Inside Rupert Murdoch’s succession drama

By | April 12, 2023

Gabriel Sherman writes:

On the afternoon of July 2, 2022, Rupert Murdoch’s black Range Rover pulled up to a 12th-century stone church in Westwell, a storybook Cotswolds village 75 miles west of London. The then 91-year-old Fox Corporation chairman traveled to the Oxfordshire countryside to attend his 21-year-old granddaughter Charlotte Freud’s wedding. Invitations instructed the 70 guests to wear “formal theatrical” attire. Murdoch emerged from his SUV looking like Tom Wolfe in a white suit, red suede shoes, and red tie. Then he nearly collapsed.

A day earlier, Murdoch was in a bed at Cromwell Hospital in London battling a serious case of COVID-19, two sources close to him said. Over the course of a week, doctors treated Murdoch’s symptoms—labored breathing and fatigue—with supplemental oxygen and antibodies, one of the sources said. His recovery was frustratingly slow. At the wedding, Murdoch needed the help of his oldest son, Lachlan, to keep him on his feet. “Rupert was very weak. Lachlan was holding him up to get from place to place,” a guest recalled.

COVID was only the most recent medical emergency that sent Murdoch to the hospital. In recent years, Murdoch has suffered a broken back, seizures, two bouts of pneumonia, atrial fibrillation, and a torn Achilles tendon, a source close to the mogul told me. Many of these episodes went unreported in the press, which was just how Murdoch liked it. Murdoch assiduously avoids any discussion of a future in which he isn’t in command of his media empire. “I’m now convinced of my own immortality,” he famously declared after beating prostate cancer in 1999 at the age of 69. He reminds people that his mother, Dame Elisabeth, lived until 103 (“I’m sure he’ll never retire,” she told me when I interviewed her in 2010, a day after her 101st birthday). But unlike the politicians Murdoch has bullied into submission with his tabloids, human biology is immovable. “There’s been a joke in the family for a long time that 40 may be the new 30, but 80 is 80,” a source close to Murdoch said. On March 11, he turned 92.

Although he is a nonagenarian intent on living forever, Murdoch has been consumed with the question of his succession. He long wanted one of his three children from his second wife, Anna—Elisabeth, 54, Lachlan, 51, and James, 50—to take over the company one day. Murdoch believed a Darwinian struggle would produce the most capable heir. “He pitted his kids against each other their entire lives. It’s sad,” a person close to the family said. Elisabeth was by many accounts the sharpest, but she is a woman, and Murdoch subscribed to old-fashioned primogeniture. She quit the family business in 2000 and launched her own phenomenally successful television production company. Lachlan shared Murdoch’s right-wing politics and atavistic love for newsprint and their homeland, Australia. “Lachlan was the golden child,” the person close to the family said. But Murdoch worried that his easygoing son, who seemed happiest rock climbing, did not want the top job badly enough. In 2005, Lachlan, then News Corp’s deputy chief operating officer, quit and moved back to Sydney after clashing with Fox News chief Roger Ailes and chief operating officer Peter Chernin. That left James as the heir apparent. For the next decade, James climbed the ranks, vowing to make the Murdoch empire carbon-neutral and investing in prestige media brands like Hulu and the National Geographic Channel. But James’s liberal politics and desire to make News Corp respected in elite circles rankled Murdoch, who continued to woo Lachlan with Ahab-like determination. In 2015, the older son agreed to return from Australia as his father’s heir. “It was a big slap in the face,” a person close to James said. [Continue reading…]