Rupert Murdoch and his sons’ dramatic struggle to inherit control of his media empire

Rupert Murdoch Sons
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch (C) arrives with his sons Lachlan (L) and James at St Bride's church for a service to celebrate the wedding between Murdoch and former supermodel Jerry Hall which took place on Friday, in London, Britain March 5, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

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A divorce, an engagement, an annulment, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against his media empire, a COVID hospitalization, and a fainting spell at his daughter’s wedding. All in the last calendar year of a 92-year-old. Everything fits when it comes to Rupert Murdoch, the conservative tycoon who owns News Corp (the group that controls, among other media outlets in the world, Fox News and The Sun, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and other assets), whose fortune is in the crosshairs of his heirs, a soap opera that inspired HBO’s hit series Succession.

In July 2022, Murdoch attended his granddaughter’s wedding after COVID-19 left him hospitalized. He looked very weak and needed help to stay upright. But despite the mogul’s numerous health problems, the patriarch avoids talking about a future in which he is not at the helm of his media empire. However, according to a lengthy profile in Vanity Fair, Murdoch is concerned about the question of his succession. He longed for one of his sons to take over the company, but they faced each other their entire lives, under a father-driven framework for the best successor to flourish.

Elisabeth was the smartest, but she left the family business in 2000 to launch her successful television production company. Lachlan, who shared Murdoch’s right-wing politics and his love of newsprint and Australia, was considered the golden boy but left the company in 2005 after clashes with senior executives. James then became the chosen one, investing in prestigious brands and pledging to reduce the carbon emissions of the Murdoch empire. However, Murdoch chafed at James’s liberal politics and his desire to make News Corp respected in elite circles. In 2015, Lachlan agreed to return from Australia as his father’s heir., a decision that was a “big slap” for James, according to a source close to him.

The children serve on the board of the trust that controls the company through a special class of shares. Murdoch has four votes, while Elisabeth, Lachlan, James and Prudence, Murdoch’s daughter from his first marriage, each have oneChloe and Grace, daughters from Murdoch’s third marriage, have a financial stake but no voting rights.

But the crux of the showdown is in the rift between James and Lachlan, who are no longer on speaking terms, and James expresses his horror at Fox News and Lachlan’s leadership style. The calculations indicate that if James wants to overthrow Lachlan and gain control of Fox, he needs the backing of Elisabeth and Prudence, something that is far from guaranteed. It’s unclear who will be able to unite the family and lead the company forward, if at all.

Murdoch’s concern about the uncertain succession is understandable. He has built a vast media empire that spans the globe and remains one of the most influential and powerful on the planet. As Murdoch’s health worsens, the question of succession becomes more pressing, and the fate of his media empire hangs in the balance.

For Vanity Fair profiler Gabriel Sherman, Murdoch’s worst mistake has been Fox News ‘ coverage of President Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat and its aftermath. The reporter has covered the internships of the channel for more than a decade and is a biographer of Roger Ailes, founder and former president and CEO for many years.

Following the departure of Roger Ailes from Fox News in 2016, embroiled in multiple allegations of sexual harassment, the network was thrown into chaos as producers scrambled to come up with a strategy without his guidance. One issue drove the ratings above all else: Trump. Ironically, this occurred despite Murdoch finding Trump “appalling” due to his nativism and lack of knowledge. Murdoch had always been a supporter of immigration reform and free trade. “Rupert knew that (Trump) was an idiot,” a source confided to Sherman.

During the Republican primary, Murdoch campaigned in The Wall Street Journal and on Fox News to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. However, once Trump became president, Murdoch fully endorsed him. As usual, Murdoch’s strategy was to forge alliances with politicians from all sides of the political spectrum as long as they served his interests.

In turn, Trump more than delivered for Murdoch. One source claimed that Murdoch pressured Trump to punish Google and Facebook for taking their newspaper ad revenue from him. In 2019, the Trump administration launched an antitrust investigation into Google, which led to a lucrative content-sharing deal between Google and Murdoch. Another source said Murdoch pushed Trump to open up federal land to fracking to increase the value of his fossil fuel investments. Murdoch also supported Trump’s appointments of conservative judges who would throw out Roe v. Wade. Murdoch’s alliance with Trump made him more powerful than ever, but he came at a personal cost. Murdoch and Donald Trump, in a golf club of the former president (Reuters / file)

Politics became a third rail among American families during the Trump years, including the Murdochs. Elisabeth and James, Murdoch’s adult children, were opponents, while Lachlan was a strong Trump supporter. Murdoch’s new wife, Jerry Hall, also loathed Trump and refused to buy a house in Florida to be closer to Mar-a-Lago. At a lunch shortly after the 2016 election, Hall asked Trump to reroute the Dakota Access pipeline away from Native American reservations protesting the project. Trump offered her a job in her place, which Hall turned down.

The Murdochs’ discontent with Trump simmered through the first months of his tenure, but tensions flared after the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. James and Kathryn were horrified by Trump’s comment that “ very good people on both sides”, which in his opinion established a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and counter-protesters. James confronted his father and his brother over Fox News’ staunch defense of Trump’s comments, but they rejected him. James then donated $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League and sent an email to his friends that was quickly leaked to the press. It was a turning point for James, who wanted to leave the company. Murdoch then initiated a media deal with Disney CEO Bob Iger that would give James an elegant and lucrative exit strategy.

