The president’s obsession with any criticism of him from the network reveals his vulnerability: At this decisive moment for the new populist right, the Murdoch family holds singular power to make or break him.
And while Rupert Murdoch shows no sign of pulling his support from either the president, or his British populist counterpart Boris Johnson, some cracks are beginning to appear at the edges of his empire in both the US and the UK.
In the US, tension at Fox News between the network’s news and opinion arms have flared into public view in recent weeks, culminating in Shepard Smith’s abrupt October 11 resignation. In the UK, Murdoch’s portfolio of newspapers is split, with the Sun backing Johnson while he feuds with the Sunday Times.
And Murdoch himself is deeply in the mix. Recently, he met privately with Attorney General William Barr, as has been widely reported. BuzzFeed News has heard the 88-year-old also recently met in private with Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the UK. Responding directly to questions about the Murdoch–Johnson meeting, a spokesperson for News UK repeatedly declined to comment, while Number 10 replied “no comment.”
The overall picture is that the notion of Murdoch changing direction remains a liberal fantasy, but he is navigating deep political divides inside his own empire.
“The day-to-day management is weak and they can’t manage these warring factions,” a senior Fox News source told BuzzFeed News in the days before Smith’s resignation.
And it’s a moment when Murdoch’s conservative megaphones matter more than ever — Fox’s role as Trump’s firewall, and the Sun’s as pro-Brexit stalwart after three years of chaos. In the US, the fate of Donald Trump’s presidency hangs in the balance as the impeachment inquiry gathers steam and previously loyal Republicans break ranks over his decision to abandon America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria by allowing Turkey to invade.
In the UK, Brexit is in its endgame. Johnson, who led the campaign to leave the European Union, is attempting to secure a last-minute deal to avoid being forced by Parliament to seek another extension to the October 31 deadline — and whatever happens, a general election will swiftly follow that will see Johnson fighting a populist campaign against the establishment elites.
At Fox, the departure of the closest thing the network has to a critic of President Trump followed the trading of on-air and social media barbs between Smith and the channel’s star opinion hosts, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.
Ostensibly a victory for the resolutely pro-Trump Hannity and the populist nationalist Carlson, Smith leaving after the embarrassment of a public fight reflects deep organizational flaws, according to insiders.
Dysfunction at the nation’s highest-rated cable channel has grown in the years since its powerful CEO, Roger Ailes, left the company in 2016 amid sexual harassment allegations. No leader has emerged since with Ailes’ ability to reconcile a center-right news operation with opinion hosts who speak directly to the Trump base, among which they enjoy celebrity status.
“Ailes was the conductor of the orchestra,” a media executive with years of experience in right-wing programming told BuzzFeed News. “Let’s say Hannity and [Bill] O’Reilly were strings and percussion was the news. Ailes blended everyone together.”
Still, those close to it were confident that a spat between news and opinion would be resolved in favor of the latter, which has higher ratings and far better reflects the current state of the American right — in thrall to President Trump and fervently nationalistic.
“It’s just business,” the media executive said. “At the end of the day, Fox News is the most powerful news channel in all of television. It’s good business to be on board with the right of center agenda.”
“Basically it’s Shep Smith and Chris Wallace versus the shows that produce all the revenue,” the senior Fox source said.
The resolution of the feud in favor of the opinion hosts is perhaps the best indication yet that Lachlan Murdoch, who became CEO of Fox Corporation after his father sold film and television giant 21st Century Fox to Disney, has no plans to alienate the network’s deliriously pro-Trump audience, even as impeachment looms.
As long as the president’s approval rating among Republicans remains sky high — it’s currently at 87, per Gallup, and hasn’t dipped below 80 in nearly two years — it’s highly unlikely the Murdochs would try to guide coverage in a different direction. (Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Lachlan understands what’s at stake and doesn’t want to destroy the business,” the Fox source said. “You start messing with the formula and all of a sudden you’ve got New Coke.”
The same source added that he expected the news side to chasten itself, or to expect more departures. “If they keep pushing it, they are going to get someone in who can actually manage the news division.”
Yet so attuned is President Trump to the network’s output that he’ll even criticize his staunchest allies at Fox News, as he did Monday morning on Twitter after Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade said on air that Trump had “made a huge mistake” in withdrawing US forces from Syria.
Murdoch no longer owns a share of the UK’s Sky News channel, and his political power in the country is primarily expressed through his four national newspapers. The Sun and its sister title, the Sun on Sunday, are the country’s top-selling daily and Sunday tabloids respectively, while at the quality end of the market he owns the Times, traditionally Britain’s paper of record, and the Sunday Times, which are both influential in setting the political agenda. The Sunday papers are separate from their Monday–Saturday siblings, with their own editors, reporting staff, and editorial stance.
It’s believed that Murdoch recently had a private meeting with Johnson during a visit to London. A source close to Murdoch said these meetings are one of the things he still relishes about owning newspapers: “He loves getting in the room with leaders, or his editors and asking, ‘so what’s going on then?’”
Unlike previous occupants of Downing Street, Johnson is not known to have much of a relationship with Murdoch. In fact, during the Conservative leadership election over the summer, he and his campaign team wondered whether the Sun would back his rival, Michael Gove, a former journalist at another of Murdoch’s papers, the Times, who remains close to his old proprietor.
When Gove got an interview for the Times with Trump shortly before his inauguration in 2017, it was Murdoch who orchestrated it — after it was published, it emerged that Murdoch was in the room throughout, sitting just out of shot in the photographs.
Even after Gove’s leadership campaign was derailed by revelations of cocaine use and he failed to make it through to the final two, the Sun waited until the final week to endorse the overwhelming favorite in the final head-to-head against Jeremy Hunt. One Sun source said, “It would have been interesting if it came down to Boris vs Gove, but remember the Sun backs a winner.”
