There’s a semi-serious belief among people who have followed the life and six-decade career of Rupert Murdoch as a dealmaker, empire builder and political kingmaker that he will never go away.
Through scandal, a brush with bankruptcy and innumerable controversies, Murdoch has emerged ever stronger and usually richer. Murdoch’s dominion, born of a single inherited Australian newspaper, is now two globe-spanning corporations — News Corp. and 21st Century Fox — with $67 billion in assets and enormous influence on three continents.
Yet on Thursday, the indestructible Murdoch showed a glimmer of mortality, or at least an awareness of his own. His primary company, 21st Century Fox, leaked news of a dynastic succession: Murdoch will give up his role as chief executive and hand the job to his fourth child, James. In turn, James’s older brother, Lachlan — Murdoch’s third child and first son — will become executive co-chairman.
In many ways, the news will have little practical effect within Murdoch’s sprawling realm. Although people at 21st Century Fox said the arrangement is a cooperative one, with all three Murdochs guiding the company, few doubt that Dad, a legendary tactician, will remain first among equals.
Murdoch will stay on as executive chairman and the largest shareholder of Fox, which owns one of Hollywood’s legendary studios, a broadcast TV network and the Fox News Channel, the source of its American political power. He will also remain chairman of News Corp., his original company, which owns the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and several of Britain’s largest newspapers.
Still, Murdoch has long expressed a desire to keep management of his company within his family. The only question was who would succeed him and when.
Despite rarely being around his children as they grew up, the workaholic Murdoch is “obsessed” with his family, says Michael Wolff, the author of a 2008 biography, “The Man Who Owns the News.” During 60 to 70 hours of interviewing Murdoch for his book, Wolff says, he repeatedly interrupted the session to talk to his adult children.
The 84-year-old mogul has six children from three marriages, the last to now-ex-wife Wendi Deng, whom Murdoch married in 1999 when he was 68 and she was 30. Prudence, 57, his eldest child from his short-lived first marriage, has never played a significant role in the business. His second child, Elizabeth, 47, has been periodically involved over two decades and now runs a TV production company in London. His youngest children, with Deng, are adolescents.
By default or perhaps design, that has left James, 42, and Lachlan, 43, as his heirs apparent. The two brothers have trod their own circuitous paths in following their father.
Lachlan once ran the Australian operations of News Corp., the company Murdoch inherited from his father at age 21. In 1999, Lachlan was named to head News Corp.’s American publishing operations, followed by a promotion to the No. 3 job at the company. All seemed set — but then Lachlan, chafing under his father’s second-guessing, resigned from the company in 2005 and started an investment firm in Australia. He married a model and popular Australian TV host, Sarah O’Hare, and became known as the tattooed, motorcycle-riding media heir.
James, by contrast, has been the grinder, starting at the age of 15 when he went to work for the News Corp.-owned Daily Mirror in Sydney. A Harvard dropout, he started his own record company, briefly signing Eminem in his early years. He returned to the family business in 1996 after News Corp. bought his company, Rawkus Records, and began a predictable sprint through the executive ranks.
James apparently never lost his father’s faith, despite presiding over the most personally damaging passage of Rupert Murdoch’s long career. As the head of News Corp.’s British operations, James oversaw the tabloid News of the World when it was implicated in a phone-hacking and police bribery scandal. A parliamentary investigation in 2012 concluded that he “showed wilful ignorance” and an “astonishing lack of curiosity” about the criminal behavior of his subordinates. He resigned from the job and took another one at News Corp. headquarters in New York.
The younger Murdochs have been generally quiet about their politics, though James has at times shown some of the flexible and opportunistic advocacy of his father. In a speech to a business group in 2001, James called the Falun Gong spiritual movement in China a “dangerous” and “apocalyptic cult” and criticized Western media coverage of the Asian nation. At the time, News Corp. was trying to curry favor with the Chinese government in order to gain access to its satellite TV market.
Neither son, however, has shown the partisan streak of his father, who has generally used his media properties in Britain and the United States to support conservative candidates — with the notable exceptions of supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate candidacy in 2000 and Tony Blair’s leadership of Britain’s New Labor Party.
Murdoch’s “major legacy in terms of how we get the news is the politicization and polarization that he brought with Fox News, and that has only de-legitimatized news in this country,” said Ken Doctor, who writes the Newsonomics blog about the media business.
“If you look at the innovation of Fox, it was bringing politicization to TV as a strategic business weapon,” Doctor added. “He knew that playing to a specific viewpoint in the delivery and presentation of news was new in American society and that it would play well against the relative blandness of CNN at that point, but also to the rest of the press.”
As for how things could change with the succession of Murdoch’s children, Doctor said: “I don’t think things will change much at all. Fox is still successful in what it’s doing.”