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He’s emerged as the successor to his famous father at the head of the multinational media conglomerate, Fox Corporation. Is the Fox News cable channel a good indication of where he might take it?
By Paddy Manning
After a falling out with his father in 2005, Lachlan – Rupert’s eldest son and heir apparent – returned to the family company 10 years later.Credit:Getty Images
It had been a remarkably chilly start to the 2022 winter and there was a stiff breeze on Sydney Harbour when Lachlan Murdoch and his wife, Sarah, took a few friends out for a spin in their new $30-million motor yacht, Istros – a present for her 50th birthday. On a Wednesday afternoon in early June, when most of America was fast asleep, Lachlan could afford to take time off from his day job running Fox Corporation, parent of the world’s most controversial cable television outfit, Fox News. Paparazzo Jayden Seyfarth watched through his long lens as Lachlan and Sarah helped their rugged-up guests aboard, settled in for drinks and took in the sunset.
At 43-metres long, Istros is modest by today’s standards, when mega-yachts and giga-yachts two or three times the size can cost upwards of $500 million. Oozing old-world charm, the ship was built in Holland in 1954 and originally owned by Greek shipping tycoons the Pappadakis family. In 2001, it won the grand prize for the best-restored vessel at Monaco’s Classic Yacht Show, but then fell into disrepair, sitting idle in Malta until it was bought for a song, gutted and completely refitted by Van Geest Design, the Dutch builders of super yachts for moguls, oligarchs and kleptocrats the world over.
Lachlan had bought Istros in February 2022 and had it delivered Down Under, where it would entertain family and friends, a few lucky contacts from business and politics, as well as faithful toilers from across the Murdoch media empire, which had been founded in Australia by his grandfather, Keith, and turned into the first global news conglomerate by his swashbuckling father, Rupert.
Nowhere did the Murdochs wield such concentrated power as in Australia, where the family had controlled two-thirds of newspaper circulation for nearly four decades and had an outright monopoly over pay TV. Lachlan was a third-generation media mogul, living it up in his adoptive hometown; his older sister, Prue, had good reason to call him the “king of Sydney”. Istros took months to arrive and, on Lachlan and Sarah’s first outing, the Daily Mail Australia reported the couple looked as “happy as ever”.
The next week, they took their teenage daughter Aerin and her friends around the harbour to see the Vivid festival, when Sydney’s world-famous Opera House, Harbour Bridge and Circular Quay were bathed in lightworks by visual artists from all over the globe. Papped by Seyfarth again, Lachlan stood by the gunnels of Istros and directly faced the cameraman, throwing his arms out wide as though surprised or annoyed at the attention. After spending his entire adult life in the spotlight, the man who employed as many journalists as anyone still bristled when he was the subject of their inquiries.
Beautiful as Istros might be, she was only a stop-gap runabout: Lachlan was awaiting delivery of the boat of his dreams, a 60-metre, $175-million, ultra-modern sloop under construction at another Dutch shipyard, Royal Huisman. The largest carbon fibre yacht ever built in Holland, Murdoch’s new purchase was known only by the code name “MM597” and would accommodate 12 guests and 10 crew.
According to the manufacturer’s website, distinguishing features included “a huge transom opening which … will give access to an expansive, lavish beach club”. Lachlan and Sarah had paid a stunning $37 million for a boatshed and jetty at Point Piper, a few minutes’ drive from their $100-million Bellevue Hill mansion, Le Manoir. In the meantime, Istros would have to do.
Lachlan with his wife, Sarah, in California in 2020, before their return to Australia. Credit:Getty Images
While the Murdochs were relaxing on Sydney Harbour that Wednesday evening, it seemed the US was going to hell. The following night, US time, in a throwback to the Watergate era, the House Select Committee investigating the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, would conduct its first televised hearings, revealing damning new evidence of an unprecedented attempt by a sitting president, Donald Trump, to stop the peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election.
Fox News Channel had announced earlier that week that it would not carry the hearings live at prime time, unlike every other network in the US, opting instead to broadcast commentary on the hearing, even as it was underway, from its anchors Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Fox went so far as to make this programming ad-free, to avoid shedding
audience to other channels during commercials.
Millions of Fox viewers watching that evening would not have seen the opening statements of Democratic committee chair Bennie Thompson and Republican deputy chair Liz Cheney, the testimony of former attorney-general Bill Barr and of Ivanka Trump, the fresh video footage of the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers who led the attack, or the evidence of Capitol police officer Caroline Edwards, who was knocked unconscious and pepper-sprayed.
Instead, they heard Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham undermine the committee and downplay the hearings. Carlson had previously called the committee “wholly illegitimate” and now told his viewers, “They’re lying, and we’re not going to help them do it.”
The decision once again called into question whether Fox News was in the business of news or propaganda. Watching Fox’s coverage that night, it was hard to imagine how Americans would ever bridge the deepening divides over guns, abortion, the pandemic response, immigration, climate change, Black Lives Matter, gender and sexuality – and even over whether or not these disagreements could be resolved through democracy and the rule of law, rather than through violence and authoritarianism.
