Murdoch Family

Murdoch Family

As this research was underway, the stewardship of News Corporation transferred to Lachlan Murdoch. However, before considering his role (and also that of his siblings) with regard to News Corporation, it is vital to understand the role of Lachlan’s predecessor, his father Rupert Murdoch, who reigned over what became one of the world’s largest media conglomerates for an astonishing seven decades.

Born in Melbourne in March 1931, Rupert Murdoch studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford where, perhaps surprisingly given his later political affiliations, he was an active supporter of the British Labour party. After college - and by his father’s arrangement - he worked as a sub-editor on a number of UK papers owned by the press baron Lord Beaverbrook. This was the extent of his direct journalistic experience before, in 1952 aged 21, he returned to Australia to inherit his first newspaper group, News Limited, on the death of his father Sir Keith Murdoch, the journalist and newspaper proprietor. News Limited was the vehicle through which Murdoch would build a suburban and provincial newspapers group across Australia over the course of the 1950s. From the outset, sensationalist headlines and expanded sports coverage were features of his papers.

He made his first overseas acquisition - The Dominion in New Zealand in 1960 - and launched Australia’s first national paper The Australian in 1964. Moves into the UK (1968) and the US (1973) markets followed later.

In some respects Murdoch is the quintessential bogeyman for those concerned with media pluralism. While News Corporation never established a dominant position in Irish print or broadcast markets taken individually, Murdoch media interests have occupied powerful positions within the Australian, UK and US public spheres. Murdoch has also done little to disguise his willingness to use his symbolic power to influence decisions in the political realm, in a manner driven less by his personal ideological convictions and more by a pragmatic reading of public mood towards the ultimate aim of growing News Corporation.. 

In 1971 Murdoch invited Gough Whitlam, the leader of the opposition Australian Labour Party to dinner to discuss how they - Whitlam and Murdoch - might work together to ensure defeat for the incumbent Liberal party at the next general election. Murdoch funded the Labour campaign and threw his papers behind the party during the 1972 election which saw the Liberals defeated by Labour for the first time in 23 years. Afterwards Murdoch openly claimed the credit for Whitlam’s victory. And, when after three years of political mismanagement, it became clear that Whitlam’s Labour was losing public support at the polls, Murdoch turned his outlets back to supporting the Liberal-National Party as it secured a landslide victory at the 1975 general election. 

Similar pragmatic alliances have prevailed between Murdoch’s media and political leaders in other countries. The Sun and the News of the World strongly backed a vote for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party at the 1979 election. When John Major’s Conservative Party unexpectedly retained power at the April 1992 General Election in the UK, the active support of News Corporation titles was widely identified as a key factor shaping the outcome (not least by the Sun itself which led with the "It's The Sun Wot Won It" headline on its front page on 11 April 1992). 

Yet, just three years later Murdoch would invite Labour Leader Tony Blair to travel to Hayman Island, a resort off the Queensland coast to address the 1995 News Corporation annual conference. Even two years out from the 1997 election it was apparent that Blair was the prime minister in waiting. (The decision dismayed many of Blair’s colleagues, not least his predecessor as party leader, Neil Kinnock, who felt that the Murdoch press has consistently vilified him.)   Two years later at the May 1997 election, News Corporation’s UK titles, having supported the Conservative party for two decades, switched to Labour. “The Sun Backs Blair” was the front page story on The Sun on March 18 1997. Six weeks later Blair’s Labour won a landslide victory. (In 2010 it emerged that Tony Blair was godfather to one of Murdoch’s children with his then wife, Wendy Deng.)

David Cameron, Prime Minister from 2010 until 2016, paid a less-heralded visit to a Greek island for a meeting on Murdoch’s yacht in advance of his 2010 election success.

Supporting likely political winners offers a twofold advantage. It has allowed Murdoch to present himself as a kingmaker while securing political influence directly benefiting the interests of various News Corporation outlets. 

In 1981, the Murdoch-backed Liberal-Coalition Party added what remains known as the 'Murdoch amendment' to Australian broadcasting laws. Previously ownership of Australian television stations was conditional on Australian residency. The Murdoch amendment changed this condition from residency to citizenship, freeing the increasingly globe-trotting (and by the 1980s, US-focused) Murdoch to retain his Australian stations while living overseas. Murdoch availing of this benefit proved short lived however: in 1985 he became a US citizen, in order to acquire the US Metromedia television group. 

