What’s it like to work for Rupert Murdoch, arguably the world’s most famous living media tycoon? His former henchman, Les Hinton, who worked for the Aussie mogul for decades, can explain.
“Rupert wasn’t the easiest person to work with, he could be very tough,” Hinton said of the man for whom he oversaw the Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World newspapers for 12 years from 1995 to 2007.
“I didn’t kiss his photograph before I went to bed every night,” he added.
“[Murdoch] could be very unreasonable sometimes, he could be impatient, but when you made a terrible mistake he could also be very understanding.”
In his new memoirs, The Bootle Boy: An Untidy Life In News, Hinton talks about his “peripatetic” childhood following his army father as he was stationed around the world.
Between postings the family would stay in Bootle, Merseyside – the Bootle of the book’s title – from where his mother’s family hailed. His lifestyle as a child would inform his later life.
“I still don’t understand just what the concept of home is, because I’ve moved so many times,” said Hinton. “So I then hitched myself to Rupert Murdoch’s wagon train and went around the world with him and just kept on moving in the way I always have.”
Giants of the press
Hinton began his career in journalism aged 15 in Australia, working as an office boy at the News in Adelaide. It was there he first met Murdoch, who had acquired the title from his father.
Their exchange then could hardly be said to have foreshadowed the working partnership that was to follow, with Murdoch, then 28, handing a young Hinton some cash to fetch him a ham sandwich for breakfast.
“I had no more elevated conversation with him for about 15 years [after that],” said Hinton.
He recalled reading Fleet Street biographies as a child, including those about Daily Express owner Lord Beaverbrook and Daily Mail founder Viscount Northcliffe – “all these great giants of the early days of the press”.
“I remember there was a very famous editor of the Express called Arthur Christiansen – one of the inventors of the modern popular newspaper. He wrote in his book about the ordeal of working for Beaverbrook. He had a breakdown at one point and died when he was 58.
“I remember when I read this at the age of probably 16 thinking I’m never going to work at close quarters with some overbearing newspaper proprietor – so not everything works out in life.”
After completing his “cadet” training as a reporter Down Under, Hinton went to London where he worked briefly for news agency British United Press and then got a job on The Sun.
This was before Murdoch’s takeover had turned it into the UK’s best-selling daily newspaper, toppling the Daily Mirror – events made famous more recently in the stage play Ink which ran in London last year.
Hinton left The Sun before its sale, but later returned under the Murdoch regime.
Incidentally, Hinton thought Ink was a “brilliant” play, adding: “It’s quite a good caricature but truth of what happened in the day actually.” He said Murdoch himself saw it, and liked it.
“There were lots of people there that we both knew – [sun editor] Larry [Lamb] is long dead, Bernard Shrimsley (later also editor of the Sun) died last year and Beverly Goodway, the first page three photographer, he’s passed away as well.
“There was all these ghosts there performing – all these reincarnated characters on-stage. Apart from it being an incredibly entertaining play, it also weirdly revived all these old feelings.”
The new regime
The play charts the rise of Murdoch’s Sun against what was then the establishment Daily Mirror.
“The legend goes that when [Mirror editor] Hugh Cudlipp saw the first edition of Rupert’s Sun he popped champagne and said: ‘We’ve got nothing to worry about’,” said Hinton, who lived through it.
“But of course he soon realised he made the mistake of his life. When it all happened, the Mirror was selling over 5m and the Sun was selling way below 1m.
“Within seven years The Sun – by stealing a lot of the Mirror’s clothes, it has to be said, but being racier in lots of ways – basically overtook the Mirror.”
At that time, in the mid-to-late 60s, Hinton was a reporter with no plans to move into the management side of the business, but he saw for himself how Murdoch’s ownership changed the culture at the newspaper.
“Fleet Street has changed a lot, but in those days it was long lunches, late filings, being obliged by the news desk to file at least ten pounds a week expenses and more if you actually spent anything… plus the amount of drinking that went on and the wonderful chaos of it all.
“When I got back it had all changed because The Sun was then being run by Rupert very tightly, a lot of the staff had been shed – all the diplomatic correspondents, loads of people – you had much more to do.
“And we didn’t have a Northern printing plant in Manchester, so if you were given a story in the morning you had to have a really good reason not to file it by lunchtime. Whereas on the old Sun you would go to lunch, you might get one or maybe two stories a day, and you’d come back and file at 7pm and it was all very boozy and relaxed.
“But when I got back it was completely changed. There were two things: the old guys, the rigour of the work, the intensity of it, didn’t appeal to them, but also of course the newspaper was completely different.
“I had to go out, and there were many occasions like this when I first started, where some dodgy survey said [for example] bald men have more sex. So I had to go out and stop bald men in the street and ask them how much sex they had.
“One guy chased me across the station. But that kind of thing was hard on the old guys because they had never done anything like that. I hadn’t either, but the paper succeeded.”
Cake and ale
He said the tabloid news formula of running “heavy news” on the left-hand pages and the lighter stuff on the right-hand pages was a contributing factor to its success.