But sources at the Sun say there is no question of Murdoch or the paper pulling support from Johnson or Brexit because that is where its readers are. “Among the editors and reporters there’s an understanding of where the Sun should be — that’s with the majority,” said one source. “Right now, Boris is ahead in the polls, Brexit is still popular.”
While the sources said it was possible all that could change and that theoretically Murdoch’s Sun could back Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, they suggested it was unlikely.
Another senior Sun source said the newspaper has a history of backing Johnson when he’s in a corner, pointing to his controversial comments about US president Barack Obama’s ancestry and the description of Muslim women who wear the niqab as “letterboxes.”
“We’ve consistently said if all else fails, we’ll back no deal. The point where we’d part with a political leader is if it started costing Sun readers their jobs.
“No wants that to happen, but bumps in the road and shortage of avocados, I think the Sun can live with that.”
The Sun’s editor, Tony Gallagher, is close to Johnson — Gallagher was once Johnson’s editor at the Daily Telegraph, they are known to speak over the phone, and in 2017 the two were pictured running together during Tory conference. But there is open speculation that Gallagher’s days at the top of the paper might be numbered.
It hasn’t been helped by an embarrassing month for the Sun and Sun on Sunday in their core subjects of celebrity and sport.
In the last 30 days, the Sun on Sunday has been linked to the outing of Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas’s HIV status to his parents; English cricket hero Ben Stokes has brought in lawyers after the Sun published a front-page story detailing a past family tragedy; and Prince Harry has begun legal proceedings against owners of the Sun and the Daily Mirror over historic cases of alleged phone hacking.
That’s even before last week’s revelation the Sun had been fed a series of fake stories about Coleen Rooney via an ingenious Instagram sting in an effort to smoke out who had been leaking to the newspaper.
A News UK source described it as a “noisy period” for the the Sun and Sun on Sunday in the press, while a senior Sun source added, “we’re supposed to be where the noise is.”
There’s also a serious question mark over the future of the Sun’s political editor Tom Newton Dunn. The journalist has made no secret of his desire to move on, telling friends and industry colleagues that he wants a job in broadcasting. One Sun source said it was “the worst kept secret in politics” that “TND” wanted to move on.
Murdoch pulled the strings to line up Trump’s two interviews with Newton Dunn over the last 18 months. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the Trump interviews came from,” one Sun source said.
Newton Dunn is also known not to share the newspaper’s pro-Brexit views. “But TND is a proper professional. He’s no ideologue.”
Sun insiders dismiss suggestions that Johnson is less concerned about courting the support of the paper because it — and by extension, Murdoch — no longer have the influence to sway British politics in the way it once did.
“Commentators seem to want it both ways,” former Sun leader writer Andy Silvester told BuzzFeed News. “The same people who queue up to have a pop at the paper on Twitter every time it is perceived to put a foot out of line are the very same people who on another afternoon will pontificate that the paper doesn’t haven’t any influence anymore.
“It either matters or it doesn’t — and the fact people who don’t read it are still talking about it means it matters.”
But while the Sun remains on board with Brexit and Johnson, Downing Street’s relations with another pro-Brexit Murdoch paper, the Sunday Times, have been under considerable strain in recent weeks.
The tensions began last month when the newspaper’s Insight investigations team published a blockbuster story, alleging that while he was London mayor, Johnson had failed to declare a series of conflicts of interest arising from his close friendship with Jennifer Arcuri, an American tech entrepreneur who received public money for her startup, as well as being invited on taxpayer-funded overseas trips, despite her company not meeting the criteria.
Johnson’s belief that the story would quickly blow over were dashed the following weekend when, on the eve of the Tory Party conference, the Sunday Times carried a follow-up story with multiple sources backing up the claim Boris had been having an extramarital affair with Arcuri.
And then came the Charlotte Edwardes column.
Edwardes, who had been recently hired from the Evening Standard, used her first column for the Sunday Times magazine to allege Johnson had grabbed her leg under the table during a lunch in the late ’90s, along with the leg of a woman sitting on his other side.
Johnson was caught on the back foot. His team cancelled a pre-conference sit-down with the paper’s pro-Brexit editor, Martin Ivens, and its political editor, Tim Shipman.
The front page before Johnson’s first conference as prime minister showed an image of him, smiling, with new partner Carrie Symonds on his arm, alongside stories of his infidelity, and promotion of Edwardes’ column about Johnson’s “wandering hands.”
“The Arcuri stuff they could take,” a source said. “But Boris’ team felt blindsided by how they were presented with the Charlotte Edwards allegation.”
It took till the Sunday afternoon for Johnson to issue a denial through a Downing Street spokesperson. At the conference parties, Shipman told other journalists he was “fucking irritated” because the Edwardes column raised serious allegations but was not communicated properly with the paper’s politics team.
Then last week, there was a third Arcuri bombshell — according to emails “passed to The Sunday Times,” Johnson had written a letter recommending Arcuri for a well-paid government job.
In her first big interview on the unfolding scandal, Arcuri denied Boris had written the letter. But the weeks of sustained coverage coming from the Sunday Times rattled Downing Street and frayed relationships at the newspaper.
“If you’re looking for some grand Murdoch conspiracy with all his papers being in the tank for Boris or Brexit, it comes apart pretty easy when you look at the Sunday Times,” a Times insider said. “See the journalism in the last few months.”
“Arcuri, Edwardes, Operation Yellowhammer leaks [the government’s planning for no-deal Brexit], there was a big interview with Boris’ ex-wife. It’s been brutal.” ●
Andy Silvester’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.