There are not many chairmanships of companies that would so fascinate writers, and television producers, that they would make four series about them. Rupert Murdoch’s long tenure at Fox and News Corp was one. For viewers of Succession, this week’s announcement that Mr Murdoch is handing control to his eldest son, Lachlan, is a real-life coda to a dynastic struggle in which they are already immersed – in fictionalised form. Lachlan’s reputation, as the most rightwing of the three siblings seen as plausible successors, is deeply dismaying, given the power he will now wield and the context in which he will wield it – above all in the United States, where Donald Trump aims to run for president next year.
The elder Murdoch’s internet ventures were not on the whole successful, and in our digital age his status has been partly eclipsed. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, the Chinese owners of TikTok, and the boards of Google and Apple, have joined him at the top table of global media influencers. But through news and entertainment businesses including the Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal, the Australian, Times and Sun newspapers, and book publishing and film businesses, the 92-year-old billionaire has exerted a huge influence on politics and culture in the US, UK and Australia over many decades.
In each country, he was strongly aligned with the free-market reaction against social democracy. In the UK his newspapers swung forcefully behind Margaret Thatcher, and actively promoted an agenda combining fierce anti-leftism with support for the US, war in the Falklands, and law and order. But the tabloid culture pioneered at the Sun and the News of the World was hypocritical. These conservative newspapers built their sales on prurient and cruel intrusions into people’s lives. In 2011, the Guardian revealed the hacking of phones by reporters at the News of the World – an investigation that culminated in the jailing of its former editor, Andy Coulson.
Mr Murdoch had his most malign effects in the US. The displacement by the intensely ideological Fox News of other news sources, with their traditional aspirations to balance and objectivity, was one means by which Donald Trump gained control of the Republican party and the White House. As his retirement letter makes clear, the billionaire thinks of himself as a man of the people and enemy of elites. The less flattering truth is that the conspiratorial mindset fostered by Fox News, in cahoots with Mr Trump, created the conditions for the 6 January attack and undermined American democracy.
Mr Murdoch is widely known to have lost patience with the former US president. Now Lachlan Murdoch is likely to have more sway over next year’s election. His views on the environment will also be crucial. Under his father, the businesses did huge harm by promoting climate denial – and delaying action. This is a dark legacy.
There are bright spots: books, films, technological innovation, investment in some fine journalism at outlets from Sky News to the Sunday Times. Mr Murdoch’s passion for news in not in doubt. But his commitment to growth at any cost, his instinct to side with populists over democrats, and the record of his news outlets in promoting climate science denial, have become increasingly dangerous elements in combustible times. Lachlan Murdoch is being handed an immense responsibility. There is every reason to be alarmed.