April 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Rockin’ Rupert

By Peter Conrad
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Murdoch’s Tweets of Doom

Tweeting, as the Beat poets might have said, is for the birds – though what kind of bird exactly? Most users of Twitter sound like fatuously chirping budgies. But Rupert Murdoch’s fluffy plumage moulted long ago, and the tweets he has been posting since 31 December resemble the hoarse emissions of a buzzard or a baleful raven, uttering prophecies of doom. “Time ahead very, very tough and dangerous,” he croaks. On another occasion he predicts “awful deflation and trouble nearly everywhere”. Contemplating Europe from his lofty, leafless bough, he intones “Gloom!”

Twitter is a chatty platform for exchanging inanities; as used by Murdoch, however, it turns into a fire-breathing preacher’s pulpit or a stump orator’s soapbox. I doubt that he intended to be so apocalyptic when he opened his account. The aim, presumably, was to show that the octogenarian father is not outpaced by the two young daughters – Grace, aged ten, and Chloe, who is eight – with whom he was arthritically romping in the sunny Caribbean. The technology of social networking is a juvenile prerogative; for an old man to adopt it is to claim an extra, undeserved lease of life. Murdoch recently accepted another tweeter’s congratulations on his mother’s 103rd birthday, as if he could take credit for Dame Elisabeth’s longevity, and added on his own behalf, “Long way to go, I hope!” Who’d have expected such a miraculous rejuvenation, after his doddery, amnesiac performance when questioned at the House of Commons last year during the News of the World phone-hacking investigation? Still, I’d be curious to know how many followers responded by wishing him another quarter-century of good health.

Despite his grisly resilience, Murdoch doesn’t have the effortlessly twiddly thumbs that tweeters need. He is prone to typos, which have their own inadvertent poetry: he abbreviates his mother’s birthday to “bray”, and makes lyrical nonsense of a rant about the American prison population by adding “Much of it duets terrible state laws”. He has had to clean up numerous self-made messes. He first got into what he calls “deep doodoo” when he sneered at the holidaying Brits with whom he was obliged to share the beach in St Barts: shouldn’t the citizens of a “broke country” stay at home doing penance, or reading News Corporation rags? When his comment excited outrage he deleted it, but he remains unhappy about the pullulating masses on whom his fortune depends: returning to New York during a cold snap, he reported with delight that Central Park was empty – “Nice!” Then came his illogical remark about “universal anger with Optus”: he’d meant to lambaste POTUS, an acronym for President of the United States, not the telecommunications company. Another unseemly ambiguity marred his account of a visit to Las Vegas during the International Consumer Electronics Show. “Normally disapprove of casinos,” he confided, “but hitting 16s and 17s lot of fun.” He had to explain he was referring to blackjack, not making advances to teenagers.

Murdoch does his best to sound banal and insipidly ordinary, which is what the etiquette of the network requires. He pretends to be a sitcom character – just another harassed dad slouched on the sofa watching the football game on Super Bowl Sunday (“Go Giants!”), and nagged by daughters who want him to adopt a puppy (“Help!”). From time to time he ostentatiously sympathises with the distresses of the little people, finding the “prices for popcorn and sodas” in cinemas to be “offensive”: when, I wonder, was the last time he saw a movie outside a screening room? His moral exhortations sound equally phoney. Asked about his New Year’s resolutions, he mentions a determination “to maintain humility”. Then comes an afterthought, marginally more plausible – “And of course diet!” – followed by another gruff burst of self-castigation: “HUMILITY!!” Surely only a megalomaniac needs to humble himself in capitals.

Given the commercial opportunism that prompted his change of nationality, it’s Murdoch’s jingoism that offends most. “Back in the land of the free,” he sighs, almost kissing the tarmac after his executive jet touches down in New York. Had he flown in from North Korea? No, he’d merely been in Switzerland, with a stop in Munich to sample the beer that he declares “best in the world!” But such paltry republics can’t compete with the Great Republic, home of the brave and heaven for billionaires. Hoping that the goofy-looking conservative Rick Santorum can “lead moral regeneration and restoration of original American dream”, Murdoch takes the opportunity to re-pledge his personal faith in the messianic United States: “America a big, good society capable of anything.”

These are public pronouncements, not the chatty effusions that most users post on Twitter. But Murdoch’s tweets do reveal a more private side of himself, generally when he comments on politicians. He despises them on principle – “To hell with politicians!” or “Politicians all the same” – perhaps because they are democratically accountable to an electorate, which makes them less powerful than someone who commands a global empire that is run on dynastic lines. A clarification about his visits to 10 Downing Street makes it clear that he regards the tenant of that house, whoever it happens to be, as an abject dependant: “Only ever met PMs when asked, believe it or not. And NEVER asked for anything. That is, I never asked for anything!” A sinister warning to the German chancellor reminds her of who actually controls the destiny of nations: “Achtung Angela! I’m now following you on @WSJDeutschland.”

Most telling are the messages in which he contemptuously heckles these elected representatives or – since politics is for him a blood sport – goads them to combat. Although he complains about conspiracy theorists who misinterpret his blackjack tweet, he is as adept at deft skulking and lethal insinuation as Cassius in Julius Caesar. “Can Kevin Rudd really come back and knife Gillard?” he inquires. A few days later he jeers at Rudd’s chook-like lack of the killer instinct: “KRudd been promising imminent knifing for months. Believe it when we see it.” He clearly wants to see it, even though he considers Rudd “delusional”. Isn’t incitement to murder a crime?

Backstabbings like this are merely rehearsals for the larger geopolitical catastrophe to which Murdoch is avidly looking forward. “Obama clearly preparing navy to keep oil supply lines open,” he notes after Iran’s closure of the Strait of Hormuz. He counsels readiness for “any eventualities” and provocatively demands “shouldn’t we be preparing for likely Israeli hit on Iran very soon and unknown consequences?” I love the presumptuous impatience of “very soon”: war is always such a boost to the news business.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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