If Americans could not even agree that Trump had lost the 2020 election, much less that he had then mounted an unprecedented and dangerous attempt to overturn the result, what could they possibly agree on?
Fox News Channel had announced earlier that week that it would not carry the hearings live at prime time, unlike every other network in the US.
Fox News thrived on controversy and, of its prime-time anchors, none was more controversial than Tucker Carlson, one of Lachlan’s personal favourites and the highest-rating host in the history of cable television. Carlson had proved many times that he could make or break the careers of conservative politicians. His program, Tucker Carlson Tonight, had been described as “the most racist show in the history of cable news”.
As Bloomberg journalist Tim O’Brien told MSNBC anchor Nicole Wallace, it was important not to focus too much on the Fox anchors, who were ultimately just the hired help: “You’re leaving the most important actor out: Lachlan Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch’s son runs that network. The family controls the company. If they wanted that network to do something other than engage in propaganda and to delude people and to serve other goals, he could put anybody he wants in that anchor seat. Tucker Carlson exists because Lachlan Murdoch wants him to exist.”
Reports indicated the House Committee believed it had enough evidence to indict Trump for sedition. His former campaign strategist Steve Bannon warned on his infamous War Room podcast: “We. Dare. You.” Following predictions of a “red wave” of Republican victories in November’s midterm elections – bigger than 1994 or even 2010, former House speaker Newt Gingrich told Laura Ingraham on Fox – Trump Republicans vowed to impeach Joe Biden over the alleged chaos at the Mexican border, the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan or the influence-peddling of the president’s son, Hunter. Credible voices feared the US, lurching from crisis to crisis, was spiralling into civil war.
Lachlan knew things were not getting better in the US any time soon. Raised in the US from the age of three, he felt like an Australian and had divided his adult life between the two countries. Both his parents had grown up in Australia, and Australia was where he met Sarah and founded his own successful private investment firm after falling out with his father and turning his back on a career at News Corp in 2005.
In 2015 he returned to an executive role in the family business at Rupert’s express request but, after six years in LA, and as the coronavirus ravaged the US, Lachlan and Sarah decided they’d had enough and moved back to Sydney with their three kids – perhaps for good. Lachlan might not say so publicly, but in his bones he believed Australians had a better way of life. Although Carlson reckoned Australia had turned into a “COVID dictatorship”, the country had come through the pandemic with a death rate one-tenth that of the US and a vaccination rate of 95 per cent. Schools were safe from gun violence. The politics of hate and polarisation had not yet split the lucky country down the middle.
Murdoch on his yacht, Istros, in Sydney Harbour in June this year, seemingly annoyed at the attention of the paparazzi.Credit:Media Mode
Ironically, those things that made Australia a cocoon for Lachlan and Sarah and a better place to raise their family, like tougher public health restrictions and gun control, were the very things that Fox News railed against in the US on a nightly basis. Running Fox Corporation from Australia suggested a fundamental disconnect: Lachlan was hardly practising what his network’s prime-time anchors preached.
At work he was a ruthless five-star general in the culture wars, overseeing the Fox News juggernaut, pumping “America First” and driving earnings growth in the family business – what US Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren famously called a “hate-for-profit racket”. At home, or on one of his many fabulous holidays, he was a laid-back Australian and all-round smooth operator: spectacularly rich, impeccably mannered, handsome, open-minded, adventurous, savvy, fun.
Lachlan’s move to Sydney also spoke of a fundamental ambivalence: he had never wanted to be CEO of the family business or, if it came down to it, the CEO of anything. As the oldest son, he was the presumptive “first among equals” of his siblings and had always aspired to be chairman, like his father – preferably non-executive, that ultimate position of power without day-to-day responsibility. Never your 80-hours-a-week, chained-to-the-desk kind of manager, Lachlan was happiest in the elements, mountain climbing or sailing. Now, having racked up three years’ service as CEO of Fox Corp, and with Rupert at 91 taking a back seat, Lachlan could look forward to ascending to the role of non-executive chairman and owner of a controlling stake in the most powerful news business in the world.
What could go wrong? After years of jockeying over the succession, his brother, James, and sister, Liz, were out of contention – it seemed for good. If Carlson or any other host got too controversial, they could always be fired or redeployed; it was an iron law of the Murdoch empire that none of the talent was indispensable. If Fox or News shares slid, the family business could always be taken private or sold. Whatever happened to either company, the bulk of Lachlan’s fortune lay elsewhere: he owned a ton of Disney shares; his investment firm, Illyria, had made him a billionaire in his own right; there were mega-mansions in LA, Aspen and Sydney, and more yachts, cars and bikes than he knew what to do with.
As Istros lumbered around a blustery harbour, Lachlan knew it was only a matter of time before the succession was behind him and he could do as he liked.
This is an edited extract from The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch (Black Inc., $35), by Paddy Manning, out November 1.
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