Similarly Murdoch’s acquisition of the Time and Sunday times in the UK in 1981, a media merger of then unprecedented scale, was allowed to proceed without a referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. Two decades later, the 2003 UK Communication Act introduced by Tony Blair’s government included a “Murdoch clause” in relaxing cross-media ownership rules to allow simultaneous ownership of print media and terrestrial television.

The Murdochs in IrelandThe cultivation of relationships with political allies has even extended to Ireland. The Sunday Times Ireland Edition and Irish News of the World consistently supported the Fianna Fail party under the leadership of Bertie Ahern during the 1997 and 2002 General Election campaigns. Indeed Ahern’s very first official engagement after winning the May 2002 election was to open a new News International printing press in Kells, Co. Meath with Rupert Murdoch in attendance. At the launch Ahern described Murdoch as “one of the world's foremost leaders in media who has been hailed as one of the most outstanding Australian figures of modern times”.

This mutually supportive relationship coincided with the News Corporation-owned BSkyB’s expansion into the Irish television distribution market. This was partially facilitated (though probably accidentally) by the Fianna Fail-led government vacillation over the development of a DTT platform that might have competed with BSkyB’s Sky Digital offering. Similarly Sky Sports’ July 2002 acquisition of exclusive broadcast rights to Republic of Ireland soccer games was only possible because the same government had consistently decided not to list the games as “events of major importance to society” (and thus protected for free-to-air viewing). When news of the soccer rights deal broke, provoking substantial public ire, News Corporation’s Irish titles were notably more supportive of the agreement than print titles owned by other print groups. 

As in other national contexts, the connections between Murdoch interests and Irish politicians sometimes operate on a very personal level. In 2003 Bertie Ahern’s 21-year-old daughter Cecelia secured a “six-figure sum” book contract with the News Corporation-owned Harper Collins for the rights for her first two books. There is no suggestion here that the book deal only occurred because of the familial connection: Cecilia Ahern has had a successful literary career in her own right, selling 25 million copies of her work since 2003. Nonetheless the Murdoch-Ahern connection is undeniable. In a somewhat different vein, in August 2009, a year after Bertie Ahern had resigned as Taoiseach following a controversy surrounding his private finances, his career took an unexpected turn when he began a stint as a sports Columnist with another News Corporation outlet, The Irish News of the World (notoriously appearing in a television ad campaign to promote the paper).

Though long perceived as an all-powerful media magnate, the precise extent to which Rupert Murdoch has been in a position to influence decisions relating to News Corporation has varied. Until the 1990s, Murdoch’s three sisters held equal shares in the family trust established by Keith Murdoch as a vehicle for the ownership for News Limited, the company out of which News Corporation was built. In theory then his control was dependent on their (largely unwavering) support for the manner in which he ran the company. This state of affairs ended in the mid-10990s when Murdoch took advantage of the News Corporation’s depressed mid-1990s share price to buy out his sisters entirely. 

Since then Rupert’s more or less complete control of the Murdoch Family Trust has allowed him to control approximately 40% of the Class B voting shares in both News Corporation and Fox Corporation. For now this has allowed him to anoint a successor, who as of now is his third child, Lachlan. However, in a manner reminiscent of the HBO drama Succession (which is at least partially inspired by the Murdoch family), the last three decades have witnessed a degree of jockeying for position amongst his offspring to see who will inherit Rupert’s mantle. Murdoch has had four marriages producing six children with: Patricia Booker (1956 - 67) with whom he had one daughter, Prudence in 1958; Anna Mann (1967- 99) with whom he had three children, Elizabeth (born 1968), Lachlan (born 1971) and James (born 1972); Wendi Deng (1999 - 2013) with whom he had two daughters and; Jerry Hall (2016 -22). 

The first four children have a formal interest in News Corporation. On Rupert’s death the shares will be equally split amongst them (echoing Keith Murdoch’s example with his children). Though beneficiaries of the Family Trust the two daughters resulting from Murdoch’s marriage to Wend Deng will not inherit voting shares. His fourth and - to date - final marriage did not produce any offspring.

