Rupert Murdoch himself began: his earliest years in journalism. As I have reported before, Murdoch’s first mentor in journalism was Lord Beaverbrook, owner of what was once Britain’s largest-selling broadsheet daily, the Daily Express. Like many an old plutocrat, Beaverbrook fully exploited his wealth and power to procure sex. One of the favors he asked of ambitious women journalists was for them to join him at his villa in the south of France where the foreplay included wearing only a mink coat that was slowly shed.
As an intern in the 1950s in the Express newsroom Murdoch wrote home to Australia about what he called “the Beaverbrook brothel.” As he reported on this phenomenon Murdoch revealed himself as something of a prude—not in the language he used, for sure, but in the moral position he took as an editor.
The most a telling moment was in 1953 when the ground-breaking Kinsey Report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, was published. Most of the London papers responded with typical hypocrisy—relishing the opening to discuss intimate sexual habits while, at the same time, appearing to be shocked—shocked—that such things were now discussable if they were robed as science.
Murdoch reflected the same confusion and some degree of naivety.
In a telegram he sent to the manager of the paper his family owned back in Adelaide, Australia, he alerted them to the news value of the event but described the Kinsey Report as a “preposterous document” based on interviews with “five thousand women exhibitionists, boasters, legpullers.” He said the Express was not publishing a single word of the report and directed that the editor of the paper should do the same: “Fornication, masturbation, frustration unsuitable for Adelaide family fireside.”
In a follow-up note he wrote: “I trust my note about Kinsey didn’t offend you. I feel strongly about the subject. Cunt is not our line—especially when it’s phony… we might warn our readers of this without publishing the phony figures. But that’s all.”
By the late 1960s, when Murdoch launched The Sun, the London the tabloid that presaged the future tone and success of his media empire, he was a good deal bolder in the exploitation of sex. He was prepared to go, if not full frontal, as far as publishing a daily pin-up photo of topless young women—a novelty in the national press that worked in building circulation but was more a cynical tease than an indication of a new libertine license in his personal view of sex.
Indeed, in the era of Swinging London and a British cultural insurrection that swept aside all censorship and inhibition, when the BBC first allowed the use of the word fuck on live TV and theater and movies openly celebrated copulation, Murdoch’s social attitudes remained those of provincial Australia. But, strangely, embedded within those attitudes was something perversely tolerant of laddish behavior, a kind of unspoken acceptance of male virility and dominance as the natural order. Murdoch himself was never caught in locker-room joshing but, at the same time, he didn’t discourage it in others if they delivered results.
As for his own private life, Murdoch has been married four times but there is nothing in his past to suggest the lechery of Roger Ailes or Bill O’Reilly.
The current spin of most of the reporting of the crisis at Fox News is that the two heirs, James and Lachlan Murdoch, have been allowed to purge as they see fit in order that the larger 21st Century Fox global business is not fatally tarnished. The removal of Ailes, principal creator of the Fox News phenomenon, is cited as the turning point in a generational change of control.
But as one executive ejection follows another this strategy cleverly obscures Rupert Murdoch’s own culpability. There is no evidence that his results-driven tolerance of rampant laddishness has ever changed; it would have been natural for him to turn a blind eye to whatever Ailes regarded as a permissible modus operandi for his personal fiefdom. With Ailes delivering such spectacular financial results, why would the boss intervene?
Surely, there can be no less erotic picture imaginable than that of Roger Ailes prowling like a stud in a stud farm and yet that is what, according to his accusers, they had to face if they were seeking advancement. Bill O’Reilly, on the other hand, cuts a handsome figure for his age but he, too, according to his accusers, had reached such a state of libidinal excitement that he risked everything in order to sate it. But suppose he didn’t see that risk. Suppose O’Reilly and Ailes were assuming they could do what they knew was readily tolerated as the right of the powerful to have their way with women?
And remember, these men were of the generation in television—both network and cable—whose personal tastes shaped the universal physical model for successful women anchors.
So it was that the Fox News women anchors—like most of all women anchors—looked as though they had first been screened according to the tenets of a Playboy centerfold, in itself a 1960s work of male fantasy prizing airbrushing over reality. (When was the last time anyone saw a plump and homely matron—someone like Janet Yellen, perhaps—holding down a prime time slot on the basis of their brains not their body type?)
