One of the many faces of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Photo: AFP
IN MY love-hate relationship with Rupert Murdoch, I have more recently dwelled on the core of ice that occupies his heart and allows him, pitilessly, to do whatever is necessary to protect his interests and gain an advantage (and, for good measure, to always take a little more).
But then there is, too, the wily and indomitable Murdoch, the unlikely hero of his own remarkable saga, defending his enterprise against the establishment peanut gallery, always resisting the easier strategy to kowtow or conform; a Murdoch for whom I feel a helpless admiration. (Alas, one loves him and hates him for reasons that are awfully similar.)
It was the latter Murdoch on the witness stand at Britain's media inquiry this week. He gave nothing. In the face of what every reasonable person might understand to be true, he held his ground. He was the ordinary and down-to-earth guy, whereas his Leveson inquiry antagonists were just this side of wild conspiracists. He was Hyman Roth in The Godfather: just ''a retired investor living on a pension''.
The inquiry's lead counsel, Robert Jay, who has been a masterful interrogator of the many witnesses who have come before, was reduced to demanding Murdoch confess to being … well, Murdoch. Isn't it true, Mr Murdoch, Jay in effect found himself insisting, that you are a corrupt manipulator of the system?
At the heart of his case is the charge that Murdoch uses his newspapers, and the power he derives from his newspapers, as the lever with which to further his business interests. And, surely, this would seem so true as to not need proving - except, of course, it does. Indeed, Murdoch has succeeded in this game as well as he has, and for as long as he has, because there is magic to it. Wielding power is his art.
During Murdoch's contentious bid for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, trying to use its own power to defend its own business interests, launched a three-part series to demonstrate precisely that Murdoch used his papers for personal and corporate gain. But all it could do, as Jay did, was state the obvious - Murdoch's success has been astonishing and hard to explain - and the three-part series ended meekly after two.
At Wednesday's hearing, Murdoch merely denied that he ever let business considerations influence his newspapers' coverage. This was so bald it left Jay sputtering.
But what did Jay have? Mostly, just the commentary of characters who have flittered around Murdoch making pronouncements about the nature of his power (were they to have understood that power, we might reasonably assume, they would be Murdoch). Jay became the spokesman for the gossip and awe of the many, many Murdoch-watchers. Everybody's nose seemed pressed to the glass - without anybody really seeming to have a clue about what actually went on inside the empire.
Part of the issue here is that Murdoch actually doesn't use his newspapers in this fashion. Or, put another way, his business is so large, his resources so vast, his options so many, his minions so efficient, that it would not occur to him that he would need to do this. Certainly, at this stage in his life, he stubbornly does want he wants - and stubbornly resists doing what anyone wants him to do.
In other words (and with a suitable amount of critical interpretation), there is not a cynical bone in Rupert's body. Everything he does is part of an infinitely rationalised holistic system that supports his idea of the world. The world is against him - and he has, through great craft and stealth and principle, beaten it. Accordingly, he has no need to bend, or grovel, or behave as the world might have him behave. Everybody else is on their belly but him.
The idea that he would have curried favour, which is what Jay was accusing him of, is absurd. Of course, people might curry favour with him - which he can't help.
The other issue here has to do with the language of power. Jay kept saying, in effect, while we know power isn't, at least in sophisticated language, a quid pro quo, come on, admit that it really is. But it isn't. No more than marriage is a quid pro quo. Power is made of complex relationships, a poet's understanding of which has been the secret of Rupert's real success. But, of course, don't ask him to explain it, because he couldn't. It is intuitive, rather than illegal.
In the end, Rupert is a very simple machine, focused on his singular function, not giving an inch to anyone. Which - and take it from the person who knows best - does not make for an easy interview.
Michael Wolff is the author of The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch.