When He Was King: My Lunch With Rupert Murdoch

Not long ago, I glimpsed the human being inside the mogul; and if chance brings you before him, you'll get his entire focus

The phone-hacking scandal that began as a somewhat contained if juicy media story is now full-on, front-page fare, as the blood in the water around media titan Rupert Murdoch sets off a kind of wishful death watch for his empire, his good name and his once-almost unmatched clout.

And among the Rupe-watchers, the consensus has become that in the wake of — rather, in the pummeling onslaught of untoward, updating reports of — the scandal, Sir Rupert Murdoch is “going down."

Also read: Did Murdoch Survive a Close Shave in the Hacking Hearings?

Tuesday's appearance before a nominally stern but remarkably unprosecutorial  committee of MP's leaves open to question  whether he’s going down in the legal — or, dare we say, criminal — sense. Whether he can be tied to knowledge of his employees’ malfeasances is fascinating but not key to how Murdoch stands or falls in this mess.

One sure thing is that if we’re talking about his formerly somewhat august (albeit with major warts) reputation, yes, that’s going down. 

He’s being keelhauled in the media and in public opinion not just for his unscrupulous tactics, but for failing with them — in short, a loser.  

And yet, who among us woke up  wondering, "Will someone slap Rupert in the face on live TV with a shaving-cream pie today?" Whipping boy or no, he's paid enough taxes to deserve better protection than that.

So practiced have we become at enjoying the theater of humiliation known as reality TV, we almost expect Simon Cowell to be brought onto a primetime special to rub his temples in remorseless aggravation, and tell Rupert, “Off you go, see you later."

The very slippery James Murdoch would probably be right next to him saying, "I'd just like to finish my equivocation…"

While James was giving the pie-wielder his practiced look of exasperation, Rupert's wife Wendi Deng Murdoch was in the fray and — talk about reality TV — aiming a hard right hand slap at the miscreant.

Also read: Murdoch's Wife Wendi a Hero for Taking a Swing at Attacker

I personally find my foot stuck in the bucket when I try to feel glee at Rupert’s misery. No doubt this is because I once had lunch with the man while dining as the guest of some of his exceedingly well-to-do neighbors near his compound in the verdant and elite enclave of Centre Island, N.Y.

Such was the timing, in the early fall of 2008: Rupe had just seen 20th Century Fox’s $130-million, 165-minute bet “Australia” and seemed to find it good but not great. He had to figure out how to keep it away from the twin box-office threats of “Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince” and “Quantum of Solace."

Another question under discussion at this time was, in whose local mansion would Brad and Angelina and brood stay during her time in New York shooting a film?

When tall green barriers were strung up along Rupert’s fence line some weeks later, the presumption was Brangelina were camped out within, presumably paying for a pricey rental.

My first glimpse of Rupe before our shared repast was as he arrived, unannounced, around the corner of the host’s stately den, carrying three glasses of champagne on a tray.

“I hope I’m not interrupting,” he said, unforgettably, though I didn’t realize who he was in that moment, having taken him for an especially cultivated manservant in his white shirt, pale blue cardigan and gray wool slacks.

Properly introduced, I looked into the eyes of this man who had inflicted upon me the sight of Glenn Beck sobbing like a wounded stoat, and said, somehow truthfully, “Delighted to meet you.”

I have to say, he was the soul of easeful companiability. He certainly didn’t play the great man — English media mandarin Conrad Black recently called him “a great bad man." Nor did he seem like an oligarch faking humility.

We ended up alone for a while at the table set for eight or so, and I found him simply and amiably seigneurial in the fashion of someone who knows how to deal with even the minor players who have turned up in a place above their station.

Perhaps overeagerly, if sincerely, I complimented him on monetizing the WSJ website, although admitting the $149 fee would have been onerous had I not been able to expense it.

His barely detectable grin, the billionaire to the random lunch guest, somehow was not condescending.

Wife Wendi, who's now an Indiewood film producer (for a Fox division) and attended Yale business school, was sociably about.

And around the time his two young daughters Grace, about seven, and Chloe, four years younger, came in — I seem to recall they had drawn a not entirely flattering portrait of him in crayon — I just caved. 

They were dear with him, and he, fully attentive, dear back. If chance brings you before Rupert — Willie Nelson, to risk a name-drop, is much the same — you get his entire focus.

The luncheon party specifically excluded politics, but had a surfeit of (nearly) raw meat — some very specially raised hanks of cow so special they were barely seared by the visiting chef before serving. Never have I seen such a stalwart display of non-vegetarianism.

You eat what's set before you, if you believe in keeping the common touch. Perhaps that kind of ethic is how his early Aussie newpaper product came to show some of the same empathy for the British and American “strap-hangers” with whom he would build what may be one of the last great journalism-founded fortunes.

As Conrad Black added in his summation, he is “probably the most successful media proprietor and operator in history. There is no possible argument about his boldness, vision and skill of execution in conquering the British tabloid market, leading vertical media integration by uniting film studios and television stations, cracking the U.S. television triopoly, being one of the great pioneers of satellite television and founding a conservative-populist American news network.”

If Rupert’s guttering prestige and his financial and legal troubles get much deeper, the anti-Fox News forces will be wetting themselves with satisfied laughter. But as he stood on a London street defending, while he could, his protege Rebekah Brooks, I found him hard to hate or pity.

It’s difficult to preach that any of us should forgive his empire’s malfeasances and corruption, and the disruption and suffering they caused. And the scorn that’s being heaped on him easily exceeds that for say, Whitey Bulger, who after all didn’t spy on people but was a decent, ordinary old school murderer.

But perhaps the poor old creased figure Rupert is now needn’t be stoned to death. He has been that rare and intriguing thing — a great bad man.