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Rupert Murdoch resolves his own succession drama — for now

For the better part of three decades, media and political operators have obsessed over the question of who would succeed Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful person in news across the English-speaking world.

Murdoch kick-started the speculation in 1994, when an Australian business magazine asked him about succession: “I expect to do it in about 30 years,” he said then. 

“I see the children over the next 10 years, if they are all successful or interested, beginning to fill responsible positions,” he told BRW, effectively challenging the four children he had at the time — Prudence, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James — to compete.

In eerily close timing to that prediction, Murdoch on Thursday seemed to settle the psychodrama once and for all. He declared that, at 92, he was stepping back from chairing his two companies, Fox and News Corp, and relinquishing power — at least officially — to his elder son Lachlan. 

That move ends a decades-long era in which the billionaire has held a singular influence over media and politics on three continents. Politicians from Margaret Thatcher to Donald Trump have sought the approval of Murdoch properties including The Sun, The Australian and Fox News, America’s most-watched cable news channel.

Rupert Murdoch, left, with Donald Trump and Jerry Hall at the Trump International Golf Links in Scotland in 2016 © Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Geordie Greig, editor-in-chief of The Independent, said that with Murdoch’s retirement, “the sun has set on the media mogul’s mogul”.

“[His] influence and reach has been unsurpassed in the last 100 years,” said Greig, who worked for Murdoch titles in the 1980s and 1990s. “He inspired admiration and loathing, but no one doubted he was the most potent force in the media.” 

People familiar with the matter say Murdoch had not made the decision in reaction to any particular event. He was holding court on the Fox studio lot in Los Angeles this week, one of these people said, and told staff on Thursday that he was in “robust health”. 

“He was always going to make this decision when he was ready, and on his own timetable,” said Natalie Ravitz, Murdoch’s former chief of staff. 

Several insiders doubted that Murdoch would truly give up control. 

Andrew Neil, a former Sunday Times editor, said: “He’s involved in everything. Note that he’s kept a title [as chairman emeritus]. He won’t be able to stop himself.” One senior News Corp insider put it plainly: “As long as he’s breathing, he’s in charge.”

Rupert Murdoch holds a copy of the News of the World newspaper during a press conference in 1968 © Stan Meagher/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But others who worked closely with Murdoch said his change of role marked a watershed and an acknowledgment that the pressures of age had caught up with him. 

The announcement “means that he recognises it” and that “is very difficult”, said one old associate. “Rupert has always been clear eyed. If anyone was to realise they needed to step back, it would be him.” 

Operationally, not much is expected to change. Robert Thomson will continue running News Corp and Lachlan Murdoch will preside over Fox. Rupert will continue to advise. 

Symbolically, however, the move made Murdoch’s wishes crystal clear: he has chosen Lachlan as his successor. “This is a big moment for the handing on of the torch,” said David Yelland, a former editor of The Sun.

Even so, there is still a looming question: when Rupert dies and his children gain control over the Murdoch family trust, will Lachlan’s siblings let him run the show? 

The trust controls roughly 40 per cent of the voting shares in both Fox and News Corp. When the next generation takes over, the power to determine the trust’s position will be shared equally between Lachlan, James, Elisabeth and Prudence. (Murdoch’s youngest children, Grace and Chloe, have no votes.)

This sets up a chessboard of outcomes depending on the alliances within the younger Murdochs, which have shifted repeatedly over the years, along with their standing with their father. 

Rupert Murdoch and Queen Elizabeth II inspect printing operations for The Times newspaper to mark the publication’s bicentenary on March 1 1985 © Ron Bell/Pool/AP

Lachlan quit the company in 2005 after falling out with Rupert, but returned from exile in Australia 10 years later, driving up to the Fox lot in a pick-up truck. Soon after, Lachlan became heir presumptive again when Rupert split his empire and made him chief executive of Fox. 

Elisabeth has left the family business and returned multiple times. Prudence, Rupert’s oldest child, has kept a lower profile, although her husband worked for News Corp.

James, scornful after being passed over for succession, is estranged from his brother and has told friends he is determined to reorientate the business politically, with or without Lachlan. Representatives for Elisabeth and James declined to comment.

And what will the children inherit? Murdoch’s $71bn sale of most of 21st Century Fox to Disney at the peak of the media market in 2017 was a financial masterstroke but left his holdings smaller than in their heyday. Even so, his remaining properties, from The Wall Street Journal to HarperCollins, the book publisher, ensure that his influence remains undimmed. 

Observers have long questioned whether Lachlan is up to the task of running the empire. One person close to the family said this was a “significant test for Lachlan”. 

“The jury is out whether he can step up to lead the entire group, and manage Fox in the run-up to the election year,” this person said. He pointed to a line from the HBO show Succession, when the media patriarch Logan Roy tells his children: “I love you but you are not serious people.”

“Is Lachlan a serious person?” he asked: “We’ll quickly find out.”

