The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lachlan Murdoch, once the ambivalent Fox heir, makes his views clear

The News Corp. co-chair, Rupert’s eldest son, left no mystery about his conservative politics in a fiery speech

Lachlan Murdoch in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2019. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News)
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Lachlan Murdoch’s first major media moment was also his first public humiliation.

It was 2005, and the oldest son of Rupert Murdoch was on the cover of New York magazine as “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Be King.” The dishy piece outlined how the elder media mogul had undercut his anticipated successor by siding instead with a beloved top executive, Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes, on key programming decisions. Licking his wounds, Lachlan, then 34, abruptly resigned his role in the family-controlled news empire and fled New York with his wife and child for their native Australia, which he referred to as their “spiritual home.”

It was a move that cemented a public image of the tanned, tattooed surfer as an ambivalent heir. And even as he made his way back to family business, nearly a decade later, and rose again through the ranks, the image remained of a passive Gen-Xer who kept his politics quiet and his ambitions subservient to those of the swaggering conservative billionaire dad who aspired to influence power at the highest global levels.

Until last week.

In a speech in Sydney celebrating a new initiative at a conservative think tank, Lachlan Murdoch — now 50 and the co-chairman of the family’s News Corp., which owns the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, and chairman and CEO of Fox Corp. — took swipes at the “elites” who he believes disdain traditional values. He also blasted governments for imposing mandates and business shutdowns to control the pandemic and alleged conspiratorially that “practically all the media suppressed the discovery of Hunter Biden’s laptop.”

It was a monologue that could have fit in seamlessly with the lineup of right-wing commentary served up every night by Fox News’s prime-time opinion hosts — including an obscure jab at the 1619 Project.

The New York Times won a Pulitzer for one of the project’s essays, which expounded upon the legacy of slavery. But it’s become a regular punching bag in right-wing media, and Murdoch blamed the project for stoking partisan divides by “recast[ing] American exceptionalism as racist from inception.”

How the 1619 Project took over 2020

And he echoed the culture-war battles raging on cable news over school curriculums by painting a dire picture of what he sees happening in Australia.

“How can we expect people to defend the values, interests and sovereignty of this nation,” Murdoch asked, “if we teach our children only our faults and none of our virtues?”

The speech was something of a tipping point for longtime watchers of the Murdoch empire, who once assumed that the children of the 91-year-old Rupert — notably Lachlan and his younger brother James — might be a moderating influence on the media properties that promoted the rise of former president Donald Trump.

Instead, James ended up leaving the company, as he made his discomfort with the rightward tack of the family business increasingly public, donating substantial funds to battle climate change, promote scientific understanding and underwrite pro-democracy initiatives.

Murdoch family discord plays out publicly

Lachlan, meanwhile, sent another powerful signal about his leanings even before his March 29 speech when he attended a book party last month celebrating former Trump attorney general William P. Barr.

The son has never enjoyed the close relationship with Trump that his father once did, and Trump has continued to complain to visitors about Fox News for its supposed disloyalty in accurately predicting on election night 2020 that Trump would lose the key state of Arizona.

More than 10 months after leaving office, former president Donald Trump maintains a powerful hold over the Republican Party. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

But Barr is tight with Rupert Murdoch, and he signaled an embrace of Lachlan as well at the party — thanking him by name for traveling all the way from California for the event, and adding that it was Lachlan and his father who encouraged him to write the book at a time when Barr was hesitant.

(In the book, Barr praised much of Trump’s agenda but criticized the former president for refusing to accept his election loss. Asked to elaborate about the Murdochs’ support of his book, Barr, reached by phone, said, “I don’t really want to get into that.”)

Later, Lachlan Murdoch worked the room at the upscale D.C. restaurant Tosca, packed with Trump allies such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.).

The younger Murdoch’s personal ideology been the subject of much curiosity as his influence has grown in his father’s empire — and as Fox’s programming has turned more heavily to opinion than straight news, and beyond standard Republican sensibilities to a stronger allegiance to Trumpism.

Murdoch was troubled last fall by trailers for prime-time host Tucker Carlson’s Fox Nation special that floated specious theories that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was an inside job by the government to target Trump supporters, according to people who spoke with him. (Two prominent Fox contributors left the network in protest over the airing of the unfounded claims, and after departing Fox for CNN, veteran anchor Chris Wallace expressed discomfort with the drift of Fox’s programming.)

Yet Carlson’s special aired nonetheless on Fox Nation, the network’s streaming service. And Murdoch has otherwise repeatedly expressed pride in Fox’s programming. He declared the network last year the “loyal opposition” to a Biden administration.

It’s an apparent comfort level with controversy that one former competitor sees as a family trait.

“I have never thought that Rupert Murdoch has ever minded too much about the content of his [media outlets] provided they don’t run counter to the political and geopolitical grain of the moment,” said Jeremy Deedes, the former CEO of the Telegraph Media Group, which competed in a cutthroat newspaper war with Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London decades ago.

And despite Trump’s occasional derision of Fox over election grievances — and his fleeting attempts to boost smaller upstart conservative channels — the network remains a crucial part of the GOP firmament.

“Fox is still the most important space for Republican members of Congress to be, and that’s true whether you are talking about 10 a.m. with Bill Hemmer, or Dana Perino, or the evening opinion shows,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “That’s where their voters are.”

Lachlan Murdoch is seen as largely hands-off in his approach to Fox programming, and he works closely with his chief legal and policy officer, Viet Dinh, a Murdoch family friend. He has also repeatedly expressed his support for Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott.

For his speech in Sydney, to help launch the Centre for the Australian Way of Life at the right-leaning Institute of Public Affairs, Murdoch kept his tattoo hidden under a dark suit. He had flown into Sydney on his $90 million private plane and told colleagues he planned to stay in town for several weeks — part of his new routine, since his family once again put down roots in Australia last year, frustrated by the liberal politics of Los Angeles as well as its covid restrictions.

“Accepting government interventions and absorbing record financial hardships were literally unquestionable burdens at risk of fines or imprisonment,” he complained in his speech. “All done in the blink of an eye with few checks and balances, and we are still counting the costs. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, suicide also spikes during the pandemic. Why did we accept this? It must never happen again.”

In classic Fox style, he devoted significant time to bashing rival media outlets, specifically the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “To listen to our national broadcaster or much of the media elite is to hear about a uniquely racist, selfish, slavish and monochromatic country. The reality could not be more different,” Murdoch said.

And in closing, he urged his fellow Australians to “make sure we get all the rights back we thought we had.” It was a sign-off worthy of cable news.

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