Rupert Murdoch’s decision to hand the keys of his global media empire, including the role of chairman of both Fox Corp and News Corp, to his eldest son Lachlan brings to an end to years of speculation over his desired plan for succession.
Lachlan Murdoch, 52, now gains sole control of a media group that has reshaped the media landscape across continents and radically altered politics in the US. The move is the fulfillment of a promise first indicated in 2019, when the elder Murdoch named Lachlan as heir to his business.
“This is Lachlan’s best chance to prove to investors and his family that he is the best option for the future,” said David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent and author of Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires. But he warned that it remained uncertain whether the successor could hold the empire together.
“Investors were willing to give a Rupert discount for years – but that was Rupert. Nobody puts that degree of faith in Lachlan, even as he’s made some decent bets.”
Born in London and raised in the US from the age of three, Lachlan has been a dominant but elusive figure within the Murdoch family. His first job within the firm was at the age of 18, and four years later he was running his first newspaper in Queensland, Australia, with the national title the Australian falling under his purview the following year.
By the age of 34, he was the third most powerful executive in News Corp with control over several Fox TV franchises in the US and the New York Post. But he displayed an ability to swim against the tide and confound media watchers when in 2005 he stepped unexpectedly aside, following a dispute with the then Fox News supremo Roger Ailes in which his father sided against him.
Lachlan went on to spend the next decade essentially in the Murdoch wilderness, returning to Australia with his Australian wife Sarah and son (he has since had two more children). There he founded a private investment firm, Illyria, and developed his own media portfolio.
Lachlan Murdoch returned to the family fold in 2014, following intensive lobbying by his father, earning himself inevitable headlines dubbing him the “prodigal son”. His return quickly put him back on the ascendancy, eclipsing the status of his more moderate and middle-of-the-road brother James and sisters Elisabeth and Prudence.
After a slice of the Murdoch empire, 21st Century Fox, was sold to Disney in 2019, Lachlan was named chairman and CEO of Fox Corporation.
By making clear his intention to pass on the empire to Lachlan as sole executive, Rupert Murdoch, 92, may hope to avoid a potentially damaging sibling spat after his death. Under the trust that was set up for the four Murdoch children, they all share jointly in the family stake, indicating that there could yet be trouble ahead.
Tensions between Lachlan and James have been well documented, and it is also unclear how supportive his sisters would be. Folkenflik said that while it was clear Rupert Murdoch wanted Lachlan to helm the empire into the future, “it is not at all clear that is something that his siblings, who are on the trust, completely embrace”.
Lachlan Murdoch brings with him to the top job a style of leadership and political affinities clearly more aligned to those of his father than the more centrist James and Elisabeth. While James in recent years has become a backstage critic of Fox News and its influence on American politics, Lachlan has been widely assumed to share the hard-right politics increasingly espoused by the channel as part of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” revolution.
Yet it would be wrong to pigeonhole Lachlan as a Maga warrior. He shared with his siblings an elite education and some of the more liberal values that come with it.
According to the media writer Michael Wolff in his new book The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty, Ailes was disdainful about Lachlan, who went to Princeton, Elisabeth (Vassar) and James (Harvard), privately calling them “East Coast Ivy yuppies”.
Wolff alleges that during the 2016 presidential campaign, Lachlan kept toilet paper printed with Trump’s face in his house and that he told friends that his family had cried when Trump was victorious.
Elite tendencies notwithstanding, Lachlan Murdoch has shown himself to be a loyal fighter when it comes to following in his father’s controversial footsteps. He was at the front and center of many of Fox News’s most controversial recent actions.
He played a major hand in the rise of Tucker Carlson as Fox News’s biggest and most extreme star, defending the prime-time commentator when he smeared immigrants as making “America dirtier”. According to Wolff, Rupert Murdoch at one point complained that his son wanted Carlson to run for president – “My son wants his own president,” he allegedly said.
When it comes to dealing with assailants, Lachlan has proven to be a noble successor to his father, displaying the same instincts of the bare-knuckle fighter. The results however have not always been happy.
Last month he was forced to pay more than $800,000 in legal fees to the Australian company Private Media after he abandoned a defamation suit against its outlet Crikey. It had called him an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the 6 January 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Lachlan was also implicated in the lawsuit brought by the voting systems company Dominion, which cost Fox $786m in damages and brought about the downfall of Carlson. In legal documents, Dominion accused Lachlan of playing a central role in allowing Fox News hosts to broadcast lies about its voting machines from Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
The company said his involvement in disseminating the election denial falsehoods was “direct”.
Material obtained by Dominion under disclosure also showed Lachlan Murdoch playing a hands-on role in determining the political thrust of Fox News in favour of Trump. It alleged that he had gone so far as to complain of a chyron at the bottom of a news broadcast that was “anti-Trump”.
Since then, relations between Trump and the Murdochs have paled, with Fox News reflecting that cooling. But the new supremo at the helm of an enduringly powerful media empire will still have the hyper-sensitive task ahead of steering the network through the 2024 presidential election with Trump the likely Republican nominee.
That, on top of an economic environment that is punishing for media companies in the digital age, poses the biggest question: is Rupert Murdoch’s settling of the succession on Lachlan a gift or a poisoned chalice?