Fox has fared better recently than peers such as Disney and Warner Bros, whose shares have halved since their coronavirus pandemic peaks. While big Hollywood groups lose billions of dollars a year on their push into streaming, Murdoch’s sale of most of his TV and movie assets, announced in 2017, left a slimmed-down company focused on sports and news. 

Fox’s revenues have grown from $11bn in 2019 to $14bn in 2022, despite the backdrop of media turmoil. 

Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan in 2021

Despite such strengths, the Murdochs have suffered a series of setbacks this year, including two failed deals and a nearly $800mn bill to halt an embarrassing court trial over Fox’s role in peddling conspiracy theories around the 2020 US election. 

“The headlines, let’s face it, have been disastrous for Lachlan most of the year,” said Paddy Manning, his Australian biographer.

However, he added, “at the end of the day, they can afford to make payments of upwards of a billion dollars for a defamation case, if their leadership of cable [TV] is intact. And it is.” 

Media analyst Claire Enders calculated that Rupert had created $150bn of wealth since inheriting his father’s Adelaide newspaper in the 1950s. 

However, she said that his authority had suffered in recent years. This year’s failure to merge Fox and News Corp “showed that he no longer had total control over the shareholders”, she said. “The massive pay-off to Dominion also diminished his standing.”

A person close to the family pointed to pressing strategic questions — including whether there would be a fresh attempt to reunite Fox and News Corp — and predicted that potential predators would be scanning for weaknesses. “What does Lachlan do when a private equity firm comes in with a bid for HarperCollins?” this person asked.

Lachlan has shown signs of sharing his father’s unsentimental nature. Since the Dominion settlement, Fox has split with Tucker Carlson, the star Fox News anchor, and senior legal executive Viet Dinh, godfather to one of Lachlan’s children. 

Those close to Rupert Murdoch said that he had remained hands-on, regularly dropping by the Fox lot and calling editors when he spotted something he did not like. Murdoch “loves a good story and a good bit of gossip”, said Ravitz. 

In a note to Fox staff on Thursday, Murdoch indicated that his new emeritus title would not change this. He would keep watching their output “with a critical eye”, he said, and keep “reaching out to you with thoughts”.

“When I visit your countries and companies, you can expect to see me in the office late on a Friday afternoon,” he promised.

1931

Keith Rupert Murdoch, known as Rupert, is born in Melbourne to Keith Murdoch, a reporter turned newspaper publisher, and his wife Elisabeth.

1952

When Keith Murdoch dies, his 21-year-old son Rupert returns from Oxford to run a family newspaper business focused on The News, an Adelaide tabloid.

1967

Murdoch divorces Patricia Booker, mother of his daughter Prudence. He marries Anna Torv, with whom he has three children: Elisabeth, Lachlan and James

Rupert Murdoch with his then-wife Anna and their three children: Lachlan, James and Elisabeth © Peter Carrette Archive/Getty Images
1969

The purchase of the News of The World makes Murdoch a force in UK media. He buys The Sun soon after, building it into the UK’s most influential tabloid.

1973

Murdoch expands into the US, buying the San Antonio Express and the San Antonio News. Over the next five years he adds other US titles including the New York Post.

1981

News Corp purchases UK broadsheets The Times and Sunday Times.

1985

Murdoch buys 20th Century Fox for $600mn and becomes a US citizen. The next year he launches Fox Broadcasting and buys several US TV stations.

1989

The launch of Sky creates the UK’s first 24-hour news television channel but nearly bankrupts Murdoch.

1996

Murdoch launches the Fox News Channel, led by former Republican media consultant Roger Ailes.

2000

Lachlan, Rupert’s older son, becomes deputy chief operating officer, while James, his younger son, becomes chair of Star TV, moving to Sky in 2003

2005

Lachlan quits News Corp following conflicts with senior executives including Ailes

2007

News Corp purchases Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal. James moves to run News International, the UK newspaper unit.

2011

A phone hacking scandal prompts Murdoch to close the News of the World. James resigns as chair of the UK newspaper company the following year.

Rupert Murdoch and the News International chief Rebekah Brooks at the 2010 Cheltenham Festival © Barry Batchelor/PA
2013

Murdoch splits News Corp, focused on newspapers and Australian properties, from 21st Century Fox, which includes his Hollywood studio and TV networks. He divorces Wendi.

July 2016

Roger Ailes resigns after staff complaints of sexual harassment. Murdoch becomes chair and acting CEO of Fox News and Fox Business Network.

December 2016

21st Century Fox bids for the stake in Sky it does not already own. After the UK government intervenes, Fox sells its stake in Sky to Comcast in 2018.

MARCH 2019

The Walt Disney Company buys most of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment assets for $54.2bn.

JULY 2020

James Murdoch resigns from News Corp citing disagreements over strategy and “certain editorial content published by the company’s news outlets”.

January 2023

Murdoch is deposed in Dominion Voting System’s $1.6bn lawsuit against Fox News. He acknowledges that some hosts pushed false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

September 21 2023

Rupert Murdoch steps down as chair of Fox and News Corp, handing leadership of both companies to his elder son, Lachlan.

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