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Profile: Rupert Murdoch

IT SOUNDS like every backpacker's dream gap-year trip. In 1964, a young Rupert Murdoch hired a Morris Minor with friends and set about seeing New Zealand.

They arrived in Wellington and, as so many people do, picked up a copy of the local newspaper. It contained a story about a bid to buy it by Lord Thomson, a Canadian media mogul.

Mr Murdoch was just 32 at the time but hardly a novice. He had taken over the family business after the death of his father ten years earlier - flying back from Oxford University to take up the reins of News Ltd - and steadily expanded by buying up Australian titles.

Lord Thomson was an international tycoon with the Sunday Times and The Scotsman in his stable. Despite being financially outgunned, Mr Murdoch lunged head-first into a four-way bidding war and emerged victorious. For Lord Thomson, it was an insight into a ruthless and insatiable businessman with whom the whole world would soon become familiar.

Just four years later, Mr Murdoch arrived in the UK and took on the late Robert Maxwell in a fight for the News of the World. Maxwell accused him of using "the law of the jungle" when Mr Murdoch won out.

He was far from the first person to be taken aback by his rival's ruthlessness. Even when he was a child, his mother, Elizabeth, noticed her son was "not the sort of person who liked playing in a team".

By the 1980s, Mr Murdoch's empire resembled a runaway train. He snapped up the Times and Sunday Times from old rival Lord Thomson, and made a foray into US television with Fox. In 1986 he joined Margaret Thatcher - a prime minister his newspapers enthusiastically backed - in waging war on the unions, who reacted with fury after the introduction of electronic printing presses at Wapping led to 6,000 job lossesand street battles.

But Mr Murdoch has never shied away from a fight, such as when his newspapers were accused of bad taste over Page 3 girls and the infamous "Gotcha" headline that greeted the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands conflict.

"I'm rather sick of snobs who tell us they're bad papers, snobs who only read papers that no-one else wants," he said.

The acquisition of BSkyB should have marked another victory, albeit one that had taken longer and been more complicated than the newspaper acquisitions that marked his rise.

Mr Murdoch had been quick to see the potential of satellite TV when the Astra network was launched in 1989 - too quick for the British public, though.His company, Sky Television, was losing money and the equal merger with rival British Satellite Broadcasting saved both. The company became known as BSkyB and was soon synonymous with Mr Murdoch and his empire.It makes 1bn a year, but News Corp owns just 39 per cent of the company and the media tycoon was hungry to expand his share.

As in 1968, when he bought the News of the World, Mr Murdoch flew into the UK last week amid a blaze of publicity. This time, he closed the paper.

Then he was the young buck. Now he is 80 and perhaps wondering when one of his sons - now James, after elder brother Lachlan left the company in 2005 - will take up the mantle he has carried since he was half their age.

If closing his once favourite newspaper was a gamble aimed at improving his image so he would meet the "fit and proper" criteria demanded for the BSkyB takeover, while also reducing his proportional share of the UK media to allay monopoly concerns, it failed. Now he has no News of the World and just over a third of BSkyB.

Politicians, still bearing the scars of News International maulings, now smell blood.

Yet more revelations are expected, along with police and parliamentary inquiries. Legal experts have warned that even his US companies - the true source of his wealth and power - may not be immune from prosecution. For the world's 13th most powerful man, and his 4bn fortune, it appears to be a rare and uncharacteristic moment of vulnerability. He has written down the value of Dow Jones, owner of the Wall Street Journal, and lost a fortune on the sale of MySpace.

But it would take a brave man to write him off. Mr Murdoch's father made his name as a war correspondent, and his son is nothing if not a fighter.

 
 
 

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