Black comedy at the court of the Sun King: A review of Michael Wolff's The Fall

Black comedy at the court of the Sun King: A review of Michael Wolff's The Fall

Tuesday, 21st November 2023
The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire by Michael Wolff is published by the Bridge Street Press, priced £25. ISBN 978-0349128801
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Simon Shaps casts a sceptical eye over Michael Wolff’s latest book on Rupert Murdoch

So here’s a promise: this is going to be the only review of Michael Wolff’s book on Fox News and the Murdoch succession that doesn’t bang on about Succession, the TV series.

It now seems obvious that art (the TV series) began by imitating life (Rupert Murdoch and the battle to inherit his crown) and life has now returned the favour. But this is well-trodden terrain.

Wolff, the chronicler-in-chief of the Trump White House, with his unfailing nose for black comedy and the unattributable but wildly entertaining quote, now provides a similar service to the Murdoch clan and the panjandrums of Fox News, Murdoch Sr’s Frankenstein creation; Wolff argues that Murdoch barely watches the channel and that, if there is any blame to shoulder, it belongs to Roger Ailes, its now-deceased demonic genius.

The story Wolff has to tell is crazily plausible, often comedic, even if we can never be entirely certain it is all true. On the key question of Jerry Hall and scrambled eggs, “It seemed that Jerry Hall’s central purpose… was to make [Murdoch] scrambled eggs’’, a comedic put down directed at both husband, now aged 92, and his fourth wife. As put-downs go, this wouldn’t be out of place in, say, the great satirical novel by his near namesake, Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities. But this is not a novel, it is an extended piece of reportage, told from the inside, with lots of privileged access to the key players.

So what, in the end, are the The Fall’s key revelations about the Murdoch empire? That is to say, the revelations that are – maybe, probably – true?

First, there is the claim, contained in the book’s subtitle, that we are witnessing the final days of the Murdoch empire. Curiously, it was while I was listening to the podcast The Town – highly recommended, by the way – featuring an interview with Wolff about The Fall, that news broke that Murdoch was stepping down as Chair of Fox and News Corp.

For that, let’s give Wolff full marks. This does feel like the end of an era, and the book anticipates that with a prologue in the form of an obituary on the death of Murdoch. Death for media moguls is something that happens just a moment or two after relinquishing power, when they are finally forced to accept that they, too, are mortal.

Second, there is a question of what happens after the death of Murdoch to the remnants of the business he didn’t sell to Disney in 2017. That is Fox News, overwhelmingly the major source of revenue, and the legacy print and publishing businesses that sit under the News Corp umbrella. Here Wolff excels, laying out how the voting structure in the post-Murdoch world is likely to play out, with voting rights split equally among four of his children.

"This does feel like the end of an era"

In September, Lachlan was appointed Murdoch’s successor. Here, he is depicted as the ambitious but asleep-at-the-wheel Fox News cheerleader, who wants to inherit what’s left of the Murdoch crown and run the show. Wolff is not a fan. He writes that Lachlan has not “demonstrated any business acumen, anywhere, ever”. Except to say that he is certainly savvy enough to know that Fox News is the cash cow that underpins everything else.

But Elisabeth and James are critics of Fox News and they have the votes to determine the fate of the network. For transparency, I should say that James, clearly at a loose end during an RTS Cambridge Convention, once invited me for a drink. And his sister Elisabeth, while at Sky, asked a small gathering of Granada senior executives, of which I was one, to sell her Coronation Street. In her Shine years, I reciprocated by trying to buy the BBC’s MasterChef from her. But this is all starting to sound like one of Wolff’s anecdotes.

Elisabeth’s solution is to sell Fox News, but James wants to keep it and turn it into a “force for good”. This carries the risk that the channel, “whose very business model”, says Wolff, “was to feed its audience a false vision of the world”, will lose its entire audience of Trump-voting Americans.

Woolf says there has been no contact between the brothers for five years, and their views on Fox News seem irreconcilable.

With the fourth sibling, Prudence, vowing to go with the majority, and the two children by Wendi Deng, his third wife, inheriting a small fortune but no votes, Fox News is at risk after Rupert’s death. And with it, so the argument goes, the Murdoch Empire.

Next is the account of Rupert Murdoch’s chronic ambivalence about Fox News and some of its key personalities: Tucker Carlson, a man supposedly limbering up for a run at the White House in 2024, and Sean Hannity, a “moron”, Wolff asserts.

Elisabeth, who now appears to be closest to Rupert, has counselled him regarding the danger that his legacy will come to be defined by Fox News, not least the public humiliation of the Dominion lawsuit.

Fox eventually settled the case, paying Dominion $787.5m for falsely claiming on air that its ballot-counting machines were used to manipulate the 2020 election in Joe Biden’s favour.

When Ailes was around and before he was fired for sexual misconduct, Fox News operated as a “sovereign state”, entirely in Ailes’s image. After that, leadership of the network sat uneasily between Rupert (too old, too hostile), Lachlan (absent for much of the time in Australia, it seems) and its notional CEO, Suzanne Scott (always on the verge of being fired).

Apart from Ailes, the other figure behind the channel’s growth was, of course, Donald Trump. But that relationship is now broken, the network having called the critical state of Arizona in the 2020 election in Biden’s favour. That was a cardinal sin in Trump’s eyes, compounded by Murdoch’s championing of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the Republican nominee for 2024. Perhaps word also reached Trump that Murdoch had described him as “a fucking idiot”.

So, in his final days, when Murdoch should be putting his feet up at his 340,000-acre ranch in Montana, he finds himself with no good moves. He can find no route to reconcile his three children by Anna, his second wife, and their widely divergent views about Fox News, which threaten its future and, by extension, all the Murdoch businesses.

Nor, it seems, can he find a way to maintain the network as the flag bearer for Trumpism, appealing to around one in two Americans, while falling out with Trump himself. And, having married four times, his hopes of finding a fifth Mrs Murdoch were shattered in the wake of supper with his latest squeeze, Ann Lesley Smith, and Tucker Carlson, when Smith put her hand on Carlson and said: “I believe you are a prophet from God.”

Perhaps, after that, she went off and made them all some scrambled eggs.

But there may be one final move he can make. It is not one designed to reconcile his children or solve the problems at Fox News. As I write, I read that Murdoch is lining up a bid to buy the Telegraph newspapers. Newspapers, not TV or the movies, were always his first, and perhaps only, love.