ANDREW NEIL: How the bitter feud between the two Murdoch brothers makes William and Harry’s fallout look like a tea party

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Last week Rupert Murdoch announced he was stepping back and handing over the running of the massive media business he had built, almost from scratch, over 70 years and across three continents, to his son Lachlan.

The move was heralded as a watershed in the history of the Murdoch Empire, in which he’d finally decided which of his children would succeed him, creating the Murdoch dynasty he’d craved since they were young, often pitting them against each other to see who would emerge strongest.

In reality, far from settling the future, the War of the Murdoch Succession is only just beginning. It will be nasty, bordering on the brutish, pitting brothers and sisters against each other, making the acclaimed TV drama Succession, fictional but drawing on elements of Murdoch family reality, look like a tea party.

Rather than securing dynastic consolidation, it will more likely result in the splintering and eventual dissolution of the Murdoch Empire, redrawing the media landscape in Britain, America and Australia in the process.

This is not yet the received wisdom in media circles. But it is the overarching theme of a controversial but well-informed Murdoch-watcher, Michael Wolff, whose latest book The Fall: The End Of The Murdoch Empire reveals how it’s already in decline and will likely be killed off by the family’s infighting in quite short order.

Rupert Murdoch handed over the running of the massive media business he had built to his son Lachlan

Rupert Murdoch handed over the running of the massive media business he had built to his son Lachlan

James Murdoch is estranged from his brother and father

James Murdoch is estranged from his brother and father

From left to right: Lachlan, James, Anna, Elisabeth and Rupert Murdoch RUPERT MURDOCH

From left to right: Lachlan, James, Anna, Elisabeth and Rupert Murdoch RUPERT MURDOCH 

News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch photographed with the heirs to his media empire - James, Elisabeth and confirmed-successor Lachlan

News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch photographed with the heirs to his media empire – James, Elisabeth and confirmed-successor Lachlan 

As something of a Murdoch-watcher myself (I was editor of his Sunday Times for 11 years and launched Sky Television for him as executive chairman in 1989), I found Wolff’s analysis largely compelling.

It gelled with what I have discovered independently and I sat down with him this week in New York to compare notes.

We began by agreeing that Lachlan’s elevation would not go unchallenged. His younger brother, James, estranged from brother and father, is already plotting what Wolff calls a ‘hostile takeover’ of the Murdoch assets to remove Lachlan.

This brotherly rivalry will be bloody. They hold each other in what Wolff calls ‘utter contempt’.

The two have not spoken for five years. They refuse to be in the same room. Even meeting over Zoom on matters of mutual importance to both is near-impossible to arrange. James, says Wolff, is on a ‘mission to expel his brother’.

Hostilities will remain muted as long as Rupert is still alive. But none of us is immortal. At 92, he combines, I’m told, moments of great lucidity with less animated periods. A friend who recently sat next to him at lunch (she was seen as a prospective new partner for Murdoch) told me he barely spoke to her and spent most of the meal muttering into his soup.

In recent years he’s broken his back in a fall, suffered a very bad case of Covid, endured two bouts of pneumonia and had heart trouble. Enough to fell a much younger man, never mind someone in their tenth decade.

Age, unsurprisingly, has already taken its toll. One of the more remarkable contentions in Wolff’s book is how Murdoch has been in office but not in charge of his companies in recent years.

Chairman of News Corp, Rupert Murdoch, Photographed in his office in Melbourne

Chairman of News Corp, Rupert Murdoch, Photographed in his office in Melbourne

Publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch at the printing presses of the New York Post

Publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch at the printing presses of the New York Post

Rupert Murdoch at his annual party at Spencer House, St James' Place in London

Rupert Murdoch at his annual party at Spencer House, St James’ Place in London

Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch The Television Academy's 23rd Annual Hall of Fame in 2014

Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch The Television Academy’s 23rd Annual Hall of Fame in 2014

READ MORE: The heir who won an empire: How Lachlan Murdoch was brought up in New York high society but ‘never behaved like a spoiled rich kid’ as he pored through newspapers with his mogul father before growing up to inherit his life’s work 

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According to the book, he’d already lost his grip across vast swathes of the business even before last week’s announcement.

