LONDON — If the phone-hacking scandal gripping Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. empire has a familiar ring, it might be because you’ve heard the story before. Scrappy outsider turns modest newspaper business into international media conglomerate. Ambition turns to hubris. Mogul dramatically falls from grace.
From William Randolph Hearst to Rupert Murdoch, many media barons’ stories follow a familiar arc.
“He’s one of a series,” said James Curran, a professor of communications at Goldsmiths University in London. “He seems to me to be in the same press baron tradition.”
Before Murdoch came Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black, both of whose careers at the top of the British media establishment ended in disgrace. Before those two came Lord Beaverbrook, the Daily Express owner whose excesses were lampooned by Evelyn Waugh in his 1938 novel Scoop.
Earlier still was the New York Journal’s William Randolph Hearst, who has become linked to the swashbuckling maverick at the centre of Orson Wells’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane.
There are huge differences: Unlike Black and Maxwell, Hearst, Murdoch, and Beaverbrook stayed successful. TheHearst Corp. is 125 years old; News Corp. is worth $60 billion; there’s still a statue to Beaverbrook in his Canadian hometown of Fredericton.
But there are important parallels, too.
Britain’s media tycoons came from abroad — Australia, Canada, or Eastern Europe — and rapidly became establishment figures, winning wealth, titles, and friends in high places.
Then, eventually, came the fall.
Beaverbrook’s attempt to create his own political party was knocked back in the 1930s, and he found himself cast adrift following the defeat of close ally Winston Churchill in 1945.
Black’s and Maxwell’s careers were blighted by criminality. Maxwell, having raided his newspaper’s pension fund, drowned under murky circumstances in 1991; Black was only released Friday from a U.S. prison following a 2007 conviction for cheating his shareholders.
Once one of the most powerful forces in British politics, courted by Labour and Conservative leaders alike, Murdoch also has seen his clout wither amid the scandal over illegal eavesdropping at his News of the World tabloid.
Revelations of widespread illegality there have led to the arrests of dozens of journalists and media executives, the resignations of high-flying political operatives and police leaders, and hundreds of millions of dollars in legal costs.
The narrative of the hacking scandal may echo earlier stories of overreach, but Murdoch’s story has little to do with those of Black or Maxwell, said Tom Bower, who has written biographies of the latter.
“There is a sharp difference,” said Bower, explaining that Murdoch built “a huge and successful business” based on hard work and sharp elbows, while his competitors failed because they had created “flimsy businesses based on fraud.”