ANDREW NEIL: Is Succession a drama or a documentary?

Volcanic rages, stupendous excess and cut-throat rivalries… is Succession a drama or a documentary, asks former Murdoch empire editor ANDREW NEIL

‘Obviously it’s not based on Rupert Murdoch,’ I said to Brian Cox, who stars as Logan Roy, the fictional media mogul in HBO’s Succession, the hit TV series that starts its fourth and final run this Monday on Sky Atlantic.

‘Of course,’ replied Brian with a twinkle in his eye, a knowing smile on his face. ‘Nothing to do with Murdoch.’

‘It’s just that Murdoch’s grandfather came from the Aberdeen area and Logan Roy hails from Dundee, as do you in real life,’ I continued. ‘That’s true,’ he replied.

‘Like Murdoch, your character also owns lots of newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic and a very influential and hugely profitable right-wing American news network,’ I persevered.

‘Also true,’ responded Brian, somewhat enigmatically.

Brian Cox (front, right), stars as Logan Roy, the fictional media mogul in HBO’s Succession

The real-life Murdoch children and the fictional Roys have very little in common, other than being the sons and daughters of a media billionaire

‘With two sons and a daughter from the same mother all vying to be his successor, which pretty much reflects Murdoch’s dynastic struggles,’ I added.

‘Indeed,’ said Brian.

‘But, of course, it’s nothing to do with the Murdochs,’ I repeated. ‘Exactly,’ said Brian.

He’d come on my Channel 4 programme, The Andrew Neil Show (it does what it says on the tin!), to promote Succession’s last outing, a sad but wise decision since most American big-budget TV shows go downhill rapidly after series four, if not before.

I’ve been a fan of the show from the start and of Brian’s for years. We knew each other from previous interviews I’d done with him on BBC TV. We’d bonded over our common Scottish heritage.

Talking both on and off air, we agreed that the genius of the show was that it was enough like Murdoch and his family to give it a sense of being a real-life drama, while being different enough not to provoke conniptions among HBO’s lawyers.

For example, like Murdoch, Logan Roy controls a global media and entertainment empire run out of New York. But, unlike the Murdoch organisation, it includes theme parks and cruise ships, where some of the darkest scandals occur. Cue a sigh of relief from the lawyers.

Brian thought the biggest difference between the real Murdoch and the fictional Roy was that, whereas Murdoch was born into upper-middle class Australian privilege, Roy (like Brian) was a poor Scottish working class kid who made it from nothing. Which is true.

But Murdoch turned the two small-town Adelaide papers he inherited from his father into what, until recently, was the world’s greatest media conglomerate.

Roy created a global empire from nothing, Murdoch from close to nothing.

The offspring of Logan Roy at the heart of the dynastic struggle — Kendall, Roman and Shiv — are widely taken to be rough approximations of the three children Murdoch had by his second wife, Anna: Lachlan, James and Elisabeth.

Rupert Murdoch and Andrew Neil at the launch of Sky tv at their Osterley studio

In reality, the real-life Murdoch children and the fictional Roys have very little in common, other than being the sons and daughters of a media billionaire, which is just as well given that Succession takes full advantage of the licence conferred on it by being a fictional drama by peppering the narrative with stories of their skulduggery, duplicity, stupidity and even law-breaking.

As editor of Murdoch’s Sunday Times for 11 years from 1983, I got to see his children by Anna close up when they were young. They were polite, modest, bright.

Of course, we will never know what they would have made of themselves if they had not been born into immense wealth and had to make their way in the world without the Murdoch appellation.

But Scottish-born Anna did a good job rearing them while Rupert conquered the world.

They were not the spoiled brats of Succession.

‘You are not serious people,’ Roy bluntly tells his kids in series four. Murdoch would never say that to his children. Far more than Roy, Murdoch has actively desired a dynasty for decades, anxious to involve his three children by Anna in his company from an early age.

I remember dining with Rupert in the mid-1980s at an Italian restaurant in London one Saturday night after I’d put the paper to bed. He brought along Lachlan and James and talked openly in front of them about how one day they would inherit his empire. They were still at school, in their mid-teens.

