It’s been a big month for high-profile business dynasties and sibling inheritance psychodramas. First, the death of former Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, 94, in late August, prompting a supposedly bitter “Succession-style” battle for his billions between his four children (outcome not yet known).
Now, just three weeks later, the stepping down of Rupert Murdoch, 92, as the chair of Fox and News Corp after seven decades as one of the most powerful media titans in the English-speaking world.
The man set to take over as his successor after decades of speculation? His eldest son and third-oldest child Lachlan, 52 — a Wimbledon-born media exec living in Australia — who was yesterday announced as the sole chairman of News Corp and continuing chair and chief executive of Fox News while his father becomes as chair emeritus of both.
Cue a flurry of headlines about Murdoch’s eldest son winning a “real-life” Succession game, for now, and predictions that his accession won’t put an end to the long-reported rivalry between the Murdoch siblings (the billionaire patriarch has six children from four marriages: Elisabeth, 55, Lachlan, 52, and James, 50, from his second marriage to Scottish journalist Anna Maria dePeyster; and half-sisters Prudence, 65, Grace, 22, and Chloe, 20, from his marriages to flight attendant Patricia Booker and entrepreneur Wendi Deng).
The Murdoch handover might not mean a huge amount in operational terms: CEO Robert Thomson will continue to run News Corp while Lachlan will run Fox. But symbolically, the message is loud and clear: Lachlan has finally been chosen as Murdoch’s successor, putting an end to a question that has hung over the media world for decades — at least for now. “This is a big moment for the handing on of the torch,” David Yelland, a former editor of The Sun, said following the news.
So how did Lachlan come to win the ultimate family prize? Insiders suggest the choice was unsurprising, in many ways. His father Rupert — currently worth an estimated $17.4bn and the 96th richest man in the world — has reportedly “pitted his kids against each other for their entire lives”, but Lachlan was always the “golden child”, a source told Vanity Fair earlier this year. He emerged as the likely heir all the way back in the late 1990s, leaving the family business in 2005 after a reported rift with then-Fox News boss Roger Ailes, but returning in 2014 and holding top positions ever since.
That golden boy status is likely to have had something to do with politics. While father-of-three Lachlan – often compared to oldest son Kendall in the hit Sky Atlantic series Succession – has long been said to match his father’s conservative views, his younger, left-leaning brother James has been critical of certain far-right elements of the Fox News agenda over the years and abruptly resigned from the News Corp board in 2020 “due to disagreements over certain editorial content”. “We’ve been arguing about politics since I was a teenager,” he told the New York Times about his father in 2019.
La «Succession» de Murdoch pourrait tourner à la guerre entre ses 4 enfants les plus âgés (sur 6), qui ont tous un contrôle identique sur les voting shares du trust. Avec l'héritier conservateur Lachlan et son frère libéral James qui se détestent, et leurs deux soeurs en arbitre. pic.twitter.com/cWe70whCro
— Philippe Berry (@ptiberry) September 21, 2023
Today, James and Lachlan are reportedly estranged, James said to be scornful about his brother being handed the reins after what is understood to have had a long-standing rivalry since their upbringing in New York high society. Both are said to remain close with their sister Elisabeth, a “politically liberal” divorcee living in north London who is said to be the inspiration for Succession character Shiv.
The media executive married the British PR guru Matthew Freud in 2001 (they’ve since divorced) and has not worked for the Murdoch empire for several years now after her own on-off relationship with the family business. She currently runs her own TV company Shine, which has produced shows like MasterChef and The Biggest Loser, while eldest child Prudence – often compared to Connor Roy in Succession – has kept a lower profile, regularly described as the only one of Murdoch’s children not directly competing for his business affections.
Lachlan’s much younger remaining half-siblings Grace and Chloe – who count Tony Blair, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman among their godparents – are both beneficiaries of their father’s trust but will reportedly have no formal say over how it is governed for at least the best part of another 10 years.
So what do we know of Lachlan and his business attitude? How did he win the succession plot? And is the Murdoch psychodrama finally settled — or will Lachlan’s siblings stage a revolt?
Wimbledon, New York, Princeton
In many ways, Lachlan was groomed for the role since childhood. He was born in Wimbledon in south-west London and raised in New York after his father bought the New York Post in 1976. There, he attended two of the prestigious schools one would expect for the son of a high society billionaire — the Trinity School on the Upper West Side and Phillips Academy in Massachusetts – but those who knew him at the time say he “never behaved like a spoiled rich kid”, working on placements in his father’s newspaper print rooms from as young as 13.