It’s what happens, says Wolff, ‘when a 92-year-old insists on still running a significant public company’. This will come as a surprise to those who’ve always seen him as the all-powerful media baron interfering at will in his media properties across the globe whenever the mood took him. But that view is now well out of date.

I have seen myself how his two flagship UK papers – The Times and The Sunday Times – these days rarely reflect the Right-wing attitudes he has long championed. Even the Sun, which used to be closest to Murdoch’s hard-edged view of the world, is pretty milk and water these days.

But Wolff has even more convincing evidence when it comes to Fox News, the U.S. cable channel which has made Murdoch billions by peddling pro-Donald Trump propaganda.

Contrary to general opinion Murdoch has never been a fan of Trump, Wolff explains. Indeed his vituperation of the former President knows no bounds. Wolff writes that Murdoch regards Trump as an ‘idiot’, ‘a**hole’, ‘fool’, ‘clown’, ‘buffoon’, ‘plainly nuts’.

At one stage he wonders aloud why Trump isn’t already dead, given his diet and lifestyle. When Trump’s daughter Ivanka gives Murdoch advance notice in 2015 that her father intends to run for President, Murdoch dismisses her brusquely – ‘No, he’s not’.

Yet Fox News became the broadcast arm of Trump, both in the 2016 campaign and during his four years in the White House. We know this was largely the work of Roger Ailes, the dark mastermind behind Fox News, who kept Murdoch at arm’s length from the channel, much to his frustration.

But Wolff shows that even when Ailes was removed in 2016 amid a flurry of sexual harassment allegations (and died the following year), Murdoch found it impossible to put his own stamp on Fox News.

On February 7, 1975, Rupert Murdoch sips coffee as he sits back from his desk covered with copies of the National Star, a weekly tabloid he founded in 1974

On February 7, 1975, Rupert Murdoch sips coffee as he sits back from his desk covered with copies of the National Star, a weekly tabloid he founded in 1974

Publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch with sample newspapers and magazines published by his international conglomerate at the offices of the New York Post

Publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch with sample newspapers and magazines published by his international conglomerate at the offices of the New York Post

(L-R) President, Chief Operating Officer, and Deputy Chairman of News Corporation Chase Carey, Chairman and CEO of News Corporation Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of the Fox Networks Group Peter Rice, FX Network president John Landgraf and deputy chief operating officer of News Corporation James Murdoch

(L-R) President, Chief Operating Officer, and Deputy Chairman of News Corporation Chase Carey, Chairman and CEO of News Corporation Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of the Fox Networks Group Peter Rice, FX Network president John Landgraf and deputy chief operating officer of News Corporation James Murdoch

It continued to cheerlead for Trump. Murdoch fulminated that its famous anchors were ‘crackpots’ or ‘retarded’ but they were still on screen every night, perhaps because the money was still rolling in on the back of their ratings.

Even when Trump lost the 2020 election, Fox News got behind his fake election fraud claims. Murdoch knew them to be false but allowed Fox to broadcast them nevertheless. This was to cost him dearly. Dominion, a voting machine company, was accused by Fox News of fixing its machines to favour Joe Biden, a fantastical nonsense. It was clear, in Wolff’s words, that Fox had ‘grossly and wilfully fabricated lies’ and, when Dominion sued for libel, that it would have to settle the case.

But nobody could get Murdoch to recognise this. Then a practice run of him giving evidence was so disastrous it concentrated minds.

There was no way Murdoch could be allowed anywhere near a witness box. Fox was forced to fold earlier this year just as the trial was getting under way for an unprecedented $787 million.

All this contributed to Murdoch’s own growing sense that it was time for him to step back, especially since there was another voting machine case coming down the pike, this one likely to be even more expensive than Dominion if it wasn’t settled fast. Murdoch’s attention was also being consumed by problems on the home front.

Why did he dump Jerry Hall (his fourth wife), I asked Wolff. ‘She liked a busy social life,’ he explained and Murdoch just couldn’t keep up the pace. She was on the Left and so was her social circle. That grated with Murdoch too. Yet he still craved female companionship. The search was on for wife number five. ‘Remember,’ says Wolff. ‘Murdoch has married every woman he’s slept with. He always proposes on the second date.’

The next Mrs Murdoch looked like being Ann Lesley Smith, a wealthy 66-year-old whose Right-wing Christian evangelical outlook seemed more suited to him than Hall’s liberal-Left views.

