Rupert Murdoch could’ve eased into a well-heeled retirement in the past decade, quietly slipping away to one of his many properties and handing over the reins to son James, who, until the past two weeks, appeared to be his heir apparent.
Instead, the 80-year-old has remained News Corporation CEO, recently experiencing what he called “the most humble day of my life” on Tuesday when he was hauled in front of British MPs to answer questions about his newspapers’ phone hacking exploits.
Murdoch’s hesitant performance, which at times bordered on the excruciating, highlighted serious flaws in the way his company is run.
Indeed, as Taskmaster pointed out this week, News Corp’s lack of transparency, accountability and risk management is a warning to all aspirational start-ups.
However, as divisive as Murdoch has proved even before the phone hacking outrage, it’s impossible to deny that he has been a towering figure in the business world.
Below, we’ve picked out 10 of the best moments of a career that, until recently, would’ve been proudly aped by any budding entrepreneur. Whether he will be remembered as a pioneer or pariah remains to be seen.
1. His early acquisition strategy
Murdoch inherited Adelaide newspaper The News when he was just 21-years-old, following his father’s death in 1952.
His drive helped raise the title’s ad revenue and circulation and he embarked upon a period of growth via acquisition. He bought the Sunday Times in Perth and a host of provincial papers in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.
Using the tabloid techniques he’d seen in the UK while studying at Oxford, Murdoch bought under-performing titles at knock-down rates and turned them into profit-making publications.
2. Launch of The Australian
Murdoch made headway with a tabloid approach but it wasn’t until he launched The Australian that his reputation as a serious media player was forged.
The Australian became the country’s first newspaper in 1964 and although it burned through several early editors due to Murdoch’s interference, it was clear that he had the ambition and vision to build an empire.
3. Overseas invasion
Murdoch’s ruthlessness as a negotiator and calculation of risk helped pave his overseas expansion in 1969, when he finally prised The News of the World from the Carr family.
The paper, which was recently closed following the phone hacking scandal, was acquired after a year-long struggle between Murdoch and fellow newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell.
Murdoch effectively mortgaged all of his Australian assets to buy the newspaper, which was in the midst of a circulation dip. He also promised to work in partnership with the Carr family. The gamble paid off, although Maxwell grumbled that Murdoch used the “laws of the jungle” to get the newspaper.
4. Relaunch of The Sun
The Sun was a loss-making broadsheet before Murdoch made it his second overseas purchase a year after the News of the World.
He realised that his tabloid formula could be replicated with The Sun, turning it into a successful mass-market sensationalist publication. But there was a shrewd operational reason to buy The Sun – Murdoch’s printing presses were idle for six days of the week and it made sense to buy a weekly title to maximise the equipment’s return.
5. Taking on the print unions
While he came relatively late to TV and the internet, Murdoch quickly embraced new technology when it came to his newspapers.
He introduced electronic production processes to all of his titles in 1986, streamlining his workforce and putting him on a collision course with British printing unions.
In a surprise move, Murdoch secretly shifted the company’s operations to the London district of Wapping, wrong-footing the often violent protests and breaking the resistance of the unions.
6. His company share structure
Many start-ups face a dilemma when looking to grow their businesses. Do you attempt to do it organically, and therefore slowly, or take on funding to turbo-charge growth, but give up a large chunk of the business to someone else?
Murdoch has managed to get the best of both worlds. Despite owning just over a tenth of the business himself, he has managed to maintain a tight grip on News Corporation through an unusual “A” and “B” share classification.
While retaining a large chunk of the vote-allowing A shares, the sale of B shares has allowed News Corp to expand across the US, Europe and Asia. While his shareholders are reportedly unhappy at present, fortunately for Murdoch most of them each own 2% or less.
7. Making the right content choices
Whether it was Page Three Girls’ at The Sun or a studio-backed TV network at 20th Century Fox, Murdoch has shown an innate sense for the products and content that consumers want.
His approach may have been derided as populist, but the needs and wants of the customer is something that every entrepreneur should keep front of mind.
Murdoch, who realised the media wasn’t always doing this, once asked rhetorically: "Is there any other industry in this country which seeks to presume so completely to give the customer what he does not want?"
8. Pioneering “infotainment” with Fox News
Murdoch didn’t just shift one business model around the world, clumsily adopting it for every market he landed in. He also challenged existing practices and, arguably, created new genres.
A prime example is his controversial Fox News network in the US. Launching in 1985 with the seemingly impossible job of taking on NBC, CBS and ABC, Fox introduced colourful, loud graphic and the dramatic “Fox News Alert”, which brought an element of entertainment to the previously staid TV news industry.
To boost take-up by consumers, Murdoch paid cable providers $11 per subscriber they took on, in a reversal of the normal arrangement where cable companies paid carriage fees to TV stations.
The tactic worked. Fox News is now the market-leading TV cable network in the US.
9. Launch of The Daily iPad magazine
Murdoch’s adoption of new technology didn’t start and end with his 1980s newspaper revolution.
In February, News Corporation launched the world’s first iPad-only news app. Murdoch, who hired an army of new staff for the venture, has regularly enthused about the potential of smartphones and tablets to rescue declining newspaper revenues and has broken ranks with other publishers by declaring that pay walls will be set up around News’ online content.
10. His love of the product
Murdoch’s father Keith was a journalist who reported from Gallipoli during World War I. Despite his testimony on Tuesday that he takes a hands-off approach to his newspapers, former editors have described how Rupert Murdoch would call them up to talk about the stories of the day.
While the style, tenor and trenchant opinions of his media outlets may infuriate some, it’s hard to argue that Murdoch doesn’t love the product he sells – an important quality for any business builder to have.
As Murdoch once put it: "I try to keep in touch with the details… I also look at the product daily.”
“That doesn't mean you interfere, but it's important occasionally to show the ability to be involved. It shows you understand what's happening."