Even those who lead exceptionally charmed lives must sometimes endure exceptionally dark periods. Take News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, whose past month has been a cascading series of setbacks. Last week, a government-sponsored inquiry into British media ethics—an investigation precipitated by the scummy journalistic practices of the Murdoch-owned tabloid newspaper News of the World—excoriated the British press in general, and Murdoch’s News International in particular, recommending that statutory regulation be implemented to keep them in line. On Monday, his much-ballyhooed iPad newspaper, The Daily, was scrapped after less than two years of production. Upon its launch, Murdoch had claimed The Daily would be the future of news delivery and consumption.
And on Wednesday, Murdoch’s 103-year-old mother—the elegant and sharp-tongued family matriarch Dame Elisabeth Murdoch—died at her estate in Melbourne, Australia. As Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff wrote in The Man Who Owns the News, “At the center of the Murdoch family structure, dominating not just by longevity (although that surely helps) but by all manner of maternal force and wiles is Dame Elisabeth Murdoch.”
A few years ago, just short of her hundredth birthday, Dame Elisabeth had shrugged at questions of her durability, telling a reporter that she was “as tough as old boots.” In conversation with Wolff, she ruminated on her “elderly” son’s divorce, also playfully referring to him as “that wretched boy of mine.” As Dame Elisabeth explained, she was a hugely important figure in her son’s life: “One tries very hard to be an example to one’s children. I think that all of my children say that my example has been enormously important to them. Rupert says it quite often, so I think he believes it.” There was a subtle—and rather funny—implication that the others might be lying.
After news of his mother’s death was reported, Murdoch took to Twitter, thanking his 400,000 followers for “condolences about my Mum. A great lady, wife. mother and citizen. 193 yo, but still a blow.” He quickly corrected himself: “No, 103 yo! There are limits! In a statement, free of character limits and unencumbered by the need for abbreviation, Murdoch said, “Throughout her life, our mother demonstrated the very best qualities of true public service. Her energy and personal commitment made our country a more hopeful place and she will be missed by many.”
Indeed, Dame Elisabeth was lavishly rewarded for her public service, becoming Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a Companion of the Order of Australia, and Victorian of the Year (a reference to her home state in Australia, not an award for excessive priggishness). She generously funded over 100 charities per year. According to various press accounts, and fitting with her Grand Dame image, she was an “award-winning” gardener, a skill documented in the 200-page book Garden of a Lifetime: Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at Cruden Farm.
While her late husband, who died 60 years ago, bequeathed to her a lavish farm and media empire, Dame Elisabeth told Wolff that she didn’t “care a hang for newspapers,” confessing that she could go long stretches without reading them. But she was nevertheless prescient about the newspaper business, occasionally—and publically—chiding her son for certain additions to his media empire. As The Guardian noted in its obituary for Dame Elisabeth, she warned Rupert off of purchasing News of the World, a paper that would earn him money and, later, ignominy. “I didn’t approve [of the purchase] at all and [said] that what they published was intruding into people’s privacy,” she told The Guardian in 2009. “He said, ‘Mum, lots of people have very empty lives and want something entertaining to read.’ I said I would like to think otherwise, but it didn’t prevail.” Rupert won the argument, and later lost his shirt—and a good deal of credibility.
He should have listened to Mum.