Murdoch's final deadline looms as his wife prepares to walk
At the age of 67 and with his marriage failing, the media magnate is still working flat out, write
CHRISTOPHER PARKES and CATHY NEWMAN
No respecter of time zones, he rouses his more senior executives at all hours for telephone briefings
RUPERT Murdoch has been pushing himself these past few years - "probably as hard as I have ever seen", says one long-time associate.
The subtext is that this is normal, the unremarkable behaviour of an intensely competitive man. "The world is speeding up and Rupert speeds up as well," the associate adds. "And by the way, he is fitter than I have ever seen him."
He will need to be - and not only because the task of holding a world-spanning empire together is getting harder. This week, his wife said she would be leaving him after 31 years of marriage.
The couple's differences are private, but the separation raises legitimate public questions. Anna Murdoch is on the board of News Corporation although the company says she will not step down and her shareholdings will remain unchanged.
Friends and colleagues say the main reason for the separation (revealed this week in one of Murdoch's own newspapers) is his refusal to slow down and take things more easily. So the separation raises two questions: is Murdoch likely to slow down? And if he does, what might that mean for News Corp?
The News Corp chairman, an adoptive Californian, takes care of his health. In Golden State fashion he does not smoke or drink. He works out every day. He even takes holidays: indulging himself two or three weeks a year on a family ranch in Carmel, or on his ocean-going yacht.
Buying the boat was Anna Murdoch's idea, a wifely hint that he might find it an amenable place to relax in the Mediterranean, even contemplate retirement. After all, when the boat was ordered he was approaching his mid 60s - the traditional age for withdrawing from the front line.
However, he missed the point. He saw the vessel primarily as a mobile office, a fitting control centre for a man with media and entertainment interests that span five continents and reach into space aboard direct broadcast television satellites.
That seems to have worried those around him. At 67 , he has reached the age at which his own father died of heart failure.
Last year he seemed to be making preparations to hand over the reins - possibly in a concession to his wife. He nominated his son Lachlan, only 26, as his successor in the group chair.
Lachlan runs the Australian business, while his siblings Elisabeth and younger brother James, have also been placed in the group management structure.
With more than 30% of the stock, and the personal commitment to a company he effectively hand-built, Murdoch's exercise of droit de seigneur went unquestioned.
The marital split has clearly shaken him, insiders say. They believe that ultimately the rift may be repaired.
However, if that happens as a result of Murdoch's deciding after all to ease up and loosen his control over the company, what would a hands-off Rupert Murdoch mean for News Corporation?
Andrew Neil, a former editor of The Sunday Times, the Murdoch-owned UK newspaper, has said News Corp and its founder would die together. The implication was that only Murdoch knew and understood the structure and the ambitions underpinning the company.
He runs it, as always , with a vigour verging on the obsessive. "He has the super-human energy of a 35-year-old," says Mark Booth, chief executive of British Sky Broadcasting, the UK satellite broadcaster in which News Corp has a 40% stake.
He has a proprietorial finger in every pie and on every pulse. No respecter of time zones, he rings and rouses his senior executives at all hours for detailed telephone briefings. He may ring off without saying goodbye.
One of News Corp's senior employees says he will carry on "until he doesn't have the energy and mental stamina". Nevertheless, he does seem to be sharing out the responsibility nowadays.
The past 18 months have seen the consolidation of a team at the top comprising Murdoch and Peter Chernin and Chase Carey, the co-chief operating officers.
"Group headquarters is wherever in the world those three happen to be together," says one insider.
And while other comparable companies such as Universal Studios and Warner Brothers have been ripping through the executive ranks in past weeks, News Corp is the most stable it has been in 10 years.
Stability and consistency are not qualities commonly associated with the company. In 1990 is teetered on the brink; loaded with debt.
In recent months, Murdoch has suffered setbacks - including an aborted attempt to win control of Mediaset, Italy's leading commercial television station.
Tar TV, News Corp's Asian satellite television operation, is reported to be losing $100-million a year - a figure likely to be inflated by the region's economic crisis.
In North America, Murdoch's attempt to break into the growing satellite broadcasting industry has been marred by strategic blunders. Although he controls a licence (for which he paid more that $600-million two years ago) to beam signals across the US, it remains unused. Plans to trade it for a stake in one of the country's leading satellite groups are being scrutinised by suspicious regulators.
In the most recent faux pas, HarperCollins, News Corp's publishing house, provoked broadsheet outrage when plans to publish the memoirs of Chris Patten, the last UK governor of Hong Kong, were dropped, allegedly on the grounds that they would damage the group's business interests in China.
Yet in the US, News Corp is flying high. The success of the film Titanic, a co-production of News Corp's 20th Century Fox and Viacom's Paramount Pictures, and the winning of distribution rights to three new Star Wars film have raised the studio's stock and Murdoch's spirits.
Fox television network ranks with NBC, CBS and ABC as a leading broadcaster with national reach.
Fox is also linked in programming and distribution with Tele-Communications Incorporated, the nation's biggest cable TV provider. Despite that, Gerry Robinson, chairman of BSkyB, says Murdoch is surprisingly blasť about his success. "There is an unboastfulness about him which is paradoxical," Robinson says.
Others say he is more insecure than modest, which perhaps explains why it is hard to imagine that Murdoch will step aside now, either from his job or his wife. But the consummate dealmaker will have his work cut out is he wants to keep them both. - Financial Times