The Woman Running Rupert Murdoch’s ‘Gawker’ for the Right
The former Tory MP Louise Mensch is running Heat Street, a new right-leaning website she wants to be ‘a little snarky and punky perhaps, and anti-political correctness.’
Say what you will about Louise Mensch—and nearly everything has been said (occasionally by Mensch herself) about the former Tory MP who quit her rural Northamptonshire seat, moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her rock ’n’ roll manager-husband and three kids from a previous marriage, and just launched Heat Street, a libertarian website backed by Rupert Murdoch.
She doesn’t lack for certitude.
“Ted Cruz will be the Republican nominee—Ted Cruz will get the delegates for the nomination,” Mensch told me the other day as she sipped chamomile tea at a sidewalk café a block from the News Corp. building on Sixth Avenue, where Heat Street resides along with the Fox News Channel, The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal.
“Really?” I asked, unable to conceal my skepticism.
“Oh yeah! There’s no problem there at all.”
“No, I don’t bet.”
“Good thing, because you might lose some money on that bet.”
“I doubt it,” Mensch retorted, wearing a serene smile and speaking at breakneck pace, in perfectly formed, percussively punctuated paragraphs—in a posh accent that might have been enhanced at Oxford’s Christ Church College and the Oxford Union debating society.
Several days after her Cruz prediction, the week that GOP frontrunner Donald Trump won five primaries in a single night and continued to rack up delegates on his way to 1,237, she course-corrected slightly in an email: “I think it is likely but I am no political pundit—and Heat Street doesn’t take a position on who the nominee will be! I know I told you those were just personal thoughts—who knows what will happen in this crazy election?”
Heat Street, which went live two weeks ago—leading with a traffic-driving story (owing in part to a Drudge link) on Bernie Sanders’s wife Jane, a former college president, and whether she played fast and loose with a real estate loan to Burlington College—has been brewing in Mensch’s brain since 2014.
Her pitch to Will Lewis, chief executive of the News Corp. subsidiary Dow Jones, “was a sort of a Libertarian Huffington Post—a picture-driven site that is a little snarky and punky perhaps, and anti-political correctness,” said Mensch, who is helming Heat Street alongside former network television producer Noah Kotch with 16 editorial and business staffers, including an investigative reporter based in the U.K., with a tweaked version aimed at British readers.
“The germination of the idea came from my first Passover with my now-husband [Jewish New Yorker Peter Mensch], when I sat down as a guest, and somebody said, ‘How would you vote if you were a U.S. citizen?,’ and I said I would vote Republican, and my husband was genuinely embarrassed, and said, ‘Shhh! Stop! Stop!’ It was like I had announced to the entire table that I had halitosis.”
Mensch continued: “Obviously, this is New York, but it really struck me how toxic that was to a younger generation…But I wouldn’t fit neatly into the GOP either. I’m not a supporter of the death penalty, for example, and I do think we should decriminalize marijuana. So I did think there was a space for the younger generation who don’t have any place to go if they’re entrepreneurial, they like low taxes, they hate political correctness, they hate safe-space culture, and at the same time they want government, including politicians, to stay out of their bedrooms. They support equal marriage, and they’re in favor of modest immigration reform…
“They’re stuck between a very polarized and extremist political climate,” Mensch added, “and I think there’s space for something in the middle, which has a bit of humor without trying to be The Onion, and which uses large pictures—which I personally love—and at the same time keeps an eye on media bias and smashes political correctness.”
Why did it take two years to come to life?
“It’s a bit like having a movie in development, not that I’ve ever had that happen to me, where you pitch an idea, everyone loves the idea, and then you take a lot of meetings where everyone loves the idea some more, and nothing actually happens,” Mensch said. “And then you sort of trundle along, and there was a great sort of break when I said, ‘Please, can we get something done here?’ And it was passed over to the Innovation Group at Dow Jones…and then Robert Thomson [the chief executive of News Corp.] decided, yes, he was going to back this to production.”
The result is lively, provocative and, according to figures from the Internet measuring service Quantcast, off to a decent start traffic-wise, with around 623,000 unique visitors since the launch. The only glitch is apparently that the domain name HeatStreet.com—which would have been preferable to Heatst.com—belongs to a body-piercing and tattoo parlor in Florence, South Carolina.
“We made an offer—they turned it down, fair enough!” Mensch explained in an email. “We didn’t want to spend loads of money on a URL, but we do think they’re great. Tattoos and small businesses are awesome. The decision has clearly been vindicated by our traffic to our heatst.com URL which we purchased for the princely sum of $11.99, if memory serves.”
Mensch, who has a green card as a News Corp. strategic vice president, and plans to apply for U.S. citizenship, is baffled by an American democratic system in which the ideological discipline of political parties is irrelevant and all but nonexistent.
“As far as I can see, any random punter can call themselves a Republican and a Democrat,” she said, mentioning Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist from Vermont, and Donald Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner who long self-identified as a Democrat.
She noted that in Britain, party leaders have the power to “take away the whip”—that is, punish politicians who utter obnoxious sentiments (such as racism toward Mexicans) or spurn basic elements of the party platform.
“I think the American system is crazy,” she said of her adopted homeland. “I could be a rabid Republican and register as a Democrat and vote in their primary and mess up their stuff, and they can’t do anything about it. That’s stupid.”