He once told an interviewer that he and his siblings would read the papers every morning before catching the school bus, their father flagging stories of interest, telling them to: “Read that.” By this point, Lachlan and James’ brotherly rivalry was already building, with family Monopoly games reportedly “intense” with everyone “prepared to cheat” to beat their siblings.
Lachlan went onto Princeton to study philosophy, after which his father brought him into the family business to run some of his newspaper holdings in Australia, becoming publisher of national paper The Australian by the age of 25.
By 1996 he was working as an executive in the C-suite at News Corp, but reportedly struggled with the move from laid-back Sydney to the more hardcore corporate world of New York. Three years later he rose to deputy chief operating officer at the corporation, with many seeing him as being trained to take over the corporate reins. He overhauled the corporation’s tabloid, the New York Post, during that time, increasing its circulation by more than 40 per cent to become America’s fastest growing newspaper.
Nine years later, in 2005, he shocked his father by walking out of his role as the third-highest position in the company, claiming it was to spend more time with his family but with many speculating that he had in fact fallen out with Roger Ailes, the late head of Fox News, which is today the most watched TV news channel in the US.
From family exile to successor extraordinaire
Like several of his siblings, Lachlan has had something of an on-again, off-again relationship with the family business. His rocky path to succession began when he walked out in 2005, founding a private investment firm Illyria in Australia and building his own media portfolio that included the purchase of a portion of the TV station Network 10.
“When he left he was determined not to ever go back to his father’s company,” author Paddy Manning, an Australian journalist who wrote Lachlan’s biography The Successor, once said.
But after the best part of a decade in family exile, Lachlan did return to his father’s empire, re-joining as co-chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox with his younger brother James in 2014.
James had widely been regarded the new heir to the family business during Lachlan’s time in exile, taking various top jobs within the family firm and with many regarding his striving, hard-working attitude and business experience as more relevant to the top job, in many ways.
He studied film and history at Harvard, was a “company man” and was said to be the biggest grafter, handling much of the PR fallout for his father after the phone hacking scandal and so-called “desperate” attempts to be seen as progressive. Jeremy Strong, who plays Kendall in Succession, once hinted that perhaps it is James who is most similar to his character, telling the New Yorker in 2021 that he had adopted James’ habit of tying his shoe-laces very tightly to channel his “inner tensile strength”.
The real-life Kendall or not, all of that changed when elder brother Lachlan returned to the family business in 2014. James’ reputation had reportedly been dented during by the phone hacking scandal and Manning says that Lachlan considered his duty to “help his dad” while his empire was at “crisis point” after phone hacking and his father’s divorce from Deng. Lachlan quickly earned himself a series of top positions at his father’s side. He reportedly played an instrumental role in selling the company’s entertainment arm, 21st Century Fox, to Disney for $73.1bn and moved onto become chief executive of Fox Corp, which owns Fox News.
Exactly when the rift between Lachlan and James began is unknown, but it is likely to have been in the years following Lachlan’s return. A 2017 New York Times article described how the brothers attempted to transform their company’s culture, championing greater diversity, transparency and cooperation. But in 2020, shortly after that Disney sale closed, James quit his role on the board of News Corp, citing “disagreements over certain editorial content” and other grievances with the direction of the company. He and his wife Kathryn have both criticised the company’s climate change coverage and he reportedly donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
Lachlan continued to climb the ranks, reportedly playing a major role in the rise of controversial former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, who was taken off air in April after being accused of white supremacy. According to the author Michael Wolff, who has a new book on the Murdoch dynasty due out this autumn, Rupert Murdoch blamed his eldest son for failing to control Carlson before his firing, reportedly telling his friends he thought that Lachlan wanted Carlson to run for president.
The Carlson matter is said to have been their biggest source of father-son tension over recent years, but clearly it wasn’t enough to alter the media titan’s succession plans. He announced Lachlan’s appointment as successor on Thursday, saying it was the “right time” for him to take on “different roles”.
— TV Trax (@TV_Trax) July 17, 2015
“Our companies are in robust health, as am I,” he wrote in a memo to employees. “Our opportunities far exceed our commercial challenges. We have every reason to be optimistic about the coming years - I certainly am, and plan to be here to participate in them.”
