LOS ANGELES — President Trump has never called Lachlan Murdoch.
Lachlan’s emergence as leader of Fox Corp. following the close of the Murdochs’ $71.3 billion sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney, puts him on new, inherently political terrain that will test his talents as an executive and invite inevitable comparisons with his father.
Decades ago he was promised the mantle at Fox, but the company he will run is not what anyone expected, and disappointments have lined his path to this moment. Not only is Lachlan more distant from the White House than his hard-charging father, he will oversee a much smaller company — parent to Fox News, Fox Sports, Fox Entertainment and Fox TV Stations.
Without its legacy film and television business, Fox Corp.’s most-high-profile division is Fox News, which is in a symbiotic relationship with the president of the United States. That relationship is already challenging Lachlan to deal with what one Hollywood executive called “the elephant in the room” for Fox — the toxic identity of Fox News in a mostly liberal entertainment industry.
On the other side of the political spectrum, several Fox News staffers said they fear Lachlan is less loyal to the network than his father, who has always backed the cable channel without question. The opinionated, conservative faction of the company that supports Trump is already testing his authority.
Rupert inherited two newspapers from his father in 1952 and built them into a global media juggernaut. “Lachlan is looking at it in a similar way,” said Chris Silbermann, a friend of Lachlan’s and a founding partner at ICM Partners, a talent and literary agency.
Lachlan, who is Rupert’s eldest son, has ascended while paying close attention to his aging father’s needs. Almost above all else, he has tried to be a good son, say several people who know him well.
Just after the New Year’s holiday in January 2018, following a long lunch with his family, Rupert Murdoch slipped and fell, cracking several vertebrae in his back. The Murdochs had gathered on Lachlan’s 140-foot yacht, Sarissa, in the Mediterranean. A helicopter lifted Rupert, then 87 years old, off the boat to recover in a Los Angeles hospital.
It was a frightening scene, and the family was already in an unprecedented position, having agreed to sell much of the company. Lachlan was against the deal from the beginning. At the time of his father’s accident, he thought Disney was trying to rip off his family.
“You’re only going to sell the company once,” he told his father and brother, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
Disney chief executive Bob Iger had boasted about the bargain price he paid when Disney bought Lucasfilm years before. Lachlan didn’t want Iger talking the same way about the company that his father spent 66 years creating.
“For Lachlan, it was just so emotional for him that he wasn’t ready to let go,” says one close associate involved in the negotiation.
In the end, he didn’t have to. Fox sold to Disney for a much-enhanced offer that vindicated Lachlan’s initial reluctance; he agreed to stay behind and run what is left.
This account is based on interviews with current and former associates of Lachlan, many of whom declined to speak on the record because they wanted to preserve a relationship with the Murdoch family. Lachlan declined a request for an on-the-record interview, but he offered access to friends and associates to speak about his new role as chief executive and chairman of the newly formed Fox company.
When he is in Los Angeles, Lachlan works out of a sunny, spacious office on the first floor of building 88 on the Fox lot in Century City. He arrives for work in a reddish brown Ram 1500 pickup truck with a cab large enough, one 21st Century Fox executive joked, "to carry all his family's baggage." The Everyman posture belies his vast fortune. He was already a billionaire; the sale to Disney adds to his wealth.
“He’s been super low pro, works hard, likes being an outsider and isn’t into the party scene,” Silbermann said.
Lachlan’s office is decorated with photographs that have moved with him throughout his career — including a picture of his father, arms crossed and holding a copy of the New York Post from 1979, three years after he had bought it. Also on display is a photo of Lachlan as a boy, wearing a New York Post ball cap.
Lachlan knows the lot’s storied history. It was here that Marilyn Monroe became a star, and where “Cleopatra,” Elizabeth Taylor’s $44 million film, nearly bankrupted the studio. His office in the original midcentury executive office building looks out onto the slick new executive office building across the street, where his father, brother and most other top executives at 21st Century Fox keep an office.
His desire to stay in the older quarters speaks to an appreciation of things past, a respectable quality for someone who owes much to the achievements of his predecessors. But in a media industry being invaded by Silicon Valley behemoths, nostalgia can also be a burden.
And Lachlan’s relationship to Rupert hangs over every decision.
As Lachlan takes over, the new company plans to leverage its live programming, including NFL rights and, more recently, a five-year deal for rights to World Wrestling Entertainment events. (Rupert reportedly clinched that deal by telling WWE that NBC, which held the rights, was “embarrassed by your product.”) It will focus on a domestic audience and home in on a down-market proposition, catering to a largely white, male audience, which has long been a key to the Murdoch media brand.
But Lachlan hasn’t given up on the entertainment business. In a surprise move, he wooed AMC’s well-respected Charles Collier to run Fox Entertainment. Collier oversaw AMC when it introduced “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” and was considered a real get for the young Murdoch, said Silbermann. He also hired former Trump communications director and consigliere Hope Hicks as executive vice president and chief communications officer, a get of a different stripe.
Hicks declined a request for an interview. For Collier, Lachlan’s enthusiasm for the future of the business helped woo him to the company. “If you didn’t know he was speaking about Fox, you would have thought he was talking about a new start-up company,” Collier said in an interview. “He really sees the opportunity to build this company again.”
Lachlan Murdoch was born in London in September 1971, when his father was still focused on building a presence in Britain. He attended Manhattan private schools Allen-Stevenson and Trinity, where he founded a club for young conservatives. He then went away to boarding school — Andover and later, Aspen Country Day School.
