Murdoch's Mom Foreshadowed Tabloid Troubles

More than four decades ago, one of Rupert Murdoch's closest advisers warned him not to buy the News of the World. The British tabloid accused of phone hacking has dragged Murdoch's media empire into a major scandal. That trusted counselor was his mother Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, who is now 102 years old. Mary Louise Kelly talks to writer David Leser about Mrs. Murdoch and her relationship with her son.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Among the people who warned Rupert Murdoch over the years about the dangers of muckraking tabloid journalism was his mother. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch told her son not to buy News of the World - the paper now at the heart of the phone hacking scandal. Dame Elisabeth is a revered figure in Australia, along with Rupert Murdoch's father, Keith, a prominent newspaper man himself. David Leser writes about the older generation of Murdochs in a story for the Daily Beast. We reached Leser in New South Wales, Australia.

So I was fascinated to read that Dame Elisabeth Murdoch is still alive - 102 years old - and living at Cruden Farm, the Murdoch family seat 30-something miles or south of Melbourne. What do we know about her views of her son's business?

Mr. DAVID LESER (Writer): Well, on one hand she's very proud of what her son has achieved. She sings his praises and she is very supportive of him. But certainly when Rupert bought the News of the World 42 years ago, she said it nearly, quote, "killed me," unquote.

KELLY: Why is that? Why would she have had such an issue with this?

Mr. LESER: She had raised concerns at the time with Rupert that this was not the kind of newspaper that he should be involved with. It was a tawdry rag. But her son justified the content of the paper at that time by claiming that there were tens of thousands of people living in London and around England who had nothing particularly in their lives to redeem them and that was the sort of thing they wanted.

KELLY: You met and interviewed her several years ago yourself. Is she as steely a character as her son?

Mr. LESER: Oh, no. Not at all. She's the antithesis of her son. She is probably the most universally admired woman in Australia. I don't say that lightly. She's Australia's greatest philanthropist. She's been on the board of over 100 charities. She gives generously and without fanfare. You know, she is a singularly impressive woman. And when Murdoch met the family of Milly�Dowler, who had been abducted and killed, and apologized to her...

KELLY: The scandal that ended up bringing down the News of the World.

Mr. LESER: That's right. You might remember that he said that he hadn't lived up to the name of his father and mother.

KELLY: How should we square Rupert Murdoch, who styles himself as anti-elitist, anti-establishment? This is a man with two very prominent parents, from the most powerful family, arguably, in Australia.

Mr. LESER: Well, there is a strong strain in the Australian ethos of anti-elitism. Rupert Murdoch saw it as his holy writ, if you like, to challenge the prevailing elites at the same time as he supped with all of the most powerful people in the world.

I think a big part of it was when he arrived in England he found a very, very class conscience society. Murdoch challenged that and really put it right back to the English by taking ownership of the institutions that they had always regarded as their own.

KELLY: David Leser, before we let you go, I want to ask, how is this story playing in Australia? Is this big news there?

Mr. LESER: Oh, it's huge. It's everywhere. It's saturation. I mean this is his homeland and he's the most powerful media mogul in this country. He owns 70 percent of Australian newspapers.

KELLY: 70 percent?

Mr. LESER: Seventy percent. And in a number of capital cities the only newspaper you can buy is a Murdoch newspaper. Certainly this story is everywhere.

KELLY: David Leser, thanks very much.

Mr. LESER: You're very welcome.

KELLY: We've been speaking with the writer David Leser. He wrote "The Anguish of Murdoch's Mom" for the Daily Beast. And we reached him in New South Wales in Australia.

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