The ongoing history of the Murdoch family empire is often compared to a television soap opera: there is a lot of water jets, wheel swaps, power outages and personal intrigues.
Yet Rupert Murdoch’s dominance on the media scene in Britain, America and Australia has been established for so long now that if it were a fiction, new plots would be in danger of running out. We have already seen sibling rivalries, feuds, betrayals, marital discord and public moral indignation.
Citing the differences on editorial lines taken by newspapers in the family’s News Corp. conglomerate, which include the Wall Street newspaper is New York Post and the Australian, as well as the Times and the Sun in Britain, the youngest of Murdoch’s three children of Anna Maria Torv, his second wife, announced that he would no longer sit on the board.
“My resignation is due to disagreements on some editorial content published by the company news and on some other strategic decisions,” reads an official statement from the 47-year-old.
However, if the appeal of such a long-standing family drama is based on its ability to surprise the audience, then the latest twist in Murdoch’s fortunes doesn’t have a real shock value. James’ disdain for his father’s view of climate change – in short, that we should not unduly worry – has become increasingly evident, as has his inclinations towards progressive politics.
For media veteran veteran Roy Greenslade, who has drawn every curve in the patriarch’s career, this weekend’s episode was not a lightning strike. “It has been obvious for a couple of years that James has not been happy with his father’s position – and therefore with the company – on climate change,” he said. “He and his wife have been vocal critics of Rupert’s belief that change is not the result of human activity.”
The fires that devastated Australia earlier in the year are apparently at the heart of James’ decision. In January, he and his wife Kathryn, an environmental advocate, released a statement expressing disappointment at the coverage by Fox News and other News Corp. outlets.
An anonymous former colleague described how his initial skepticism about James’ talent turned out to be unfounded. Speaking this weekend from Los Angeles, he said, “My hope is that James will now use his resources to create antidotes for Fox News,” adding that his confidence that it could change the views of his father and brother could just be finished.
James’s views on American politics are also a factor. The most liberal Murdoch gave Unite America and the Anti-Defamation League, both liberal causes. He gave money to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, while, on the contrary, the family’s news channel helped elect the current operator. “James was also far from a fan of Donald Trump and his cable TV cheerleader, Fox News,” said Greenslade.
The clear conservative news channel was founded in 1996, when Murdoch was at the height of his influence. It became headline material four years ago, when its former boss, the late Roger Ailes, was accused of attacking more than 20 women. Since then he has gained heavy criticism for the misleading messages about the threat posed by Covid-19.
Murdoch Senior now chairs a reduced Fox Corporation, which recently sold much of its television and film interests to Disney, as well as national and regional News Corps newspapers and news broadcasts. His eldest son, Lachlan, 48, is now co-president of News Corp and was named executive president and chief executive officer of Fox Corp last year.
“James’s resignation now paves the way for Lachlan to inherit News Corp’s leadership after Rupert’s death and possibly earlier. But given the state of the newspaper industry, it is unlikely to be a welcome legacy.” said Greenslade.
And legacy is the key. As a fan of the hit TV show Succession you will understand, when you have a family business on this scale, the issue of inheritance dominates. The playwright Lucy Prebble, who currently works on the third season of the drama said to be inspired by the Murdochs, was aware of the strange resonances this weekend. “While this is obviously a spoiler, there are disturbing echoes with the end of season 2 and Kendall’s public stance against his father,” he said.
Murdoch began building his news empire, entering the British media market in the late 1960s, after acquiring a stable of Australian stocks. This period inspired another recent dramatic hit, James Graham’s West End and Broadway comedy, Ink, now turned into a movie. “I want something loud … less hoarseness, artistic and extravagant cunning … Margins, bottom lines, the numbers are what counts”, Graham has a 38-year-old Murdoch who explains, pushing the publisher of the Sun, urging him to conquer the Daily mirror.
In 1973, Murdoch was financially victorious, expanding into America and founding News Corporation, one of the largest media groups in the world, seven years later. It is currently believed to be worth $ 17 billion.
Murdoch’s great age intensified speculation about future leadership. Last year, David Dimbleby provided a long overview in his podcast The Sun King. Murdoch was, Dimbleby said, “an enigma” with a “risky and buccaneer approach to collecting news and using that power to influence public attitudes.”
Last month the BBC television documentary series, The rise of the Murdoch dynasty, has presented the story so far to a wider audience. Her focus was the perceived battle between Anna’s three children, with Elisabeth, 51, described as her father’s likely favorite, and perhaps the most suitable to fill her shoes.
“In the usual sexist way, a lot of rivalry involved the brothers,” said Simon Bunney, assistant production of the documentary. “While James’ criticisms of Fox News are clearly genuine, there is a question about his position in politics. He is politically closer to people like David Cameron and George Osborne than to the left.”
The researchers also found that James’ ambitions were thwarted during Disney’s acquisition of Murdoch’s film activities. “It was clearly difficult for him to recover from the phone hacking scandal in Britain that led to the closure of the World news, but to some extent he had succeeded. With his technical interests, he was expected to want to work more with TV and cinema, “said Bunney.
James was not the first child to come out of the fold, of course. Elisabeth retired in 2001, becoming a successful independent television executive after working with her father at BSkyB in the 1990s. Her second marriage, with public relations guru Matthew Freud, Sigmund’s great-grandson, also led her to another more famous, but liberal, dynasty, and created new barriers.
He publicly raised an eyebrow when his father left his mother to marry an ex-intern in the office, Wendi Deng, the woman who continued to give Murdoch his two youngest children, the teenagers Grace and Chloe. Elisabeth, who is now executive chairman of a production company, also has a third, low-profile, older half-sister. Prudence Murdoch, 62, is the daughter of her father’s first wife, Patricia Booker,
Since Murdoch’s marriage to Deng in 1999, Elisabeth has been present, with the bouquet in hand, for the last of her father’s brides: this time Mick Jagger’s ex-wife, Jerry Hall, ex model.
Curiosity about the personal life of this family inevitably brings the interest of the public, but it is the impact of his father on news coverage and international politics that makes them still important to monitor.
British newspapers Murdoch are credited by many for giving Tony Blair the opportunity to drive Britain in the late 1990s and, in turn, are held responsible for transferring public opinion from Gordon Brown to David Cameron.
It was under Cameron’s premiership that Murdoch had his infamous “humblest day”, testifying to Leveson’s investigation into the press abuse of his British newspapers.
As the head of the family approaches his 90th birthday next March, there is still room for further drama, with minor characters ready to enter the frame. Perhaps daughters Chloe, Grace or even Prudence will emerge as players. Deng, however, with her alleged romantic desire for Tony Blair and her lively defense of her elderly husband during a session of the parliamentary committee, is certainly worthy of her spin-off series.