The net result of this is that Lachlan’s current position (since September 2023) as sole chair of both News Corporation and Fox Corporation is not copper fastened. All four of Murdoch’s oldest children have had some involvement in the News Corporation. Prudence worked briefly as a journalist for the News of the World and remains a board member of Time Newspaper Limited, one of the News Corporation subsidiaries. Elizabeth had a more sustained engagement with the company starting at the FX Networks cable subsidiary before moving to become managing director at Sky Networks in 1996. In 2000, apparently frustrated at her lack of progress within Sky, she quit to establish her own production entity Shine. Shine proved a success, working in drama, factual and entertainment genres selling popular programming to the BBC, ITV and Sky. So successful in fact that in 2011 News Corporation acquired the complete company for £415m. Though this brought her back under the umbrella of the family corporation, in 2012 she publicly stated that she had no wish to succeed her father. She has remained active in media production, establishing Sister, another successful production company, in 2017.

Lachlan was groomed for some involvement in the family firm from an early age. In 1993, he was appointed as general manager of News Corporation subsidiary Queensland Newspapers at just 22 years old before becoming publisher of The Australian, the flagship national daily a year later. Further elevation followed: deputy CEO of News Limited (1995), executive director of News Corporation (1996) and; Chairman of the STAR broadcasting subsidiary from 1995. In 2000 Lachlan speakheaded News Corporations investment in Real Estate Australia (REA) , a $10m gamble which was valued at $3.6bn by 2014.

Then, unexpectedly, in 2005, he quit News Corporation more or less entirely. This appeared to create an opportunity for his younger brother James who had joined News Corporation in 1996, initially in the music publishing division and subsequently pushing his father to invest in online ventures. He was appointed CEO of BSkyB in 2003, at 32 years of age making him by far the youngest chief executive of a FTSE 100 company.

He stepped down from the BSkyB role in 2007 to take on direct control of all of News Corporation's operations in the UK, Europe and Asia, the clearest signal yet that he now occupied pole position to succeed his father. However, when a phone-hacking scandal hit The News of the World in late 2000s, James came into the firing line as, amongst other roles, the chairman of News Group Newspapers, which owned the News of the World. It fell to James to announce the decision to close the paper in July 2011. He was also accused of delivering “mistaken” evidence to a UK parliamentary committee investigating the phone-hacking controversy in July 2011 and in November the same year he resigned as chairman of News Group Newspapers. He remained deputy COO of News Corporation, however, focusing on the company's international television business.

With James apparently at least temporarily out of favour, Lachlan returned to the fold in 2014. He was initially appointed non-executive co-chairman of News Corp. and 21st Century Fox Inc. before becoming Executive Chairman of 21st Century Fox in July 2015. After 21st Century Fox was acquired by Disney in March 2019, Murdoch was named as the chairman and CEO of Fox Corporation, the vehicle established to manage the remaining media and entertainment assets, including Fox News.

However, now it was Lachlan’s turn to face scrutiny alongside his father after voting machine maker Dominion Voting systems launched a lawsuit in March 2021, accusing Fox News of knowingly accusing Dominion of election fraud. In effect Dominion contended that, under Lachlan Murdoch’s direction, Fox News had amplified former-President Donald Trump’s assertions that Dominion voting machines had been rigged to redirect votes from Trump to his opponent Joe Biden. Though Fox repeatedly sought to have the case dropped, the court held that Dominion had demonstrated evidence of actual malice on Fox’s part and directed the case to proceed. Faced with a protracted legal suit, in April 2023 Fox settled with Dominion for $787.5m. 

Despite this, as of late 2023, Lachlan remains in pole position. From November 2023 he replaced his father as sole chairman of News Corporation and continued as Fox Corp.’s executive chair and CEO. All six of Murdoch’s children benefited directly from the sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney in 2019 to the tune of approximately $2bn each. However, this does not guarantee that, in particular, the four older children will go along with Lachlan’s current ascendency. There is particular evidence of tension between him and James, who resigned from News Corporation in 2020, citing concerns about “certain editorial content published by the company’s news outlets.” This appeared to refer to Fox News’s platforming of far-right ideologies and climate change denial.

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