In the closing days of 1968, a little-known Australian newspaper proprietor flew to London with the intention of taking a gamble. By the fifth day of 1969 he had mortgaged his entire business to purchase The News of the World, then a bloated and barely-profitable behemoth of a paper. Forty years on and Keith Rupert Murdoch has flown into London again, with one last gamble on his mind.
In pushing ahead with the launch of the Sun on Sunday, Murdoch has sent out a message of defiance to his critics. He is under pressure from News Corporation shareholders in the US, who feel that the phone hacking scandal has cost them enough already. He is also under pressure from his own staff in the UK, who feel betrayed by his lack of support. This time last week he faced two options: cut ties and sell up or gamble on a fightback. True to form he chose the latter.
The challenge Murdoch now faces is twofold. In order to save his British operation he must reassure Sun staff and guide the paper through its current crisis without losing any of the advertisers that have so far stayed loyal. He must also make the Sun on Sunday a commercial and critical success. Only by achieving both of these feats will he placate News Corporation, an organization that sees print as minor indulgence in a digital media age.
But why does Murdoch want to do this at all? He could quite easily sell The Sun and, as Michael Wolff suggested, even preserve his beloved but eternally loss-making Times. The Sun already has keen suitors -- Express Newspapers owner Richard Desmond has long been an admirer.
It's possible to argue that the paper is a financial asset but by News Corp standards its revenues are small and are used partly to offset the losses incurred by The Times. The Sun's success thus has the twofold benefit of leaving Murdoch in charge of the most influential tabloid and broadsheet papers in the UK.
Yet the phone hacking scandal has left the influence of News International titles significantly bruised. Politicians and spin doctors who played nice with NI under duress during their time in office have now come out to lambaste the organization's influence and tactics. Even David Cameron, the old boy's old boy, looks shy after his indiscretion with Andy Coulson.
But there is one thing that motivates Rupert Murdoch more than money, power or prestige. It's the thrill of a challenge.
This is a man who built his British empire by taking gambles. After the NotW purchase came the purchase of The Sun and the controversial launch of page 3. In the early 80s came the skillful avoidance of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in his acquisition of Times Newspapers. Shortly afterwards he revolutionized printing methods and neutered the rampant print unions. In the 90s he battered rivals with price wars and by the turn of the millennium his domination of the British press was complete.
At 81, however, Mr. Murdoch finds himself confronted with a digital age that he doesn't understand and a scandal of cataclysmic proportions enveloping him. He has been forced to close the paper that kick-started his whole career. The British establishment that he hated and so effectively subverted and dominated is laughing at him once again. This, to a man like Murdoch, is a humiliation.
After the MySpace debacle and the underwhelming launch of The Daily iPad app, the Sun on Sunday is Murdoch's last chance to shine in the inky-fingered industry that he loves so much. The entire project is fraught with risk but it is this very risk that will spur him on, just as it did in every great gamble of his career. In years gone by the prize was prestige and power. Now the prize is pride and the success of the Sun on Sunday would be a delicious two fingers to those who have written him off.
Yet Mr. Murdoch, contrary to popular belief, is human like the rest of us and there is a grim, human reality lurking in this story. There is likely a tacit understanding at News Corporation that the big man can have one last roll of the print industry dice for the twilight years of his career. The British papers, unless blessed with vast increases in digital revenue, will be News Corporation assets only so long as Mr. Murdoch has breath in him. Richard Desmond will be watching the rise and fall of Mr. Murdoch's chest with Machiavellian interest.
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