Rupert Murdoch, speaking at the launch of Sky's multi-channel package, giving viewers a choice of more than 20 channels

Rupert Murdoch, speaking at the launch of Sky’s multi-channel package, giving viewers a choice of more than 20 channels

Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corporation, stands with his son James Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corporation, stands with his son James Murdoch

READ MORE: ANDREW NEIL: Can the global empire Rupert Murdoch built up over 70 years survive without its buccaneering, establishment-baiting founder at the helm?

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch and broadcaster Andrew Neil at the launch of Sky TV in London, February 5, 1989

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch and broadcaster Andrew Neil at the launch of Sky TV in London, February 5, 1989

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They were engaged last spring. Smith was a huge fan of Fox News’ top-rated anchor, Tucker Carlson. Anxious to please his new fiancée, Wolff explains, Rupert invited Carlson to dinner a trois at his Californian vineyard.

Smith behaved like a starstruck teenager, much to the embarrassment of both men. Over dinner she turned to Murdoch and claimed Carlson had been sent to them as a ‘prophet from God’.

Both men stared at their food. Smith then got up from the table and returned with a copy of the Bible, from which she read passages which apparently affirmed Carlson’s prophet-like status.

Murdoch called off the two-week engagement two days later. The meal with Carlson was to be Smith’s last supper with Murdoch. ‘She’s a bit of Jesus freak,’ he told Elisabeth, his daughter. Carlson survived – but not for long.

Wolff claims that, as an undisclosed part of the Dominion settlement, Carlson was the sacrificial lamb, taken off air indefinitely while the $787 million surrender was being drafted.

Dominion didn’t just want money. It wanted its pound of flesh because Tucker had been vocal in spreading lies about Dominion.

Both Fox and Dominion have called this ‘categorically false’, but Tucker did go six days after the settlement was agreed, something Murdoch justified to himself as a necessary part of his desire to de- Trump Fox News.

But — in perhaps the most telling sign of his growing weakness – he has failed to do so. In Fox News he’d financed the creation of a Frankenstein monster over which he’d lost control. That monster had created a monster of its own – the Fox audience – over which even the channel, in turn, had also lost control.

The Fox News audience was the Trump voter base, the cult.

Attempts to move away from anything but 100 per cent support for their hero meant viewers switching off in droves, as Murdoch quickly discovered. He was being held hostage by the very audience his channel had created and pandered to by encouraging, in Wolff’s words, ‘their fury, indignation and sense of injury’.

Smaller audiences mean declining revenues, hitting the bottom line of what was Murdoch’s most profitable media asset – perhaps, says Wolff, the most profitable news media asset in history.

Last week Rupert Murdoch announced he was stepping back and handing over the running of the massive media business he had built, almost from scratch, over 70 years and across three continents, to his son Lachlan

Last week Rupert Murdoch announced he was stepping back and handing over the running of the massive media business he had built, almost from scratch, over 70 years and across three continents, to his son Lachlan

His younger brother, James, estranged from brother and father, is already plotting what Wolff calls a 'hostile takeover' of the Murdoch assets to remove Lachlan (pictured)

His younger brother, James, estranged from brother and father, is already plotting what Wolff calls a ‘hostile takeover’ of the Murdoch assets to remove Lachlan (pictured)

So, remarkably, in the battle for the heart and soul of Fox News, Trump won, Murdoch lost.

Murdoch’s relentless plotting has failed to produce a viable Republican alternative, Trump looks more unstoppable than ever as his party’s candidate in next year’s Presidential election and Fox News will have no choice but to swing behind him. Game, set and match to The Donald, who now refers to Murdoch as a ‘piece of sh*t’. In all these trials and tribulations of Murdoch’s waning years, Lachlan turned out to be no help.

He and his family did a moonlight flit from Los Angeles to Sydney soon after the pandemic started in the spring of 2020 and he has tried to run the Fox operation from there ever since, claiming to work LA hours from Australia — a ludicrous proposition given the time-zone difference (17 hours, since you ask).

Wolff says there is no indication in Lachlan’s business track record that he’s ‘up to running the company’, no matter where he is.

In addition, claims Wolff, he is regarded by other senior Murdoch executives as ‘part-time’ and ‘semi-engaged’, more interested in spear-fishing than business-building.