“It was a very interesting formula that mixed the two things,” he said.
“And that’s one thing that people who don’t know about newspapers often misunderstand about really successful popular papers in this country. The Mirror in its heyday, the Sun, the Mail, there’s lots of very serious stuff in there but it’s leavened by [other stories].
“Christiansen said the reader ‘needs cake and ale, as well as bread and butter’. That blending of the two was a very important way in which they succeeded.”
Murdoch had bought the Sydney Mirror before coming to the UK to buy Sunday newspaper the News of the World and then his first daily national title in The Sun.
“He came to this country like a serial immigrant,” said Hinton. “He was always looking for somewhere to be underestimated… all these old families of the press here thought he was just some sort of colonial upstart, which of course he was.”
Murdoch “thrived always as the underdog”, said Hinton. “In all the time I worked for him he never gave me any brilliant secrets to his success, he just works very hard.
“He’s bright, obviously, but there are loads of very bright people. But he works incredibly hard and he’s got huge cohones – he’s very brave and courageous. He will do things other people won’t do, like starting Sky and what he did at Wapping [News International’s former home].
“For all the vilification that he suffers in this country, if you were to look at nothing else that he’s contributed to it, he broke down the monopoly of the BBC and ITV, created Sky and imported this huge amount of selection for ordinary customers.
“[Murdoch] was a tough guy, he made enemies, and some of them he deserved, but you can’t deny that,” said Hinton. “In America, after all the things he did here… there were three big strong television networks and he started a fourth.
“Everyone said he was mad and of course he made it a success.”
Murdoch ‘liked to gossip’
In the 80s, Hinton ran magazines for Murdoch in the US, including TV Guide – which then was selling 16m copies each week and was the country’s biggest-selling magazine – and Village Voice.
Then he went to Los Angeles to run the Fox TV station group, which has channels in Dallas, Houston, Washington, LA and New York – and which Murdoch has retained even after selling Fox assets to Disney.
“If I had an unsuccessful patch in my career it was probably in Hollywood,” Hiton said of his time at the TV station. “I was there for a couple of years, I wasn’t really very good at it. If you think Fleet Street’s competitive, they are brutally competitive…”
Hinton spent two decades in the US, including a decade in senior roles, before taking on the job of executive chairman of News International in 1995. Some four people had held the position in as many years when he came to accept it.
“The mortality rate was pretty high,” said Hinton. “I thought I was going to get fired for sure. To my surprise I was there for 12 years…”
When Murdoch came to visit “you had to learn to take your hands off the steering wheel for the day, because he liked to get involved with the newspapers,” he said.
“He really does understand them incredibly well, he understands press speed, paper quality, advertising rates, how to write a caption, how to draw a page, how to write an editorial. He has grown up with it because his father did it.”
While Hinton said Murdoch would constantly call the editors of his newspapers, particularly The Sun, because he “liked to gossip”, he said he never knew Murdoch to interfere on editorial lines.
Instead he would pick people “of a like mind” to run his titles, said Hinton.
Hinton moved to head up Dow Jones in the US, another Murdoch stable and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, in 2007 as revelations about phone hacking at the News of the World by royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire emerged. The pair were later jailed.
Hinton was out of the country in 2011 “when the firestorm happened” after the Guardian’s Nick Davies broke the story that the NotW had hacked the phone of dead schoolgirl Millie Dowler.
In a bid to head off the backlash, Hinton tended his resignation, but he still insists he had no idea about phone hacking at the paper during his time heading up News International.
“It happened,” he said. “I hadn’t known it [phone hacking] had happened.
“For all the great storm and the arrests in the Sun for payments to police, the only people that were actually found guilty were a relatively small group that were conducting a huge amount of phone hacking.
“The difficulty of talking about this is seeming as if you are dismissing them. It was a massive act of stupidity and wrong… it became such a firestorm, that’s when I offered to resign to Rupert – initially he said don’t.”
He added: “I wish I had discovered what was going on, but I didn’t and I can’t explain – but it still happened, in the old cliché, ‘on my watch’ and when it got so bad and the heat was so intense I quit.”
The furore around the scandal led to Murdoch shutting down the NotW.
For Hinton, now reflecting on the decision some years later in the course of promoting his memoirs, he said he didn’t believe he had a choice – “I walked the plank in the end,” he said.
While he wouldn’t go as far as calling himself a scapegoat, because the offer to step down was his own, he said there had been “quite a lot of briefing from within the company against me”.
“I do think that just as the closing of the News of the World was intended to diffuse the situation and it didn’t… I think there was a hope [my resignation] would be part of this cleansing business that they seemed to be trying to do. I think there was a connection between the two things.”
Prior to his resignation, Hinton had instructed law firm Harbottle and Lewis to examine a mass of “toxic” emails between NotW staff to see if it contained evidence that others had known about phone-hacking at the paper. The firm said it found nothing to support this.
Solicitor Lawrence Abramson, then a managing partner at the firm, was later found guilty of unprofessional behaviour by a tribunal and was fined £20,000 after he admitted failing to look at the emails, despite having been warned about them by junior staff in his office working under him.
