Early in episode one of the three-part The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, Alastair Campbell shared a piece of advice he and Tony Blair were once given about how to negotiate with Rupert Murdoch: “He’s a really hard b*****d. The only way to deal with him is to be a really hard b*****d. He won’t respect you otherwise.”
This was the summer of 1995, when Blair, the beaming, fresh-faced new Labour leader, joined Murdoch, his clan and the various execs in charge of the many tentacles of his media empire for a summit on Murdoch’s private island in Australia.
Fuzzy, grainy footage of the event showed what you’d expect it to show: sun, sea, yachts, swimming pools, expensive shades, private planes, clinking champagne flutes and rictus grins of terror.
Blair was there to sell his soul – sorry, I mean sell Murdoch on the idea of switching his support from the Tories to Labour, after years of his newspapers relentlessly battering Neil Kinnock. It worked.
Murdoch apparently thought Cherie Blair was “a bit strange”, but he liked Tony. Mind you, Campbell thought Murdoch’s description of the two men’s relationship as being a sort of lovemaking “a bit f***ing weird”.
Two years and many pro-Blair headlines in Murdoch’s papers later, Labour destroyed the Tories in the general election. The price was high, though.
Murdoch, for instance, wanted an assurance from Blair that Britain would never join the euro without holding a referendum first. He not only got it, he got it in print, in an article Blair agreed to write for one of his newspapers.
When the paper’s editor complained that the article was nothing but public relations “flimflam”, Blair dutifully rewrote it. If you can believe Nigel Farage, who popped up mercifully briefly, Murdoch was responsible for keeping Britain out of the euro, which in turn ultimately led to Brexit being carried.
Bizarrely, in what seemed to be an off-camera moment that nonetheless wound up on-camera, Farage admitted to asking Murdoch’s permission to take part in the programme. “If he’d said no, I wouldn’t have done it,” he croaked.
See? That’s how much power Murdoch has! Not only is he powerful enough to control prime ministers, he’s powerful enough to control whether Farage appears on a programme about how powerful he is.
We get it. Murdoch is powerful. Murdoch is nasty. Murdoch is a threat to democracy. We already knew all that. But what’s he really like?
According to a former Sun editor, David Yelland, Murdoch is “the most interesting man I’ve ever met”. He didn’t elaborate on that and neither did anyone else.
Frankly, this opening episode, which was all over the place in terms of chronology and subject matter, was better on the “really hard b*****d” stuff than the supposedly “interesting” stuff.
The intermittent focus on which of Murdoch’s children – Lachlan, James or Elizabeth, who he’s said to pit against one another – will inherit his empire has drawn comparisons with the brilliant drama series Succession. But nobody would watch Succession if the characters were as bland and dreary as these three seem to be.
Lachlan apparently has the charm but not the smarts. James apparently has the smarts but not the charm. Elizabeth has the charm and the smarts. On the evidence here, she does a pretty good job of hiding both.
Ultimately, they came across as what they are: privileged, entitled kids of a wealthy mogul, born with silver money clips in their mouths and always destined to work for daddy.
As for Murdoch, the programme told us he’s “an enigma”. He gives nothing of himself away. Well, apart from his wives. Jerry Hall is number four in the collection.
Maybe there’s nothing else to give away. Maybe under all that viciousness and egomania, there’s just more viciousness and egomania.
The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty (BBC2) - 3 stars