In recent years Fox Corporation, the part of the empire he’s supposed to be running, has seen its share price fall 25 per cent when the market has risen 50 per cent.

The part he’s not been running, News Corporation, has seen its share price rise in line with the market.

Not that James is any more highly regarded. A mixture of ‘truculence and entitlement’ has not endeared him to other senior Murdoch executives, who have been know to refer to the brothers as ‘chucklehead’ (Lachlan) and ‘hothead’ (James).

So why did Rupert choose Lachlan as the new capo di tutti capi, I asked Wolff. ‘Because there was nobody else in the family left,’ he replied bluntly. James had fallen out with his father and affected a new liberal-Left abhorrence of all his works, Elisabeth wasn’t interested, Prudence (from his first marriage) has never been involved in her father’s business.

James says he'd turn it into a 'force for good' if he replaces Lachlan (pictured with Rupert Murdoch) at the helm which, as Wolff wryly remarks, could be the 'greatest media challenge in history'

James says he’d turn it into a ‘force for good’ if he replaces Lachlan (pictured with Rupert Murdoch) at the helm which, as Wolff wryly remarks, could be the ‘greatest media challenge in history’

The sibling in-fighting will turn bloody the moment Rupert departs for the great newsroom in the sky

The sibling in-fighting will turn bloody the moment Rupert departs for the great newsroom in the sky

READ MORE: Rupert Murdoch, 92, announces he will step down as chairman of Fox and NewsCorp after 70 years: His eldest son Lachlan wins the battle to succeed his father after decades of speculation 

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In his heart of hearts, Rupert knew none of his kids was up to running the empire he had created, much as Logan Roy knew the same in Succession, which is why Murdoch had sold its vast entertainment assets to Disney in 2017 for more than $70 billion. But in his long-running dynastic obsession he’d lost most of the top-flight executives who did not have Murdoch blood and knew the top job would never be theirs.

There was no non-Murdoch primed to take over. Lachlan got what was left by default, which leaves him vulnerable in the coming storm.

The sibling in-fighting will turn bloody the moment Rupert departs for the great newsroom in the sky. The family’s controlling stake in its broadcasting and publishing assets is held by a trust in which Lachlan, James and Elisabeth (all from his second marriage) and Prudence have equal voting rights. Rupert has the controlling votes in the trust, which helps keep the peace. But when he dies, his votes will be equally distributed to his four children.

They agree about very little, if anything, but each has a $2 billion war chest (their share of the Disney sale) to pursue their agendas. It will be a dripping roast for lawyers. You can already hear the lips smacking in Manhattan.

The Murdoch Empire will likely be gripped by rigor mortis, a business paralysed by in-fighting.

There has been nobody really in charge for some time and that will not quickly change. There is no provision in the trust to break a tie vote. None of the trust fund siblings has their father’s passion or hunger for media and politics.

The easiest resolution might be to dispose of the various media properties. The unravelling which started under Rupert is likely to continue in only one direction.

I suggested to Wolff that The Times and Sunday Times in the UK and the Wall Street Journal in America would be up for sale before the decade is out. ‘More like within a couple of years,’ he replied. Bloomberg is already sniffing around the WSJ. There will be plenty of buyers for Times Newspapers, which, after decades of losses, is now claiming annual profits of £73 million.

What happens to Fox News is anybody’s guess. Not many media companies would want it. James says he’d turn it into a ‘force for good’ if he replaces Lachlan at the helm which, as Wolff wryly remarks, could be the ‘greatest media challenge in history’.

Elisabeth wants to sell it to get it out of the way. Not for the first time, nobody is sure what Lachlan’s plan is.

James and Lachlan will need to vie for the support of their sisters for supremacy. Whoever can win it will control the empire. Elisabeth will be the lynchpin. The brothers don’t talk to each other but she still talks to both. Prudence is likely to follow her lead, giving the successful brother a three-to-one majority in the trust.

There is a certain irony in all this. The Murdoch Empire, with some honourable exceptions, has never been an exemplar of female empowerment.

For years Rupert even excluded Elisabeth from the succession because of her gender. Now it will be the sisters who will determine the future of the Murdoch dynasty.

They will likely decide it doesn’t have one. The ultimate triumph of feminism in an environment previously hostile to it. Who would ever have thought it?




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