Indeed, Andrea Tantaros, a former Fox News host and one of Ailes’ accusers, described the newsroom as “sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny.”
But, ironically, this stereotyping brought with it a reverse prejudice: If the physical template for a successful career in television was based on the blonde supermodel then those journalists who met that requirement could be dismissed by critics (and rivals) as bimbos. (Most were not.)
Murdoch’s ability so far to escape personal culpability in the Fox News scandal echoes how he successfully slipped away from taking responsibility for the notorious London phone hacking scandal less than a decade ago. The newsroom of his biggest-selling tabloid, the News of the World, practiced phone hacking on an industrial scale: More than 7,000 phones were hacked, including those of a murdered schoolgirl, families of victims of the 2005 London terror attacks, and the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When Murdoch appeared before the judge leading an official investigation into the hacking he gave a very convincing (and carefully scripted) performance that combined uncharacteristic repentance with absent-mindedness—for a few seconds it was possible to believe that the old guy was losing his grip on the business that he personally had built from scratch and that he clearly loved. This impression of vulnerability was heightened when his then wife, Wendi Deng, intercepted a fruit pie hurled at the mogul from the public benches.
And he got away with it. James Murdoch took the fall for his father, allowing himself to seem a negligent manager who had missed many cues to what the staff of the News of the World was up to when, all along, he knew the rules of the game and who inspired them. The newsroom of the News of the World was the apotheosis of all that had gone before it as Murdoch built his empire.
A description of that newsroom by The Guardian’s investigative reporter, Nick Davies, revealed a truly toxic workplace where people toiled all hours, often addled with booze and drugs, and casual sex was customary. The ruling force was fear. Murdoch’s version of human resources was a tyranny that kept a log tracking the performance of reporters where a falling byline count brought a warning and a failure to recover meant being fired.
And so there is a cultural consistency in plain sight running through all the tabloid news operations that Murdoch built, in print and in television. Fox News was its ultimate and most profitable manifestation—and, perhaps, now the nemesis of that culture.
When Ailes was fired Rupert Murdoch reasserted his authority at Fox by making himself executive chairman at the age of 85 (he’s 86 now.) There had, apparently, been a miraculous transformation from the passive penitent of the hacking inquiry. The boss was back and trying to limit the damage. But his actions never seemed to match the scale of the crisis.
Beyond the financial costs—$13 million to O’Reilly’s accusers, more than $23 million to two of Ailes’ accusers—is a serious issue involving the standards of corporate governance. These and other settlements were supposedly concealed from shareholders as money was found in various accounts and directed into a slush fund. It is inconceivable that sums that large could have been dispensed without Murdoch’s personal approval—he is famously vigilant about all expenses. All this is apparently now the subject of a grand jury investigation as part of a continuing federal probe of Fox News.
There is a lot more at stake than just fixing the mess in America. James and Lachlan Murdoch are worried about its effects on a prize finally within their grasp, getting full control of the Sky satellite and cable network in Europe.
Six years ago the hacking scandal derailed the family’s first bid to take over Sky—a business that Murdoch senior founded and James had driven to great success. Now, once again, the Murdochs are facing scrutiny from the British regulator, Ofcom, that has to determine if they are “fit and proper” people to own an operation that, through Sky News, is a significant voice in British journalism.
There is serious political opposition to this bid in London, and not only on the grounds of Murdoch’s cavalier style of corporate governance. Many in the British Parliament, of all political parties, are concerned on the grounds that, together with his newspapers, the deal would give Murdoch too much scope to use Sky News in the way he has always used his newspapers—to further his own political agenda. (This is no small matter since two tabloids, Murdoch’s Sun and the Daily Mail, were between them thought to have swung opinion to the Brexit vote for leaving Europe.)
But there is also more support for the bid than there was at the time of the hacking scandal. And some of this support, I have learned, is making a surprising argument: that if the deal goes through it will not only mean that James Murdoch is judged a “fit and proper” guardian of the public interest—and that the son would no longer be held guilty for the sins of the father. In fact, some industry insiders in London believe that if James Murdoch pulls off the Sky deal he will then finally have the authority—and balls—to end his father’s reign.
But, as the old English proverb says and James Murdoch must fully know, in the dark nights of such family dynasties there is many a slip ’twixt cup and lip.