Murdoch, who had always been a pirate who conquered media companies, not sacked them, would have in the past turned down Iger’s offer to buy 21st Century Fox. Hollywood like Murdoch lacked the scale to compete with tech giants like Amazon, Apple and Netflix. The sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney made sense, especially since Murdoch would keep Fox News and its newspapers, which were the source of his political influence. James and Lachlan went to war over the deal, with James defending it for business and personal reasons. James had discussed taking a senior position at Disney after the acquisition.

Subsequently, Murdoch’s health was beginning to worry. He suffered a breakdown in January 2019 when he fell and broke his back on his yacht. After being transferred to a hospital on a French island, he was airlifted in critical condition, and diagnosed with an arrhythmia and a broken back. In addition, doctors discovered that he had previously fractured vertebrae, which Murdoch attributed to an altercation with his ex-wife. Although Murdoch’s public relations team tried to spin the accident around, he was actually in very bad shape and needed full-time care from his wife, Jerry Hall. This care was needed for months as Murdoch’s condition gradually improved.

In March 2019, Murdoch was in another accident, this time at his Bel Air home. He tripped over a chessboard box and tore his Achilles tendon. This incident confined him to a wheelchair for months, and he had to be hospitalized multiple times for pneumonia and seizures. When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, Murdoch’s doctors advised him to take extra precautions to protect himself from it, which he did. He and Hall were quarantined in their unstaffed Bel Air home for months, and Hall took courses in enology, which Murdoch wanted to write off as business expenses.

As the months passed, Murdoch grew increasingly unhappy with the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. However, despite having a platform that could have been used to pressure Trump to take the pandemic seriously, Murdoch did nothing via Fox News. He also did not take any responsibility for the misinformation that Fox News poured out about the pandemic. When told by a friend that the channel was literally killing its elderly audience with misinformation, Murdoch replied that they were dying of old age and other diseases, but that he was blaming it on COVID.

Murdoch’s discontent with Trump would soon spark a major scandal on the network. On election night 2020, Fox News declared a vital Arizona win for Joe Biden before any other major network. This statement upset the Trump campaign, and Jared Kushner called Murdoch and implored him to retract the Arizona statement. However, Murdoch testified that he told Kushner: “Well, the numbers are the numbers .” The call became a target of Trump’s ire.

The Trump environment did not care about the real count, they needed the numbers to close. But at Fox they also needed better numbers: in ratings. Other conservative networks that supported Rudy Giuliani’s lies and conspiracy theories fared better. Thus, Fox News began to embrace the hoax theory.

According to court documents, Rupert Murdoch, the company’s patriarch, told Fox executives that promoting former President Trump’s claims about stolen elections was “bullshit and damaging.” However, many loyal Fox News viewers and Trump supporters believed Trump’s unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud. This caused a siege mentality among anchors and executives as viewers switched to rival channels that exaggerated the conspiracies.

What Murdoch did in those weeks became the cornerstone of Dominion’s massive $1.6 billion libel suit, alleging that the network allowed its hosts and guests to promote the conspiracy that the company’s machines had switched secretly votes for Joe Biden. According to court records, Murdoch sought ways to appease Trump’s audience, suggesting that Fox fire Bill Sammon, a senior decision-maker who made the projections of the counts and ruled Arizona in Biden’s favor.

As that chaos unfolded, James Murdoch was “biding his moment” to seize control of the company along with his sisters, a former Fox executive told Vanity Fair.

Two people close to James told Vanity Fair that the heir is biding his time until he and his sisters can wrest control from Lachlan after Rupert dies. “James, Liz and Prudence will join forces and take control of the company,” said a former Fox executive.

Speculation is that if James takes control, he would purge Fox News and transform the network into a more moderate, center-right alternative to CNN . Another hypothesis is that he would sell the chain to get rid of what he considers a toxic asset. Within the company, uncertainty is total. As a senior channel employee told Sherman, ” James sees the destruction of Fox News as his mission in life.”James Murdoch was CEO of 21st Century Fox (Getty Images)

According to the report, Murdoch and his family members are going through moments of sadness and difficulties in their personal lives.

Murdoch’s wealth was built by destroying almost everything he touched, including the environment, women’s rights, truth, decency, and even his family. Sources say Rupert let James know it would mean a lot if he attended his 90th birthday party, but James didn’t go. Another source claims that Lachlan told Rupert that James was leaking stories to the Succession writers. Meanwhile, Lachlan’s family had to leave Los Angeles due to Fox News‘s climate change denialism, and the family relocated back to Australia in March 2021.

Murdoch’s fourth marriage also fell apart at age 91. His ex-wife, Jerry Hall, was shocked by the breakup, which she found out about by email. Murdoch finalized the divorce two months later. As part of the agreement, Hall agreed not to give any ideas to the Succession writers. Hall discovered that surveillance cameras were still sending images to Fox headquarters when she moved into her Oxfordshire home. Mick Jagger sent his security adviser to disconnect them. Four months later, newspapers around the world published photos of Murdoch on vacation with his new girlfriend, Smith. Murdoch proposed to her with an 11-carat diamond engagement ring, valued at more than $2.5 million. However, the couple called it off just over two weeks after announcing their engagement.