Brian Cox (right) had come on my Channel 4 programme, The Andrew Neil Show, to promote Succession’s last outing, a sad but wise decision since most American big-budget TV shows go downhill rapidly after series four, if not before

I used to tease Rupert that his dynastic ambitions were incomprehensible given his republican dislike of British royalty because it was, er, a dynasty. I never did get a convincing reply. Roy, on the other hand, does not really share Murdoch’s dynastic desires.

He regularly despairs of his children, unconvinced that any of them are worthy successors.

Brian Cox told me he often feels sorry for Logan Roy, an ailing lion, precisely because his children are so awful. Murdoch has never thought that. Roman is widely taken to be James. But Roman gets all the best wisecracking lines from brilliant British scriptwriter Jesse Armstrong.

James, as we learned from his appearances during the tabloid hacking scandal which almost ripped Murdoch’s British operation apart over a decade ago, talks in monotone American management speak. Unlike Roman, he lacks dynastic ambition.

Kendall, often said to be Lachlan, is portrayed as the creative, tortured, drug-addled rebel, at one stage the heir apparent but clearly not up to it. Lachlan could not be more different: a pretty straight up and down executive, conservative-minded when it comes to business, competent if unexciting and sharing his father’s Right-wing political views.

Lachlan (unlike Kendall) is currently in pole position to take over from his father, though there have been plenty of ups and downs for the Murdoch progeny over the years.

As things stand, James is estranged from the Murdoch organisation, having decided — after trousering a treasure chest of cash — that he disapproves of the way his father made so much from peddling Right-wing, nativist propaganda, especially on Fox News.

So far, however, he has not offered to hand back the $2 billion he has inherited from the family empire.

Elisabeth is nothing like Shiv, Logan Roy’s only daughter. It’s not clear in Succession if Shiv has ever had a proper job, whereas Elisabeth, fearing her father did not regard her as succession material because of her gender, set out to create a media operation of her own.

It didn’t hurt, of course, when her father then bought her successful TV production company, Shine, a decade after she founded it for $415 million, widely regarded at the time as an inflated price.

Where real life and drama perhaps overlap is that there are regular hints in Succession that Roy regards Shiv as the brightest of the dynastic contenders to succeed him. That looks like being developed in series four.

The hit TV series that starts its fourth and final run this Monday on Sky Atlantic

As Rupert came to realise that women could also run big media companies, there have been reports he feels the same about Elisabeth. Whether, as a successful businesswoman in her own right, she’d want to re-enter the fractious family empire is another matter.

The answer could be as intriguing as anything in fiction. As with Roy’s heirs in the show, Murdoch’s children agonise about his wives. Every time he embarks on a fresh marriage they have palpitations wondering what it might mean for their inheritance.

Jerry Hall, his fourth wife, passed muster because she was too old to have children by him. Wife number five (the marriage will be this summer) falls into the same category. These things matter in dynasties.

But is Logan Roy anything like Rupert Murdoch? Yes — and no. Where Roy and Murdoch are similar is that both can be ruthless, overbearing, unpleasant, sometimes dictatorial. There are times when Roy, as Murdoch, is closer to documentary than drama.

A senior Murdoch executive once described his management style as ‘extreme devolution punctuated by episodic autocracy’. He didn’t last long after that.

With Logan Roy the autocracy is relentless. There is a Jekyll and Hyde quality to Murdoch. Roy is all Hyde.

He is an ogre, cursing and swearing at all and sundry, because he can. Murdoch can have his ogre moments too. But far fewer than his fictional counterpart.

He has treated his tabloid editors with contempt over the years, shouting and swearing at them in fine Logan Roy fashion. Just ask Kelvin Mackenzie, the most successful ever editor of the Sun, though that did nothing to protect him from Rupert’s regular ire.

I escaped nearly all of that. I was sometimes subject to what I’ve called management by telephone terrorism, when a grumpy Murdoch would call from somewhere in the world, punctuate the conversation with long periods of silence which you felt the need to fill with some remark — which only gave him further basis to have a go at you.

