The old fox of news, and one of the world’s most influential — and controversial — media barons, who mastered the art of survival in a seven-decade run, is hanging up his boots. Rupert Murdoch, a ruthless newspaper man, has always done things his way, betting on profit, most often by tapping into the fears, insecurities and prejudices of his worldwide audience.
The announcement on Thursday led to a surge in shares of both Fox Corporation, the parent company of Fox News, America’s most-watched TV news channel, and News Corp, which owns newspapers including The Times (London) and the Wall Street Journal. The Murdoch empire also owns publishing house HarperCollins and Sky News, a cable-TV news channel.
Mr. Murdoch has said he will continue to engage with his companies as he takes on the role of Chairman Emeritus at both firms in November. In a memo to employees, the 92-year-old, whose family fortune is said to be worth $19 billion, wrote: “…the time is right for me to take on different roles. Our companies are in robust health, as am I. 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.”
Mr. Murdoch’s son, Lachlan, takes over at a commercially challenging time for Fox News, a votary of conservative, right-wing politics, in a pre-American election year. Dominion Voting Systems had sued Fox News Networks and its parent company Fox Corp for having peddled lies about the 2020 presidential election, which Donald Trump lost but refused to accept. This April, Fox handed out a $787 million payout to Dominion. At a time when traditional news outlets are struggling, the settlement with Dominion is not insignificant, even though, according to Pew Research Center data, Fox News saw a 5% increase in revenue in 2022 at $3.3 billion, from $3.1 billion in 2021.
The Murdoch news empire has had its share of controversies and scandals. As Mr. Murdoch built his empire, he went on an acquiring spree, buying newspapers right, left and centre, bringing in a culture of tabloid journalism and conservative reporting, and growing his companies into behemoths on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and also hometurf Australia. Spreading his reach to films, he also bought 20th Century Fox, which he later sold to Disney for over $71 billion.
One acquisition, particularly, blew up spectacularly in his face in 2011 after a phone hacking inquiry showed that News of the World, then the U.K.’s largest selling Sunday newspaper, had illegally accessed voicemails of hundreds of people, including a murdered girl student. When The Guardian reported this, the entire Murdoch U.K. newspaper ecosystem was mobilised to “call the truth fake, and to promote fake news as the truth”, Alan Rusbridger, then editor-in-chief of The Guardian, wrote in his book, Breaking News. Mr. Murdoch controlled the damage by abruptly shutting down an over 100-year-old newspaper, albeit one which had begun to live dangerously, tilting towards sex and other salacious scoops. Its sister newspaper, the Sun, still owned by News Corp, has spent substantial amounts in settling lawsuits brought forward by targeted celebrities, caught in not-so-convenient moments.
The Australia-born Rupert Murdoch inherited his father’s business and strode into media in the 1950s. He was 21 years old and studying at Oxford when he got to run The News of Adelaide with a princely circulation of 75,000. Ambitious and impatient for expansion, in the late 1960s, he bought the U.K. newspapers, News of the World and the Sun, and began to control a larger part of the media in Britain with the acquisition of The Times and The Sunday Times in the 1980s. In the meantime, he also ventured into the other side of the Atlantic, to the U.S., in the 1970s, acquiring newspapers and at least one tabloid, the New York Post, which he later sold and re-acquired.
In his 1993 book Paper Tigers, about the world’s private newspaper barons, Nicholas Coleridge provided a glimpse of Mr. Murdoch as a “rapacious” proprietor who stalks the “urban jungle for trophies” to satisfy his hunger for newsprint and prestige. Coleridge found him giving off “a powerful aura of determination and strength, but not, as I had been warned by some parties, of profane menace”. Mr. Murdoch talked about stress — “normal day-to-day stress is excitement” — his walks at half-past four in the morning and reaching office early, and that he gave a couple of hours a day to his newspapers and would ring up and say a headline is no good. “The real test is, do you enjoy picking up the paper and reading it?”
Well, Mr. Murdoch has tried everything and more — hard news, soft news, deep dive into politics, spreading scepticism on climate change and convenient flip-flops on issues — to ensure his newspapers are read or TV channels are watched. When Donald Trump was down, Mr. Murdoch’s news organisations attacked him, with the Wall Street Journal writing an editorial that ‘Trump is the Republican Party’s biggest loser.’ Back in Australia, where his empire controls a large part of the media, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacted to the news by saying the business pages would give Rupert Murdoch credit but that he has done “enormous damage to the democratic world.”
Mr. Murdoch once bet big on India. In her book, The Making of Star India, Vanita Kohli-Khandekar writes how he blew up $870 million on Star TV post liberalisation in 1993. Mr. Murdoch didn’t know how the television industry would expand over the years, but “what he saw and bet on was a large, educated, skilled population just freed from its economic shackles”.
At the recently concluded Edinburgh TV festival, the popular series Succession’s creator Jesse Armstrong confirmed that early scripts were inspired by the Murdoch family, as fans had noted. The parallels were hard not to miss — an ageing defiant patriarch, and three children vying for a share of the spoils. Whenever Mr. Murdoch’s succession issue came up, three of his children were mentioned — sons Lachlan, 52, and James, 50, and daughter Elisabeth, 55.
All three — Mr. Murdoch has been married four times and has six children — had followed their father into the media business. Mr. James left the News Corp Board in 2020 after “grievances” over editorial content and decisions, as was reported in the media. Ms. Elisabeth held several positions but finally started her own television company which has produced shows like MasterChef.
In reality, unlike in the show, Mr. Lachlan, who had once walked away from the company, only to return to the fold to take on high-ranking roles, will take over and head both companies. He is the son of Mr. Murdoch and his seconsd wife, Anna Maria dePeyster. The TV saga may have ended, but the real succession drama may have just begun among the next generations of the Murdoch family.