Lachlan’s accession won’t put an end to Murdoch family strife

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So the Murdoch succession question is settled, wrapped up, finished — and without any of the drama of the HBO show based on a billionaire media family with an eerie similarity to Rupert’s. 

Or is it? Murdoch’s letter to staff was pretty clear. Lachlan, his eldest son, will become sole chair of both Murdoch companies, News Corp and Fox. Rupert, meanwhile, will continue to be a big presence in both entities as “chair emeritus”. 

Company insiders were confident his newspaper editors and publishers would continue receiving emails in the dead of night, sent by Murdoch from the other side of the world in response to stories that angered or delighted him. He will also remain a visible presence, declaring in his letter that “you can expect to see me in the office late on a Friday afternoon” — a not so subtle dig at the three-days-a-week culture which has gripped many workplaces since the pandemic. 

But Lachlan’s ascension does not necessarily mean the end of the strife that has roiled the family in recent years. Control of the family empire is likely to be contested once Rupert is no longer around, assuming a peaceful accommodation cannot be reached between Lachlan and his younger brother, James.

This is because of the way Murdoch structured ownership of his assets. His four adult children from his first two marriages — Prudence, Lachlan, Elisabeth and James — will one day inherit his voting control of News Corp and Fox, an empire with assets ranging from the Wall Street Journal and Sun newspapers to the Fox News channel. 

The four-way split means an alliance between rival sibling factions could yet see control of the two companies change again. And it is here that Elisabeth may play a pivotal role. 

The media executive, who was in Cambridge this week for the Royal Television Society conference, has not worked for a Murdoch company for several years. But she has remained close to both brothers, who have diverged politically and ideologically since their days as co-chief executives almost four years ago.

Lachlan has remained in step with his father’s conservative opinions — views which are regularly aired on Fox News. James, meanwhile, has been critical of the Fox agenda: in a 2021 FT interview he delivered an implicit rebuke of the channel without mentioning it by name in comments about the January 6 attack on the Capitol. 

“The sacking of the Capitol is proof positive that what we thought was dangerous is indeed very, very much so,” he said. “Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years.”

There are multiple combinations of alliances among the siblings that could force a change of control or even solidify Lachlan as Rupert’s ultimate successor. That day, though, may be far-off. 

Until then, James — who, like his siblings, received about $2bn five years ago from the sale of Fox’s entertainment assets — will continue to remain outside the family’s business fold, where he has invested in a range of entities, including Art Basel.

But a return at a later date is not hard to imagine. The question of the Murdoch succession may yet arise again.

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