Last week Rupert Murdoch launched a bitter crusade against the Church of Scientology. Initially this was interpreted as being a long-held grudge against the cult’s alleged attempt to seduce his son, Lachlan, with overtures from its highest-profile member, Tom Cruise. However, Murdoch’s comments on religion drew attention to his long personal history of religious affiliations.
In January 1998, Murdoch, a non-Catholic, but a generous benefactor to the Catholic Church, was made a papal knight of the Pontifical Order of St Gregory the Great. Beside him in the ceremony in Los Angeles was his second wife, Anna, a Catholic. Although he gave well over $10 million (£6.4 million) to the Church, the knighthood may also have been political. Pope John Paul II and Murdoch were both active anti-Communists.
Many Catholics were horrified that a purveyor of sleaze, tabloid sex, scandal and nudity was blessed with papal recognition. Further ammunition was given to critics three months later. After 31 years of marriage, Murdoch and his wife separated. The following year, little more than two weeks after the divorce was finalised, he married his mistress, Chinese-born Wendi Deng, a former employee. She was 30. He was 68. Subsequently, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but this did not stop them having two children with the help of IVF. According to rumours, the couple briefly contemplated joining the Catholic Church, but, in the end, remained Protestant.
Murdoch’s faith was again on public show in 2010. He and Wendi stood on the banks of the muddy River Jordan at the alleged place where John the Baptist baptised Jesus. An elaborate ceremony followed for the christening of their two daughters: nine-year-old Grace and eight-year-old Chloe. All the guests, including three of the godparents, Tony Blair, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, and the hostess, the Queen of Jordan, wore white.
Some sceptics say that this public display of sacred ritual showed Murdoch as opportunistic. Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile any commitment to religion with certain of his commercial practices, especially the sexually explicit photographs of Page Three girls and the soft pornography in his newspapers and satellite channels.
Murdoch, though, is a sincere, Bible-believing Christian. This is seen in one of his few direct statements on his personal faith, made 20 years ago when married to Anna. In an interview in America with the journalist Nicholas Coleridge he said: “They say I’m a born-again Christian and a Catholic convert and so on. I’m certainly a practising Christian, I go to church quite a bit, but not every Sunday and I tend to go to the Catholic church – because my wife is Catholic, I have not formally converted. And I get increasingly disenchanted with the
C of E or Episcopalians as they call themselves here. But no, I’m not intensely religious as I’m sometimes described.”
Murdoch’s links with the Catholic Church would make his grandfather and great-grandfather turn in their graves. They were part of the Presbyterian church that declared the Pope the Antichrist. Murdoch’s great-grandfather, James Murdoch, a church minister, was one of the 470 fiery ministers in the Wee Free revolt, known as the Great Disruption, who broke with the Church of Scotland in 1843. This bitter conflict was to stop the English Crown and establishment appointing ministers loyal to London – something they had been doing for 130 years. Angry anti-English and anti-Establishment dissenters split from the Church of Scotland, forming the Free Church of Scotland.
Soon afterwards James, with the Wee Free doctrine, arrived as a missionary in the small town of Roseharty, in the Moray Firth coast in Aberdeenshire. He quickly acquired land nearby, built the Pitsligo Free Church, in the heart of a granite quarry area and was ordained as its minister. One of his sons, Patrick, who attended the University of Aberdeen, also became a Wee Free minister and set up another church in Aberdeensire, in Cruden Bay in 1878. But six years later Patrick, with his wife, Annie Brown, the daughter of yet another clergyman, migrated to Australia. Their son, Keith, who was born in their new manse in Melbourne, broke away from the pulpit to become a journalist. But he carried on the family sense of Calvinistic mission during the First World War. His graphic reports from Gallipoli in 1915 highlighted the officer incompetence and mistreatment of Australian, New Zealand and British soldiers. These reports were a contributory reason for the British to admit defeat and evacuate.
Keith speedily expanded his career from journalist to successful newspaper proprietor, sending his son, Rupert, first to the Eton of Australia, Geelong Grammar, and then to Oxford. Rich though the family became, the underprivileged Scottish parishes of their ancestors were enshrined in their life. Keith’s estate on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, where his 103-year-old widow still lives, is called Cruden Farm, while the sumptuous Murdoch yacht is called Roseharty, as was the Long Island estate which was recently sold.
One trait which Murdoch inherited from his dissenting religious forebears is a sense of defiance. In the mid-1960s, when I worked for Murdoch in Sydney and in London, before he became a global media mogul, we all knew that nothing would please him more than articles that would start a crusade, or bolster an existing one. Then, as now, he was a great believer in newspaper campaigning.
When I was made Murdoch’s youngest overseas correspondent, I detoured to Japan on my way from Sydney to work in his London office off Fleet Street. To draw attention to the inequities of the White Australia Policy which was still in force, I went to Hiroshima to interview the dozens of illegitimate offspring of former Australian soldiers who were barred from going to Australia because they were half-Japanese. The story ran for weeks.
When working in Murdoch’s busy London headquarters in Red Lion Square I observed that, as in Sydney, he was a hands-on proprietor. Often he casually walked around between our desks, looking over the shoulders of reporters, seriously interested to know what was written on the paper in our typewriters. On one visit he wore a horrid brown suit, but he was friendly, fun and not over-critical. In that pre-computer, pre-web surfing era, we relied on triangular pots of whitish glue with brush and scissors. We cut all the stories on a single topic from the different daily newspapers, pasted them on a sheet, and then, with a phone call or two and with the help of files of old cuttings in envelopes, we recast them under our bylines, careful not to commit plagiarism.
Those were the carefree days prior to Murdoch’s purchase of English newspapers. Once he became a proprietor in London, like his forebears, he defied the English establishment. Now, nearly 45 years since he gained his first British titles, he still remains anti-establishment, anti-English and pro-Scottish independence. But he has a lot to thank England for. What other country would allow a foreigner to accumulate so much media power? Certainly not the America he so adores.