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The journo who never got away

Books | Murdoch lieutenant Les Hinton doesn’t burn all his bridges in his frank new memoir

Michael Cannon 5 June 2018 1319 words

Enough? Les Hinton (left) and Rupert Murdoch at a Wall Street Journal party in New York in April 2010. Joe Schildhorn/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The Bootle Boy: An Untidy Life in News
By Les Hinton | Scribe Publications | $49.95 | 445 pages

“No one was sure what the next chapter of Rupert’s story might be, but his had been the biggest and best media company ever created — or the heart of darkness, depending on your point of view.”

Such is the reasonable conclusion of Les Hinton, who was Rupert Murdoch’s most faithful employee and admirer through more than half a century of devious manipulations, wild gambles and dazzling achievements.

Now Hinton, in what is presumably his retirement, has decided to tell the “inside story” of his own part in most of the media magnate’s battles to dominate his chosen world. He does it very well, mixing entertaining anecdotes with the often-harsh reality of life in the media.

Hinton was the offspring of a British army family, born in the grim Liverpool suburb of Bootle in 1944. Intelligent and sensitive, he began to escape his working-class background when the family moved on army assignments to many parts of the retreating British empire.

In 1959, together with thousands of others, the family emigrated to South Australia. Here, the legendary editor Rohan Rivett gave him his first job as a copyboy on the Adelaide News, an afternoon newspaper inherited by the twenty-eight-year-old Rupert Murdoch.

By dint of finding news and feature stories in his spare time, he won a rare position as cadet journalist. Like every ambitious young reporter in those days, he then sailed away to London, where he found a night-time job with the agency United Press International.

So far, so typical. But Fleet Street’s mincing machine was already grinding away. The Labour Party’s Daily Herald was going broke, as party-owned publications always do. Its controllers decided to give it a facelift, changing the title to the Sun.

Hinton saw an opportunity and quit UPI (although without following the example of one of his predecessors, who advised his employer in cablese, “Upstick job arsewards”). He landed a plum job at the new paper as show-business reporter, revelling in the sector’s champagne-soaked events and artificially inseminated sensations.

Two years later, the broadsheet Sun was obviously on the way out, with its comparatively small circulation and a bloated newsroom full of alcoholic has-beens. Then along came Rupert Murdoch. Now thirty-eight, the interloper had already outwitted Robert Maxwell (who called him “a moth-eaten kangaroo”) in the battle for control of the huge-selling Sunday scandal sheet the News of the World.

After that, Murdoch had enormous spare capacity on his printing presses. He was able to buy the ailing Sun for almost nothing, clean up the paper’s staff indulgences, change it to tabloid format, sexualise much of its content and steer it towards the Daily Mirror’s four-million circulation, winning himself the title of “the Dirty Digger” along the way.

Hinton recalls being assigned the task of interviewing bald-headed men about their sex lives. One man chased him down the street shouting, “Sex life? I’ll give you sex life. Come back here and I’ll end yours with a bloody big kick in the balls.” And who can ever forget the Sun’s triumphant page-one streamer, “GOTCHA,” when the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano was sunk during the Falklands war?

Yet Murdoch’s Sun also included more serious content. Hinton was sent to Northern Ireland to report on “the Troubles” and was injured physically and mentally when caught in a bomb blast. Then it was off to the war in Cyprus, and dramatic events elsewhere.

After a few years of experiences like these, he was dispatched to New York to help the notorious Steve Dunleavy and other wild young men to produce Murdoch’s latest brainchild, the supertrashy supermarket paper the Star. “We were devoted to The Boss, and in the years to come most of us did pretty well whatever he asked of us,” he notes.

Those years in what he calls “the netherworld of journalism” included many ridiculous stories about UFOs, spoon-bending magicians, and predictions by their own astrologer Jeane Dixon, who had given psychic advice to president Ronald Reagan.

Finally he pleaded for release. Murdoch sent him to revitalise his latest acquisition, the Boston Herald. Within three years he had almost doubled its circulation, though he admits that much of the increase was due to a bingo-like game called Wango. On such foundations are empires built.

Hinton was now on the way to glory. In 1987 he was appointed executive vice-president of the class-dominated Murdoch Magazines, and taught how to dress in a manner befitting his new status. His only drawback in this luxurious milieu was that he suffered from allergic sneezing fits when in contact with strong perfume.

Murdoch was forced to sell most of his magazine interests during the financial squeeze of the early 1990s, which nearly bankrupted his entire empire. But there was still a place for proven loyalists like Les. After a swift recovery, Murdoch was able to take over Fox Television, the home of tabloid TV. Hinton, as the new controller, was once summoned to the White House for a reprimand over Fox’s exposure of the notoriously loose-trousered president Bill Clinton.

After a difficult time as the head of Fox Films in Hollywood, where interlopers are eaten before breakfast, he felt ready to cash in what he called his fantasy “Fuck Off Fund” and leave Murdoch. But when he tried to resign, Rupert had a major surprise ready.

Back in 1981, the Thomson Corporation, owner of the London Times, had been driven to its knees by union featherbedding and other practices. In a historic battle, Rupert was able to win control of the Times and the Sunday Times. He secretly began planning a move to new premises at “Fortress Wapping,” where — thanks to computer typesetting and offset printing technology — no printers’ union members would need to be employed.

Now, in 1996, Les Hinton was offered control of all Murdoch’s British newspaper interests as chief executive officer. How could he refuse? The one-time copyboy would be responsible for a third of all British newspaper production for the next twelve years — and would walk blindly into one of the biggest press scandals of all time.

In July 2011, the Guardian revealed that News of the World reporters were using mobile phone technology to hack into the phone records of a murdered schoolgirl. National outrage erupted. At first it was believed that only one or two reporters were guilty of such despicable conduct. In the end, nine News Corp employees were found guilty of hacking innumerable phones, including those of the royal family. Thirty police and government officials were found guilty of accepting bribes in return for confidential information.

Forced to appear before an official inquiry, Murdoch made the famous admission, “This is the most humble day of my life.”

Hinton himself had offered his resignation as CEO immediately after the Guardian revelations, but was asked to see out the storm. For four years he fought charges that he had lied to parliamentary committees. He was finally cleared in 2016, along with other senior News Corp executives.

In the meantime, the irrepressible Murdoch had continued his policy of searching for takeover targets among weak corporations that owned valuable properties. In 2007 he paid US$5 billion for Dow Jones, the financial giant that owned the coveted Wall Street Journal. He offered the position of CEO to Hinton, but his lieutenant “had had enough.” On Murdoch’s fourth appeal, he gave way, took over 6000 staff around the world, sacked many of them, survived the world financial crash, and finally built the WSJ into America’s largest-selling daily newspaper.

What lies ahead for the seventy-four-year-old author? In Murdochian terms, he is still a lad. Will the phone ring one day, and a new round of blandishments begin? The frankness of his memoir could easily be forgotten by those who look only to the future, so watch this space.

Meanwhile, future historians will curse the fact that this fine book does not have an index. ●

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