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Imagining a world without Murdoch

WASHINGTON — Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson is rumored to have once said of his boss: “Rupert is not going to die.”

That proclamation of immortality, allegedly uttered to an obit writer trying to get ahead of events, preceded the phone-hacking scandal now dogging Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. A July 4 story in the Guardian reignited this five-year-old controversy by revealing that News Corp.’s Sunday tabloid, the News of the World, in 2002 hacked into the voicemail of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler. The paper’s “voicemail interceptions” — News Corp.’s preferred euphemism — gave Dowler’s family false hope that she was alive. She was later found murdered.

Several weeks of nonstop headlines led to a dramatic appearance in Parliament on Tuesday by Murdoch and his son James, a high-ranking company executive. No one would have mistaken Rupert Murdoch’s performance for the work of an eternal being. He projected an aloofness that flirted with ignorance and denial, depending on the question. He perked up a bit after he was attacked by a shaving-cream-pie-wielding wacko.

Though it’s not wise to bet against Murdoch, his stubborn loyalty to his British newspaper lieutenants has invited questions about his fitness to run a company with $32 billion in annual revenue. A Bloomberg report indicated that company directors were considering stripping him of his post as chief executive while keeping him on as chairman. Any title shuffling, any dilution of Murdoch’s control, would yield a less aggressive and probably less profitable News Corp. Such an outcome would be hard for the mogul to stomach, given that he once told a biographer that he would retire “when I’m 133 or something.”

That moment could come four or five decades sooner for the 80-year-old. If it does, here’s what a world without Rupert Murdoch would be filled with:

Lonely editors

Federal regulations forced Murdoch to sell the New York Post in the late 1980s, though he eventually repurchased it. In the interim, he lamented: “I feel depressed. This will be the first time I’ve lived in a city with no newspaper going on around me.” Tales of Murdoch’s newsroom micromanagement have followed him throughout his nearly 60-year career as a media entrepreneur, even as he has acquired broadcasting and entertainment companies. New York Post editors know firsthand his quest for brevity and snappy headlines. And in his recent parliamentary testimony, Murdoch spoke of his steady interaction with the leadership of the Wall Street Journal. Softer elbows Murdoch doesn’t enjoy sharing. Whenever he’s been forced to co-govern a media property, he has done everything possible to shove his partner out of the picture. That’s what happened in 1969, after Murdoch prevailed in a takeover bid for News of the World. The deal stipulated that longtime owner Sir William Carr stay on board as chairman. He did, until Murdoch booted him out months later. Similar scenarios played out as Murdoch rounded up New York media properties in the late 1970s. And again this year, as he boosted his controlling 39 percent stake in British Sky Broadcasting to full own — hold on! That one actually didn’t work out for Murdoch: The phone-hacking crisis scuttled his plans for a 100 percent BSkyB takeover. As Murdoch once advised New York media eminence Clay Felker, 100 percent ownership means that “you don’t have to take any crap from anybody.”

Integrity The hacking has stirred debate over Murdochian journalistic standards. Did the mogul’s newspapers in Britain set tawdry tabloid standards or merely conform to them? Answer: Murdoch savors muck. In his 2008 biography, Michael Wolff recounts finding the 77-year-old chairman working the phone in pursuit of a story. Though impressed with his reportorial techniques, Wolff concludes that “he was trying to smear somebody.” At a recent dinner party, Murdoch had “heard that a senior Hillary Rodham Clinton operative was a partner in an online porn company. He didn’t like the operative, and he didn’t like — no matter how much he had tried — Hillary.” The story didn’t pan out, though Wolff claims that it “became a staple in Murdoch’s repertoire of whispers and confidences and speculations.”

A break from tired classic-movie references With each new Murdoch crisis comes a new round of features on the mogul. That means yet more Citizen Kane references. The cliches need retirement more than Murdoch does.

Erik Wemple is a Washington Post media commentator.