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Lachlan Murdoch: now the leading man in a long-running family drama

In 2005, a frustrated 33-year-old Lachlan Murdoch met his father for lunch in Los Angeles to deliver an unwelcome message: after 11 years working at News Corp, he had had enough. Other senior executives were not treating him with respect and, worse, Rupert Murdoch often seemed to side with them. Rupert offered to make changes, but Lachlan was firm. He wanted out.

A few days after the meeting, News Corp issued a statement saying that Lachlan, Rupert’s eldest son and the presumed heir apparent, was leaving the company. The news went off like a bombshell inside Murdoch’s media empire, according to an account in The Successor, Paddy Manning’s unauthorised biography of Lachlan.

Lachlan, his wife Sarah and their young son moved to Sydney, giving his siblings Elisabeth and James the opportunity to make their own case for becoming Rupert’s chosen successor. Instead Lachlan pursued his own business ventures, which had mixed results, and indulged in his favourite pastimes — yachting, rock-climbing and riding motorbikes. But his time in Australia also raised questions about whether he really wanted to take over his father’s media empire. There were often doubts about whether Lachlan was “fully committed” even after he returned to the fold in 2014, notes a former News Corp executive. 

Now, however, such questions would appear to be settled finally after 92-year-old Rupert announced this week that he was stepping back from chairing Fox and News Corp and handing power to Lachlan.  

But with the Murdochs, the succession drama never seems to end. The question now is what happens when Rupert dies, leaving the Murdoch family trust in the hands of Lachlan and his siblings. There is speculation that Elisabeth, James and their older sister Prudence Murdoch — whose politics are thought to be to the left of the conservative Lachlan — could vote to replace him atop the media empire. 

Rupert’s move this week was intended to “cement Lachlan in the job while he is still around,” says the former News Corp executive. “But it doesn’t entirely protect Lachlan from his siblings once Rupert is finally gone.” 

Such questions are analysed obsessively by media watchers, particularly after the HBO drama Succession that was inspired in part by the family. But they are also relevant in a polarised media landscape in which the Murdochs’ television networks and newspapers continue to wield significant influence — and stoke controversy.

Politicians and the public long ago learnt about the transactional nature of Rupert Murdoch’s politics. He was conservative, yes. But he also craved influence and power — which led him to Labour’s Tony Blair in the UK when he scented a winner. Less is known about Lachlan’s views, though they are believed to be to the right of his father.

The Murdoch empire was rattled this year after Fox was forced to pay $787.5mn to settle defamation claims by Dominion Voting Systems, which had accused the news network of airing conspiracy theories about fraud in the 2020 US presidential election. Viet Dinh, a close friend of Lachlan’s who guided the legal strategy in the Dominion case, exited the company in August. Tucker Carlson, the firebrand rightwing presenter, also left Fox. 

Yet in a note to staff this week, Rupert Murdoch was unchastened, slamming “elites” and his rivals in the media industry. But while Murdoch may disdain those elites, there is no question he and his second wife, Anna, chose to raise their children in an elite environment. They spent their early lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where Lachlan attended Dalton and other exclusive schools before graduating from Princeton.

As a young man, Lachlan worked at Murdoch’s Australian newspapers, falling in love with the country and developing a sentimental attachment to the family business there. But in 2000, he moved to New York to work at News Corp, where he came to admire the New York Post’s piss-and-vinegar editor, Col Allan.

“Lachlan loves the tabloid journalism history of the company,” says the former News Corp employee. Yet he bristled at the power of some of the other executives in the New York operation, including Peter Chernin, the well-regarded chief operating officer at the time, and then Fox News chief Roger Ailes. It was the tensions with Chernin and Ailes, as well as with his father, that led him to leave the company.

Now that he is the sole chair of News Corp and chair and chief executive of Fox, Lachlan should not face the problem of others trying to pull rank. But there are questions about just how hands-off Rupert will be, even after announcing that he planned to step back. 

One media investor says: “He doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who will step back from pulling the strings. He is still sharp as a tack.” 

In his memo to staff, Murdoch indicated that he had no intention of staying away. And his almost obsessive drive is one of the things that separates him from his son, people who have worked with both men say.

“I don’t think anyone would expect Lachlan to stay in the company until he’s 92,” says one. “His dad is all about the business and Lachlan liked other things, like rock climbing or rugby league or having a beer with his mates. There’s lots of things beyond the media business that he likes.”

christopher.grimes@ft.com

   

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