Rupert Murdoch: crusty Luddite - or smart as ever?

Feb 16, 2010
Tim Edwards

Murdoch’s biographer gives him a battering for MySpace debacle - though not everyone agrees

Is Rupert Murdoch an old-school media mogul who is quite unable to understand the internet? Or a clever bugger who gets it absolutely? Both views are current.

It is almost five years since Murdoch earned plaudits from old and new media alike for purchasing the then number one social networking site MySpace for $580m.

But within three years it had been overtaken in popularity by Facebook. And last week's departure of its CEO, Owen Van Natta, has brought a damning appraisal of Murdoch's internet strategy from his former biographer, Michael Wolff.

Despite being the founder of Newser, the kind of news aggregation service that Murdoch would call a "parasite", Wolff was given remarkable access to the media mogul to write his book, The Man Who Owns the News, interviewing him for 50 hours over nine months.

So his comments to the Guardian are both entertaining and authoritative. He says Murdoch - "the guy who knows nothing about this whatsoever" - has "commandeered" digital strategy at News Corp. "It's got everybody completely freaked out," he claims.

"Rupert is saying 'What's going on with MySpace, what's happening, why isn't this working?' And it's impossible to explain to him that it's not working because it's over, because this is the way the technology business goes. Once it's past, it's really past. There is almost no way to get that back.

"He absolutely has no idea - I cannot stress this enough, how much Rupert is out to lunch on this. If people really quite understood how little feeling has for this business, they would fall down laughing - or crying."

The Guardian's own editor Alan Rusbridger has already weighed in against Murdoch's plans, announced last year, to charge for access to his news websites from this June. Giving the 2010 Hugh Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communication in January, Rusbridger warned the media against turning its back on the "democracy of ideas" represented by the internet before reminding his audience of Murdoch's previous circulation-boosting tactics.

"Murdoch, who has in his time flirted with free models and who has ruthlessly cut the price of his papers to below cost in order to win audiences or drive out competition... this same Rupert Murdoch is being very vocal in asserting that the reader must pay a proper sum for content - whether in print or digitally," he said.

Rusbridger's advisers tell him that a pay-wall around the Guardian's website would earn a fraction of what it currently earns from digital advertising. The clue to his preference for free content could be in his paper's online circulation. The Guardian's website had a daily audience in December 2009 of 1.9 million - almost double the 1m enjoyed by the Murdoch-owned Times.

If all the major news websites were to move to a paid subscription model, Rusbridger might also fear an internet version of the Times's cut-throat circulation wars in which the paper reduced its cover price to a ridiculous 10p in order to steal readers from less well-financed competition.

But not all tech-savvy voices think Murdoch has lost it. In November 2009 he announced that News Corp would block Google from indexing his news websites (effectively preventing the Times and Sun from appearing in Google News searches).

On the tech site The Register, Andrew Orlowski saw method in what everyone else in the internet world views as madness. Orlowski said Murdoch's strategy would devalue Google's search offering, which would lead to a reduction in its advertising revenues.

"What Murdoch has done is say the unspeakable," said Orlowski. "He's offered a roadmap for taming Google - and a re-ordering of everything we take for granted about the web today... Although Murdoch was lambasted as a Luddite who doesn't 'get it', it seems he 'gets' [the internet] as well as anyone."

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