The Murdoch Family Succession Psychodrama

James Murdoch resigning from two British newspaper boards is the latest chapter in a Dickens-worthy saga.

Tom Stoddart / Getty Images

Living with a monster is never easy. Just ask James or Lachlan or Elisabeth Murdoch. In their time, each of Rupert Murdoch’s children has seemed to be well-placed to succeed their father as head of the world’s most infamous and perhaps influential media company; in turn each has been reminded forcefully by their father that there’s plenty of blood left in the old man yet.

One day, however, even Rupert will be no more. The succession is the kind of entertaining psychodrama Murdoch’s tabloid papers and television channels would feast upon if only such gossipy speculation were not firmly off limits to any Murdoch property.

If it had not become a cliche to observe that there’s “something Shakespearean” about the Murdochs’ plight, then one would have to say there’s something Shakespearean about their recent troubles. Or, if not Shakespearean, then it is like something from Galsworthy or Dickens. A melodrama rather than a tragedy. The Murdoch Saga could, and should, be written for television.

Somewhere in the nether regions of his pitiless heart, the ancient patriarch knows he cannot live forever. Someone, some day, will have to succeed him. But which of his children can be trusted? He can love them but he must also fear them. They may be the fruit of his loins; they are also potential rivals. And they are living reminders that one day even Rupert will be obsolescent.

It had been thought that James Murdoch, the third child born to Rupert’s second wife, was most likely to inherit the empire. That was before he became embroiled in the the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World. This week, in the latest concession to shareholders, parliamentary inquisitors and anyone else troubled by the behavior of Murdoch’s British newspapers, it was revealed that James has resigned from the boards of The Times of London and The Sun.

Although he remains executive chairman of News International, the News Corp. subsidiary that publishes the company’s British newspapers, the decision to distance himself from the papers, however marginally, is the latest blow to James’s prospects of ever running News Corp. The heir presumptive’s future looks bleaker than seemed possible just six months ago.

Shareholders—a necessary inconvenience, Rupert may think—have already turned against James. If it weren’t for the family vote, he would have been removed from the News Corp board.

If these are difficult times for James, who has been trapped in a burning building by the merry band of arsonists on his father’s London payroll, they are little easier for Rupert himself. There is the risk shareholders might eventually decide the old man’s time is up.

Rupert, however, does not feel old. At 80, his time is not yet done. He has no desire to be pensioned off to some courtesy castle from which he can only watch his heirs play with, and doubtless ruin, the empire he created. His empire, damn it, not theirs. Their rise must cause his fall, and he is not ready, not at all ready, to go gently into that good night.

So Murdoch, cold-blooded and lizard-brained, knows he must preserve his own position while somehow ensuring a peaceful succession. The tensions between these ambitions are obvious.

At one point or another, each of Murdoch’s children has appeared to be the chosen one. Each has known favor, being sent off to distant corners of the empire to govern far-off provinces with a view to preparing them for life back at the centre of the imperial court. And each has endured spells in the wilderness, shunned by their father and forced into exile.

James helped found a record label, later bought by News Corp., before running Star TV in Asia and then BSkyB, Murdoch’s lucrative British satellite TV operation. Four years ago he became viceroy of News Corp.’s holdings in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. That seemed to make him favorite to inherit, but that was before the meltdown at the News of the World.

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As James’s prospects dimmed, so the price of Elisabeth Murdoch futures began to rise. Earlier this year, Rupert signaled it was time for Elisabeth, 42, to come in from the cold. Purchasing her television company, Shine, for $675 million was an expensive way of signaling parental approval, but it marked her return to favor after a decade in exile. Previously she had run BSkyB until she resigned in 2000. To add spice to the melodrama, she reportedly blames James for his failure to get a grip on the London papers. Her little brother has embarrassed the family and must pay.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the world in Australia, Lachlan Murdoch is also facing difficulties, amid allegations that one of News Corp.’s subsidiaries once tried to bribe an Australian politician. And, like his brother James, Lachlan’s presence on the News Corp. board was rejected by nearly 70 percent of independent shareholders.

Lachlan had long considered the likeliest to succeed the great titan, but he left in 2005 after a series of clashes with Roger Ailes and other senior executives as Fox TV. Lachlan retreated to Australia, where the Murdoch adventure first began. Currently acting CEO of TV company Ten Network Holdings, he has seen the company share price drop 40 percent since he took over.

Eventually, however, the empire will crumble. Like the old man himself, it must go the way of all flesh. What will follow it is another matter entirely. Testifying to the British Parliament this summer, Rupert made a cloying, self-pitying bid for sympathy: “I just want to say that I was brought up by a father who was not rich, but who was a great journalist, and he, just before he died, bought a small paper, specifically in his will saying that he was giving me the chance to do good.” It does not seem probable that any of his own children will be so lucky or so favored. It remains, as it always has been, all about Rupert.