Rupert Murdoch is stepping down as chair of Fox and News Corp – ending a seven-decade run as one of the world’s most transformative and controversial media moguls.
In a note to staff first reported in the Murdoch-controlled Wall Street Journal, he wrote: “For my entire professional life, I have been engaged daily with news and ideas, and that will not change. But the time is right for me to take on different roles.”
Murdoch, 92, will become chairman emeritus of the two corporations, the company said in a release.
Lachlan Murdoch, Murdoch’s eldest son, now seems to be his successor. In the note Murdoch called Lachlan a “passionate, principled leader” who can take the companies into the future.
“On behalf of the Fox and News Corp boards of directors, leadership teams, and all the shareholders who have benefited from his hard work, I congratulate my father on his remarkable 70-year career,” said Lachlan Murdoch, 52, in a statement.
“We thank him for his vision, his pioneering spirit, his steadfast determination, and the enduring legacy he leaves to the companies he founded and countless people he has impacted,” he said.
The Fox founder’s decision comes five months after his news network paid $787.5m to settle a defamation suit brought by voting equipment company Dominion. Dominion charged that Fox had knowingly broadcast false and outlandish allegations that it was involved in a plot to steal the 2020 election.
Fox still faces a $2.7bn defamation suit filed by Smartmatic, a global election technology company, that also alleges Fox allowed its journalists and guests to broadcast falsehoods about its involvement in the 2020 election. Fox News forced out Tucker Carlson, its highest-rated host, after the settlement. Carlson has claimed his ousting was part of the settlement, a claim both Fox and Dominion deny.
The last two years have been tumultuous for Murdoch. As well as the huge lawsuits filed in the wake of Fox News’ election coverage, Murdoch announced he was divorcing his fourth wife, the supermodel Jerry Hall. A hard-hitting Vanity Fair report also detailed a series of health problems for the nonagenarian, who reportedly broke his back in a fall on a yacht in January 2018, leaving him close to death.
In April this year, Murdoch abruptly called off his engagement to Ann Lesley Smith, 66, a former San Francisco police chaplain turned conservative radio host, reportedly because of his and his family’s discomfort with Smith’s evangelical views.
In his memo, Murdoch said: “Our companies are in robust health, as am I.”
David Folkenflik, author of Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires, said he had not heard of “anything about an immediate health crisis or scare but it doesn’t mean that is not front of mind”.
Folkenflik said as well as Murdoch’s age, the election scandal and upcoming shareholder meetings for Fox and News Corp, parent company to its newspaper empire, may have led to the announcement’s timing.
“Rupert Murdoch once called the hacking scandal ‘the humblest day of his life’. But I think that by dint of his own personal involvement in the Dominion scandal, his own testimony, his own conscious decision not to intervene to prevent hosts from spreading very pernicious and utterly unfounded rumors of election fraud that pulls him front and center,” said Folkenflik.
Murdoch’s rise to become the most powerful media figure of his generation began when he inherited his father’s interests in the Adelaide newspaper the News in 1952. By the 1980s, his newspaper empire spanned the globe and included the Australian, the Times, News of the World and the Sun in the UK and the New York Post in the US.
The empire expanded over the next decades, moving into television, publishing and film, taking over film studio Twentieth Century Fox in 1985, launching Sky Television in the UK in 1988, creating publisher HarperCollins in 1990 and launching Fox News in 1996.
As his power grew, so did his influence. Murdoch has shaped generations of politicians across the globe, from backing Margaret Thatcher in the UK in her war against the unions to supporting Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.
“He didn’t stay within the lanes at all,” said Folkenflik. “He was happy to influence policy from the invasion of Iraq to Brexit to Donald Trump, for whom he had great contempt but whose support he wanted. That paid off for him.”
The company has also been mired in scandal. Guardian investigations uncovered routine hacking of the phones of politicians, celebrities and people in the news by News Corp journalists, causing international fury. Following the news that reporters had illegally accessed the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, Murdoch closed the News of The World – his biggest-selling newspaper – in 2011.
That scandal still dogs the company. Prince Harry is suing the publisher of the Sun over allegations of unlawful information gathering by its employees. The trial is set to start in January.
After a long battle with his younger brother, James, Lachlan Murdoch emerged as his father’s heir apparent in 2019 after Fox sold its movie studio and top cable assets to Disney for $71bn. The Murdochs now control a far smaller media empire but one that includes its politically powerful newspaper assets and Fox News.
But while Lachlan Murdoch looks set to take over his father’s empire, the length of his tenure is already being questioned.
In The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch, longtime Murdoch watcher Paddy Manning, claims shareholders are not keen on the Murdoch’s succession plans.
“A Wall Street analyst who has covered the Murdoch business for decades and is completely au fait with the breakdown in the relationship between the brothers [Lachlan and James Murdoch], volunteers off the record that it would be ‘fair to assume Lachlan gets fired the day Rupert dies’,” writes Manning.