On one occasion I decided to play him at his own game. When he started the silent treatment I decided I would stay silent too.

The cost of the international call racked up as neither of us said anything. After what seemed like several minutes I was about to crack. But suddenly I heard: ‘Are you still there?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Sorry I have to go,’ he said and hung up. Phew. A minor victory.

But by and large I was treated with respect, courtesy and sometimes even kindness and forbearance by Rupert Murdoch, not qualities you see on screen in Logan Roy.

Rupert can be as much a journalist as a businessman, which is good for editors when you’re fighting your corner. In Succession, Roy seems to have no interest in journalism whatsoever, other than how it might advance his business interests. Overall, Murdoch is a more sophisticated, civilised and complex character than the one-dimensional Roy.

Where Succession brings back the eeriest memories of working for a real-life Logan Roy is its depiction of an empire in which all power emanates from one person.

Many years ago I argued that the best way to understand Murdoch was to regard him as the Sun King.

His company was not a normal business with a corporate hierarchy and conventional executives.

Just as with the original ‘Roi Soleil’, France’s 18th century monarch Louis XIV, all the power revolved around him — his editors and executives in effect courtiers, their power emanating from their proximity and access to the Sun King.

In Succession, Roy seems to have no interest in journalism whatsoever, other than how it might advance his business interests

That is how Murdoch has operated (though at 92 his grip on everything is loosening) and it is how you see Logan Roy in Succession.

He is master of all he surveys. Senior executives live for his blessing and spend their day wondering how to please him. Favourites come and go, often with bewildering speed.

Anything is possible if you have access to the Sun King. Without it you are nothing, whatever your impressive title.

This power structure is brilliantly portrayed in Succession. It is power — power in media and in politics — untrammelled by normal business constraints.

Power emanating from one person. Power often not subject to normal democratic constraints until, as with the hacking scandal, it culminates in disaster.

When it emerged that the News Of The World had hacked the mobile phone of the missing girl Milly Dowler, the outrage was so great that the full weight of public and political opinion was mobilised to rein Murdoch in.

Succession launches its fourth season with Murdoch embroiled in an American scandal every bit as serious for his empire as the British hacking scandal.

His Fox News is being sued by a voting machine company, Dominion, for $1.6 billion for accusing it, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, of fiddling the 2020 presidential results in Joe Biden’s favour.

Testimonies already published show senior Fox News presenters pushed this line even though they knew it to be untrue.

Murdoch is master of all he surveys. Senior executives live for his blessing and spend their day wondering how to please him. Favourites come and go, often with bewildering speed. Pictured: Murdoch with ex-wife Jerry Hall

Often, when Murdoch and I argued about something, he’d say: ‘Maybe it’s just my wallet talking.’ In both the hacking and Dominion scandals, his wallet did all the talking. Hacking phones for sleazy stories increased the profits of his red top tabloids.

Spreading nonsense about a stolen election in 2020 bolstered ratings among the core pro-Trump audience for Fox News.

Making money mattered more than anything else. Proper journalism was the loser. Both scandals show Rupert Murdoch at his most Logan Roy.

Before we went on air, Brian Cox reminded me of something I’d forgotten: he’d played me in a film. Back in 1986 the Sunday Times, in a huge global scoop, had revealed the details of Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal.

The Israeli government was so furious that it kidnapped our source, Mordechai Vanunu, and jailed him for 16 years. The stuff of movies indeed. Brian played me as the paper’s editor in Secret Weapon, made in 1990.

‘Who was more difficult to play,’ I asked him jokingly. ‘Me or Logan Roy?’

‘Well you’re from Paisley and I’m from Dundee,’ he replied. ‘So it was real challenge.’

‘What about compared with Rupert Murdoch?’ I inquired. ‘Never played him,’ said Brian as he left the studio, a spring in his step. The lawyers breathed easy.

n Andrew Neil worked for Rupert Murdoch for more than a decade, as editor of the Sunday Times and as executive chairman of Sky TV.

Source: Read Full Article