Shortly after graduating, Lachlan became a junior reporter at the London Times and a copy editor at London’s Sun tabloid. He cleaned ink from the presses at his father’s papers in Australia and listened to the building rumble when the printing started.
He rose quickly in the family business, and was named likely successor to his father over his siblings James and Elisabeth in his 20s, only to run up against some of his father’s most formidable executives in New York and Los Angeles.
Around the same time, Rupert blew up the family trust to include his two children with his third wife Wendi Murdoch, whom he divorced in 2013. Lachlan fled back to Australia with his wife — a model and television presenter — to the surf and to what he thought was a future on his own.
“There was no sense for him that this [move to Australia] was anything other than permanent,” said Siobhan McKenna, Lachlan’s longtime friend and business partner. “From his perspective there was absolutely no going back.” New York Magazine put Lachlan on the cover with a story headlined, “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Be King.”
Lachlan had a patchy record in Australia. He had backed a cellphone operator that collapsed in 2001, and his investment in broadcast network Ten imploded even as he made more successful deals. He spearheaded a relatively small investment in digital real estate business REA, which is now worth more than $7 billion.
In 2011, the phone-hacking scandal at the Murdoch tabloids in London brought Lachlan back to the center of the family in a moment of crisis. With his older sister Elisabeth and his brother James at odds, and his father making gaffes that deepened the predicament, Lachlan was the peacemaker.
In 2014, Rupert began the process of trying to lure his elder son back to the business. In 2015, both of “the Boys,” as James and Lachlan have long been known inside the company, took over in an unwieldy power-sharing arrangement, with James as chief executive of 21st Century Fox, and Lachlan as its executive co-chairman, alongside his father.
James and Lachlan were new in their roles when Gretchen Carlson sued former Fox News chief Roger Ailes and 21st Century Fox. James was more aggressive in his pursuit of the Ailes investigation, but it was Lachlan who notified Ailes that the company was going to hire an outside firm to investigate him, according to a person knowledgeable of the conversation.
“It’s the only way to clear your name,” he told Ailes, that person said. But the law firm and their investigation unearthed many other women with allegations of Ailes’s sexual harassment. Ailes was out in two weeks. When Rupert hosted a last lunch with him, as a peace offering, Lachlan attended. James did not.
Months later, Trump became president, giving Rupert unprecedented access to a sitting U.S. president — a relationship he has long coveted. The two men talk weekly, according to people close to them, and sometimes more often than that.
Lachlan doesn’t like to talk to politicians. Rupert, however, has always has been attuned to political realities.
“Rupert understood all along that governments care about media and that they meddle in it, and they have rules and you have to have a rapprochement to be successful,” said Reed Hundt, a former FCC chairman in the Clinton administration.
The Murdochs agreed to the Disney offer as the Justice Department was fighting AT&T’s $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner. In contrast to the hostility Trump displayed toward that deal, Trump spoke to Rupert the day the Fox deal with Disney was announced and “congratulated him,” according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
Rupert seems to have shaped that opinion. He regularly talked down the deal between AT&T and Time Warner to the president, according to a former White House official who was with Trump on multiple occasions when Rupert called. Murdoch also advised Trump on the appointment of an FCC commissioner, this person said. The White House did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
(In another sign of the Murdochs and Trumps having close ties: When Ivanka Trump joined the White House, she relinquished her role as trustee of the fortune of Rupert Murdoch’s two youngest children.)
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Lachlan is politically conservative and defends Fox News even as his left-leaning brother James privately professes embarrassment about the channel. Lachlan has told colleagues that a news operation, be it Fox News or the Wall Street Journal, can hew to political principles, but it should not rely on loyalty to a single politician. On Tuesday, Fox announced that former House speaker Paul D. Ryan was joining the board, an implicit declaration of conservative principles, and also of some independence from Trump.
Lachlan has also said that most of the people who object to Fox News have never watched it, and he highlights the tamer news anchors over opinion hosts such as Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro.
Those two haven’t waited to give Lachlan a lesson in the issues he’ll face with Fox News in the Trump era. Pirro has known Trump for decades in their corner of New York’s social scene. When she recently made anti-Islamic statements about Rep. Ilhan Omar, Fox issued a statement condemning her comments and suspended her. The move was met with public resistance from the Oval Office.
Lachlan, who speaks nearly every day to Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott, was briefed on both moves, but he did not have a hand in crafting the statement about Pirro, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“He does care that it is seated in real journalism,” Silbermann said.
Hannity tested the limits of that when he bounded onstage last year at a Trump rally, gave a campaign speech for the president, and then high-fived Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive who recently stepped down from a top communications role in the White House. Fox reprimanded Hannity, but his boosterish coverage of Trump has persisted.
“The view has always been among Democrats that you can’t deal with Rupert because he doesn’t need you, but maybe the kids will be better,” said Hundt. “The leading Democratic politicians have all thought for 20 years that they could have an understanding with the next generation of Murdochs.”
That sentiment is exactly what the Trump-loving corners of Fox’s lineup fear. And it is a concern for the president. “Bring back @JudgeJeanine Pirro,” Trump tweeted Sunday, after Pirro was forced to miss her regular Saturday evening show.
“It’s Lachlan versus the president,” said the 21st Century Fox film executive. “Who do you think is going to win that?”