Hinton said News International didn’t act as a result of the firm’s advice that there was no evidence to support the claim of wider knowledge of phone-hacking at the NotW.
“If he had reacted in a different way it would have been a different story,” said Hinton.
‘Sacrificing’ the News of the World
Murdoch’s decision to shut down the NotW is one Hinton still doesn’t agree with.
“What straight thinking company fires millions of customers? And the only reason it was done was because, again, it was thought that by sacrificing it as this awful sinner that it would somehow make the rest of the company seem cleansed,” he said.
“It was wrong on a number of counts, because first of all, whatever level of hacking that was going on, the vast majority of people there did not know about it.
“A couple of hundred people, maybe more, lost their jobs. And it was a 168-year-old newspaper. I think it was terribly reckless and wrong and a panic-stricken move to close it down.”
He uses a metaphor to describe the decision, saying it was like creating a breaker to head off a wild fire, adding: “But it didn’t work, the flames were so hungry, the winds were so hostile it just leapt the gap and kept going.”
He said he had seen Murdoch at the publishing tycoon’s London flat after telling MPs in 2011 that his appearance before them over the phone-hacking scandal was “the most humble day of my career”.
“He was shattered in a way I’ve never seen him shattered,” said Hinton. “I physically witnessed how distressing the whole thing was for him. He wasn’t faking it.”
I asked Hinton if the phone-hacking scandal had, at least in part, led to the crisis in trust in the news media today. Surveys regularly reveal how public trust in the press is at an all-time low.
“It certainly didn’t advance people’s trust in journalism,” said Hinton. “But it’s also true that historically the trust in journalists, in politicians, in law enforcement, it always ebbs and flows.
“Politicians and media are always attacking each other and you can go back to long ago. A grey old prime minister called Stanley Baldwin once said newspapers were ‘exercising the prerogative of the harlot through the ages: power without responsibility’.
“And that goes back to 1929. That hostility has always existed.”
‘Draining the swamp’ at The Sun
If phone-hacking damaged public trust in the media, News International’s decision to shop sources to the police amid the furore damaged its reputation within the industry itself.
After agreeing to open its books to the Met Police in an attempt to clean up its image following the hacking scandal, 19 Sun journalists were charged under misconduct in public office charges for paying state sources for information. All convictions were later overturned on appeal.
The first arrests under Operation Elveden were made in 2011, by which time Hinton had left Murdoch’s empire completely. Although not involved, he said he had been “very surprised that it had happened”.
“I think someone representing News Corp said they were ‘draining the swamp’ when they had all those Sun guys arrested. It destroyed their families, did terrible damage and many of them were on bail for years without even standing trial.
“You can imagine the kind of stress – at least two of these people attempted to commit suicide – and yet what came of it in the end for sources?
“The job of newspaper people is to find out what people deserve to know. In a lot of the cases – in the case of Sun chief reporter John Kay (cleared at trial), overwhelmingly the stories that he had acquired were in the public interest – faulty flak jackets, stories that would never have got into the public domain if he had not acquired them.
“It’s a very grey area that. I would be surprised if those at News International who decided to do that aren’t now unsure whether they did the right thing.”
Had he been executive chairman of News International, which later rebranded to News UK to avoid association with the phone-hacking scandal, at the time, Hinton said: “I don’t think I would have done [it]. But to be fair to the people in that position, I wasn’t in that position.
“It’s very well in retrospect when you see the outcome to have that point of view so it’s probably unfair of me to be too categorically critical, but this notion of draining the swamp really annoyed me.
“Draining the swamp is an old cliché used about Washington, but when it was used about people that I know had worked for years and years on the Sun who had helped make it a huge success for Rupert.
“On those newspapers it’s incredibly hard work and to suddenly, just with a flick of the wrist, say: ‘Well we’re draining the swamp,’ was so heartless to do. It was a disgusting thing to say.”
‘Storytelling will survive’
Newspapers are currently facing a greater existential threat than even the fallout from illegal phone-hacking as readers move to digital, and in particular mobile, to get their news where advertising is dominated by web giants like Facebook and Google.
Print newspaper circulations are in near constant decline in the UK, and while both the Times and The Sun are still among the country’s most influential and highly-read titles, the direction of travel is nonetheless one of falling revenues and profit margins.
Does Hinton, with his many years of experience, think print can survive?
“I think storytelling will survive,” he said.
“Because of what’s happened with digital, all the business model of newspapers, the cost of trucks and presses and newsprint, all of that, big newspaper companies, their whole psychology was constructed around sustaining this big manufacturing and distribution business – so that’s being wrecked.
“In the long-term you can’t see that working, but certainly there are always going to be stories to tell and people who want to hear them. Now, with your smartphone, you’ve got infinity in the palm of your hand and that’s fantastic for normal consumers but not for the old businesses.”
He added: “At this stage you can only see [print] diminishing, you can’t imagine that there would be some sudden revitalisation, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
The Bootle Boy is out now, priced at £20.