Review of The Murdoch Mission, The Digital Transformation of a Media Empire by Wendy Goldman Rohm    

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The Murdoch Mission is a deeply interesting but flawed book. In it Wendy Rohm chronicles the deals and machinations of the last few years inside the Murdoch empire, some of them digital but more often related to the creation of Sky Global Networks through the expansion of Murdoch's satellite TV interests.

There's no denying the fascination of the subject matter. Through interviews with Murdoch himself, his two sons, and other key players within his media empire, Rohm has built up an insider view of News Corporation. Individual chapters tackle subjects such as the attempted DirecTV merger, the building of NDS, relations with Gemstar, Murdoch's wooing of China and India, and his short-lived experiments with the Internet. Scattered between these are cameos of the Murdoch family and key figures such as News Corp. president Peter Chernin.

The book is well worth reading for the topics it covers. Unfortunately, the style and structure of the book don't live up to its overall promise. The discrete nature of chapters means that the book reads like a series of separate articles, with key details hammered home repeatedly often from page-to-page (by the second chapter I was growing weary of hearing who Murdoch's two sons were and exactly what roles they played within his organisation). If ever there was an argument for the introduction of key facts via separate boxed-in panels then this book makes it powerfully, with its long diversionary paragraphs leading back suddenly into the main subject. It is also notable for the printing errors which seem to be a Wiley trait: I found it hard to believe that son James Murdoch started working for his dad's company in 1977, making him 5 at the time. I am similarly dubious that James Murdoch started courting his wife Kathryn in 1977, again aged 5. And did News Corp. really make its first bid for Gemstar in 1988, before the smaller company had even come into existence? It seems that, unlike John Lennon, Wiley has a mysterious aversion to the number 9.

I also found myself doubting the impartiality of some of Rohm's writing. It is clear from the hyperbolic language that she is a big fan of Murdochs senior and junior, and this may have tainted her reporting. It is hard to find anything verging on criticism throughout the book; the closest I could come up with was a sentence or two implying that Murdoch indulged in a bit of realpolitik, playing down human rights abuses in China in order to further his interests in the world's largest potential market. Past mistakes, where admitted, were without exception springboards to future success. This man surely can do no wrong.

Regardless of any bias, the book does paint a fascinating and rarely seen picture of the man and his family. Murdoch emerges as a far more rounded figure than the media demon we have become accustomed to. He is a bold businessman, not afraid to take risks and bet on the long-term at a time when many of his rivals pander to the markets by focussing on quarterly results. He is a pragmatist with a sense of humour, not afraid of mocking himself. And vitally, he is a family man, surprisingly close to his children, mother and wives past and present. His sons find the time, when telephoning their father from a boardroom full of News Corp. executives, to finish the conference call with "I love you dad", and it is through human touches such as this that the book endears you to the Murdochs.

© Dan Sumption, February 2002

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