The ‘King of Sydney’ with a supermodel wife
Tom Cruise and his then-wife Nicole Kidman. Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann. Designer Collette Dinnigan. These were just some of the rumoured guests in attendance at Lachlan’s wedding to his now wife, the former Wonderbra model and TV host Sarah O’Hara, on a country estate in New South Wales, Australia, back in 1999.
The pair met in Sydney and have three children – sons Kalan Alexander, Aidan Patrick and daughter Aerin Elisabeth (a nod to Lachlan’s sister Elisabeth?) – moving from Los Angeles back to Sydney in 2021, despite being 10,000 miles away from the family HQ in New York.
The time-difference has proven tricky over the years, with insiders saying he often has to take business calls in the middle of the night, but he is said to prefer the laid-back Australian lifestyle of rock climbing and yachting in Sydney Harbour during his time-off, saying that Down Under is where he feels “most myself”.
This is Lachlan Murdoch’s $150 million California home, which could, in a pinch, also serve as a rec room for Dominion Voting Systems employees pic.twitter.com/I76VTSeFNn
— Bill Grueskin (@BGrueskin) April 17, 2023
He and his wife live in an opulent compound in the eastern Sydney suburb of Bellevue Hill and count a $29.8m Sydney boat shed and $150m LA estate called Chartwell among their property portfolio. His fortune has been estimated at $2.1bn, making him Australia’s 33rd richest people, according to The Australian Financial Review.
His half-sister Prudence, or Prue, once described him as the “King of Sydney”, with Australia’s most elite politicians, business execs and A-listers known to regularly frequent their annual Christmas party at their habour-side Sydney home.
A natural successor — or the architect of Fox News’ extremist turn?
Proof that anything is possible if you’re the eldest boy. An alt-right Groundhog Day. Far from the end of the Mudoch family strife. The opinions surrounding Lachlan’s appointment as successor are almost as divisive as his father’s seven-decade career.
While some insiders say his Harvard-educated “grafter” brother James held the crown until he resigned in 2020, the more popular view is that Lachlan was always the natural candidate and has effectively been running the business on his own for a long time already.
He does not speak publicly about his politics and representatives have said it would be unfair to categorise him as a conservative, but a media chief once called Lachlan’s conservatism “more vigorous than that of any Australian politician” and his decision-making at Fox News has been credited for the channel’s promotion of anti-vaccine information and election-fraud conspiracy theories.
Lachlan Murdoch taking over Fox Corp. pic.twitter.com/NVQBguYoiw
— Matt Margolis (@ItsMattsLaw) September 21, 2023
So what does his appointment mean for the media world and politics more widely? Insiders point to the fact that while Lachlan does share many of his father’s sympathies, he is definitely not his father. He is said to be more laid-back, with tribal tattoos in his arms, and many claim that he is even more right-wing. “You’ll basically just get a more malevolent version of Fox that will also be even more chaotic since Lachlan is both a less competent leader and Fox is facing an especially turbulent period that Lachlan has no idea how to navigate,” one critic wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, after news of his appointment this week.
Others have gone as far as to call Lachlan “the architect of Fox News’ extremist turn” and compared him to an “Australian-American Elon Musk”, pointing to his supposed friendship with Tucker Carlson and apparent backing of former president Donald Trump in the past. So what will Lachlan’s appointment mean for global politics? Could his right-leaning stance play into Trump’s hands for the upcoming US election?
Perhaps, but insiders say Lachlan’s relationship with Trump is complicated. According to NY Mag, he might lean to the right of this father but he does share his father’s belief that a Trump election would be bad for the country, his biographer Manning claiming it’s “no secret” that Lachlan and his father are not big fans of the former president.
Then again, “if the Republican party does coalesce behind Trump as the candidate next year, Fox News will have no option but to support him,” says Manning.
Which side of the Trump debate Lachlan and his company end up falling on remains to be seen, but those who know him say he’s unlikely to become quite the same dominant but divisive figure as his father. He “does not see himself as a kingmaker” like Rupert, says Manning. “Lachlan sees his role as determining strategy for the business, and keeping an eye on the bottom line.”
Lachlan will assume his new position as holder of the keys to his father’s media empire, while younger brother James will remain outside the family business — for now at least. Insiders are already suggesting that a return to the limelight is not out of the question for James and his other siblings as concerns swirl around the state of their father’s health and what will happen to his inheritance after his death.
The path to naming Lachlan as successor might have been rocky enough, but if other family dynasty handovers are anything to go by, that rollercoaster could be only just beginning.