She added, approvingly, that at least former Barry Goldwater supporter Hillary Clinton “has been out in the chicken dinners since she was a young Republican and switched parties over the Vietnam War. That girl—whatever you may think of her—has been an activist for many years. Bernie Sanders is a bloody Independent. Let him run as an Independent on the Independent ticket.”
Mensch said that given the Hobson’s choice between Trump and Clinton, “I’d rather take the intelligent one,” i.e. Clinton—not that she’ll be voting for anyone this November.
Indeed, she said she’s more in sync with former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I grew up with Schwarzenegger, Madonna, and Margaret Thatcher as my three lode stars,” Mensch confided, recalling that she used to invade her older brother’s bedroom to admire his poster of Arnold as “Predator.” “Madonna fell off a little bit, but Margaret Thatcher did not. Neither did Schwarzenegger.”
The Governator became a social friend after Mensch tweeted positively at the Austrian body builder-turned-movie star, congratulating him on his centrist, fiscally conservative, socially progressive ideas, and he tweeted back at her to “keep fighting.”
“I ran around my room, screaming,” said Mensch, an obsessive Twitter devotee with more than 96,000 followers. “The only other time I did that was when I got a tweet from Jackie Collins saying ‘Love your writing.’”
Mensch, a nonsmoker who has practically given up drinking, said she annually smokes a cigar with Schwarzenegger, who, in a Heat Street video, tried unsuccessfully to teach her how to ride a bicycle. “I’m mal-coordinated,” Mensch claimed.
Concerning Heat Street’s political coverage, Mensch said, “You will find us taking the mick out of every candidate in the race and reporting things that none of them would like to report.”
But she’s deeply alarmed by the ascendancy of Trump.
“I must make clear that this is my personal view and not the view of the website,” she said. “My personal objection to Donald Trump is that he has said very racist things, is lying to the voters, and is a fairly radical left-wing Democrat.”
Citing the reality show billionaire’s rampant hiring of cheap foreign labor for his businesses, his mocking of a disabled New York Times reporter, his apparent insincerity about his hardline stance on illegal immigration and building a wall with Mexico, his previously pro-choice stance and his past willingness to countenance partial-birth abortion, Mensch said, “He treats the voters like idiots.”
She added: “And he mocks Senator McCain who—I don’t care what your politics are—is a hero. John McCain was tortured so hard he cannot lift his arms above his shoulder. And Donald Trump got out of the draft because he had a bone spur in the bottom of his foot.”
Mensch, a near-daily jogger, went on: “I had a bone spur once. I took some Naproxen. And kept running.”
Mensch—whose blonde good looks and tart tongue made her something of a media darling during her brief stint in the House of Commons, even garnering her attention on this side of the Pond due to a nasty spat with then-CNN host Piers Morgan—has packed a great deal into her 44 years.
After an ill-tempered dustup on CNN with Morgan—in which he scolded her, “I think you should apologize for being a liar”—Mensch eventually made peace with the former Daily Mirror and News of the World editor, apologizing for claiming erroneously that he’d admitted to engaging in the unlawful practice of intercepting celebrities’ cellphones messages.
“I’ve always admired Piers Morgan’s chutzpah, which is brilliant, and I love the way he just annoys everybody—also brilliant,” Mensch said, adding that Morgan graciously accepted her apology “and a couple of weeks after that he invited me and my husband to a party in a pub that he owned down the road, so we all got on extremely well. I think I got told off by his mum. Didn’t mind that. His mum reminded me very much of my mum.”
A London native born Louise Daphne Bagshawe into an upper-class Anglo-Catholic family, the second of four children, she’s the third wife of Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers manager Peter Mensch, and has succeeded in combining motherhood with a career as a successful author of sex-drenched chick lit novels (17 so far), following a brief stint as a record company publicist—a job at EMI from which she was sacked.
This was not for embracing the sort of over-the-top lifestyle depicted in the HBO series Vinyl (although there was a bit of that, too), but, as she later admitted, for “leaving work early…missing the odd day…[and] inappropriate dress.”
Peter Mensch befriended her during that time.
In the Fleet Street phone hacking scandal that threatened the position of her future benefactor, Rupert Murdoch, Louise—a member of the select Parliamentary committee investigating the illegal conduct of Murdoch’s News of the World—distinguished herself by asking him if had considered resigning because “you in fact are the captain of the ship” and “this terrible thing happened on your watch.”
“No,” Murdoch answered.
“Why not?” Mensch pressed.
“Because I feel that people I trusted…have let me down,” he replied. “I think that they behaved disgracefully and betrayed the company and me, and it is for them to pay.”
Nearly five years later, Mensch recalled: “I remember thinking, ‘What would I least like to be asked if I were in this position?,’ and the only thing I could really come up with was, ‘Doesn’t the buck stop with you?’” (However, she and her fellow Conservatives ended up dissenting from a scathing committee report, adopted along partisan lines, that declared the elder Murdoch “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.”)
Perhaps the publicity gods were smiling on Mensch that day, or one can credit serendipity, that her interrogation of Murdoch received far more than the usual share of hype because it was disrupted by a protester attempting to assault the media baron with a shaving foam-filled pie tin.
“I recall looking at Mr. James Murdoch as he jumped up, and I got to my feet looking for the policeman as I saw a young man attacking my witnesses. Hello? Do you mind coming over and intervening before somebody gets hurt in front of the world media,” Mensch recalled. “It was foam, but it could have been acid.”
Mensch actually prefers acid to foam—but only in the literary sense.