Monday, 23 August 2010

Review: War at the Wall Street Journal, Sarah Ellison (2010)

Ellison says that Rupert Murdoch failed to honour his pledge to maintain editorial independence at the Wall Street Journal after purchasing it.

The assertion comes late in the book, after the negotiations are complete and the deal is done. She doesn't say so in so many words, of course, but knowledge of this important fact would not come as a surprise to those who regularly read any websites or newspapers published by this highly-visible newspaper proprietor's media assets.

What is surprising, though, is how entertaining the book is. It can't have been easy to write. Ellison discloses her sources at the end of the book. She had access to senior editors of the newspaper and to members of the owning Bancroft family. But she also had access to senior players on the Murdoch side as well.

Starting decades before mention of the deal became public, Ellison demonstrates how it all transpired. Small rifts within the family - many of whose members believed strongly in protecting the newspaper in perpetuity by holding onto their shares - grew and then blossomed once Murdoch's offer to purchase the property became known. The share price of the Wall Street Journal was flat, and had been flat over many years, when Murdoch said he would pay $60 per share for the paper. Given the breadth of the shareholding and the willingness of some family members to get more value out of their prize property, it was only a matter of time before the sale went ahead, Ellison tells us.

It's not an easy book to read. There are a lot of active players, for a start. But with a little effort and concentration this crisply-written book comes to life and I found it hard to put down once negotiations got under way. It seems as though Ellison was privy to every important meeting of family members, the bankers who rallied to speed the deal, the lawyers working on both sides of the negotiation, and News Corp executives working on behalf of their fanatically-driven boss.

We're taken to places we've never been. We hear conversations we could never otherwise overhear. And we're presented with a modus operandi that would have seriously embarrassed Murdoch had such details become public at any time during the deal's gradual closing.

This is an impressive book and, for those who are interested in how this prominent man operates his media properties, essential reading.

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