Contemplating his own mortality and the future of his empire, Rupert Murdoch once said that when he was gone: “If the kids fought hard enough, the whole thing would break down.”
The accuracy of his prophecy, made when Mr Murdoch was still in his sixties, is about to be put to the test after he announced the imminent handover of the family firm to his elder son Lachlan.
Those who know Mr Murdoch best say he had always planned an orderly transition of power – partly, said one, “because he thought the shareholders deserved it”.
Fans of the blockbuster television series Succession – which blurred the line between drama and reality in its depiction of a Murdoch-like media dynasty – will note that in naming a successor, Mr Murdoch has avoided the chaos that followed the untimely death of the fictional press baron Logan Roy.
Rather than being jolted into action by the demise of his on-screen doppelganger, however, Mr Murdoch’s friends believe the influence of his new girlfriend, Elena Zhukova – the former mother-in-law of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich – has more to do with the timing of the announcement.
“He is very loved-up at the moment,” said one.
“Recently he has for the first time started showing a ‘you can’t take it with you’ type approach to living, and that may be what is behind this.
“It may be that Elena has convinced him that at the age of 92 it’s finally time to change his priorities.”
Mr Murdoch’s decision to make 52-year-old Lachlan the chairman of News Corp and Fox Corporation – with a combined value £21 billion – at annual general meetings next month throws into doubt the immediate and long-term future of subsidiaries around the world, including newspapers, television stations and publishers in Britain, the United States and Australia.
Speculation is already rife about hostile takeover bids for the most profitable parts of the business, as well as the possibility that Lachlan and his three siblings – who all hold joint stakes in a holding company– might willingly sell off so-called legacy media assets, including The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun, which hold little interest for them.
Then, of course, there is the question of sibling rivalry, which many observers believe will destroy the company from within.
Lachlan, his younger brother James, 50, and sister Elisabeth, 55, and to a lesser extent their half-sister Prudence, 64, have not only spent their adult lives in competition for the ultimate prize of heading the family firm, but also have very different visions for its future.
Lachlan is Right-wing, while James and Elisabeth are more liberal. James wants to hold onto Fox News and turn it into a centrist “force for good”, while Elisabeth wants to sell it.
Lachlan, who has placed successful bets on property firms, might want to pivot the whole business towards less glamorous but safer investments, which currently include online gambling, analysts believe.
There is even a question mark over Lachlan’s desire to succeed his father.
He and his family live in Australia, a situation which is regarded by some in the business world as unsustainable if he is going to run two US-based corporations. He is already a multi-billionaire thanks to his share of the profits from Disney’s purchase of 21st Century Fox in 2019.
One family friend said: “The jury is out on Lachlan.
“He lives in Sydney, he has got £2 billion in the bank, his passion is rock climbing and his family are very happy in Australia. Is he really going to give up his life to move to America and run a media empire 24-7?”
One school of thought is that Rupert Murdoch has made the announcement now, while he says he is still in “robust health”, to put Lachlan to the test and find out how the markets react to his appointment.
“It has been Rupert’s company forever,” said one insider, adding that investor confidence “can evaporate very quickly at times like this”.
In an email to the staff of all of his companies, Mr Murdoch made it clear that while he will officially be taking a back seat as chairman emeritus, he will be “involved every day in the contest of ideas” and “you can expect to see me in the office late on a Friday afternoon”.
Lachlan has been given the nod partly because of his loyalty to his father over the years and because his world view, of the three full siblings, aligns most closely with his father.
James, who arguably wants the job more, resigned from the board of News Corp in 2020 citing “disagreements” over editorial content and “certain other strategic decisions”
Born in London as the second of Mr Murdoch’s three children by his second wife, Scottish journalist Anna Torv, Lachlan grew up in New York and studied philosophy at Princeton University.
He married the Australian television presenter Sarah O’Hare in 1999, with whom he has two sons, Kalan, 19, and Aidan, 17, and daughter Aerin, 13.
Those who know him say he is “unbelievably charming and good looking, people swoon when he comes into the room”, though James is widely regarded as “the clever one”.
Whether he has the force of character to hold the empire together in the face of hostility from his own siblings and from acquisitive rivals will be the number one factor in determining the future of Rupert Murdoch’s legacy.
US author Michael Wolff, who is about to publish a book called The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty, has said that the boards of Fox and News Corp will receive bids for their most prized assets which they will have to accept in the interests of shareholders.
Even Murdoch loyalists accept that “the empire makes no sense without the patriarch and driving force behind the company”, as one said, making a break-up a distinct possibility.
The US media firm Bloomberg is already rumoured to be contemplating a bid for The Times, though Murdoch family friends do not believe the children would sell The Sun while their father is still alive, as it remains one of his most cherished assets and “it would be an insult to him” to ditch it in his lifetime.
Executives whose careers have been highly reliant on Mr Murdoch’s patronage, such as Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News UK, which publishes The Times, Sunday Times and Sun, may now face an uncertain future.
The publisher HarperCollins and Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, are among the highly profitable arms of the Murdoch empire that are likely to attract takeover bids.
Lachlan’s promotion could also be bad news for TalkTV, the station set up by Mr Murdoch last year, which has struggled to find an audience and which Lachlan “is not exactly impressed with”, according to a source close to the family.
In the US, the future of the right-wing Fox News television channel was already in doubt after Tucker Carlson, its popular and most outspoken political commentator, was sacked in April, which was followed by Mr Murdoch withdrawing support for Donald Trump, who enjoys huge patronage from Fox News viewers.
Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader and a friend of Mr Trump, believes there will now be a rapprochement between the channel and the former president.
He said Rupert Murdoch “made his mind up a few months ago that Trump wasn’t going to succeed, but once Trump becomes the Republican nominee I think you will find that Fox backs Trump”.
The problem for Lachlan is that even as chairman of Fox and News Corp, he has no more control over major moves than his siblings.
The structure of a family trust that holds the Murdoch interests in the companies means that Lachlan, James, Elisabeth and Prudence hold equal voting rights, meaning that if any two of his siblings take sides against Lachlan they can veto any plans he may have for their voting block. Mr Murdoch’s two daughters by his third wife, Wendi Deng, are beneficiaries of the trust but do not currently have voting rights.
James makes no secret of his opposition to Lachlan’s ideas, meaning Lachlan must appeal to his sisters, who are rather more coy about where their loyalties lie.
Some supporters of James Murdoch believe Lachlan will be ousted by his siblings in short order, while allies of Lachlan believe he could buy out one of his siblings – and with it their vote – to make a majority against him impossible.
Borrowing a phrase from Succession’s Logan Roy, one family friend said: “We are about to find out whether Lachlan is a ‘serious person’.”