Rupert Murdoch's heir unapparent

Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch

The sale of the media mogul's businesses complicates his succession plan

NEW YORK • Like King Lear confronting his mortality, mogul Rupert Murdoch, 86, is preparing to divide up a lifetime of spoils.

And as he moves to sell off swathes of his media and entertainment business, he is also throwing into confusion the line of succession and testing the ties that bind the family-run fief.

The Walt Disney Co announced on Thursday it had reached a deal to acquire most of 21st Century Fox Inc, the Murdoch-owned company that includes the storied movie and television studio, national cable networks such as FX and National Geographic and a 39 per cent stake in Britain's pay TV service, Sky.

The US$52.4-billion (S$70.5-billion) deal - which would not include Fox News, the Fox broadcast network or the FS1 sports cable channel - has come about as part of the consolidation sweeping over traditional media companies as they try to fight off threats from Amazon, Apple and Netflix. It also represents a remarkable shift for Mr Murdoch, who has long lived by a single credo: Buy, buy, buy.

After all, he did not grow a single newspaper in Adelaide, Australia, into a US$100-billion media business by selling. "Rupert has always been a collector, a builder," said Ms Laura Martin, an analyst at Needham & Co.

In 2007, when newspapers were facing a decline, Mr Murdoch defied Wall Street investors and his advisers to pay US$5 billion for Dow Jones, the company that publishes The Wall Street Journal. Why? Because he wanted to.

In 2012, under pressure in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, he split his entertainment assets into a separate publicly traded company, 21st Century Fox, from News Corp, the company that includes The Journal, the New York Post and other newspapers.

For a time, his enterprise looked like an entertainment company with a newspaper problem, with glitzy Hollywood assets and lucrative Fox News keeping his true love, printed papers, afloat.

But 21st Century Fox soon faced the same economic headwinds affecting other traditional media companies that have been disrupted by the rise of digital: customers cut the cable cord and streamed television shows and movies on multiple devices.

At the same time, Fox News, the highly rated basic cable channel and a big moneymaker, has suffered setbacks after a series of sexual harassment allegations at the network led to high-level departures and costly legal settlements.

Disney's planned acquisition of 21st Century Fox makes economic sense, analysts say, and may be the best way for his broader empire to thrive. But it also makes the identity of his heir less apparent.

Mr Murdoch's younger son, James, 44, has reinvented himself since an intense legal imbroglio in Britain that sprang up after the News of the World tabloid hacked into the voicemail of a 13-year-old murder victim. Mr James Murdoch, who is said to be supportive of the Disney deal, left his post in London, moved to the United States and took over one of his father's jobs: chief executive officer of 21st Century Fox.

Mr Lachlan Murdoch, 46, the elder brother, has been caricatured as the prodigal son. He left the family business in 2005 and was happily living out of the fray in Australia, with a supermodel wife and a trust fund. But as part of Mr Rupert Murdoch's succession plan, Lachlan returned to the US in 2015 to serve with his younger brother - and alongside his father, as co-executive chairman - at 21st Century Fox. Seen by some insiders as a daddy's boy, he moved into his father's former office on the company's palm-tree-lined lot in Beverly Hills.

Questions abound about which son would carry on the family legacy should the Disney deal go through. Mr Rupert Murdoch's older daughters, Prudence and Elisabeth, have stayed mostly out of the business, and his younger daughters, Grace and Chloe, are teenagers.

In one possible outcome, James would take on an executive position at Disney and Lachlan, who shares his father's passion for news, would move to News Corp or oversee the company that absorbs Fox News and the Fox broadcast channel.

A company insider said it was too early to know what roles the Murdoch sons would take on and added that James could decide to strike out on his own.

Mr Robert A. Iger, chief executive officer of Disney, has agreed to stay on after his planned retirement in 2019.

Analysts widely agreed that, despite speculation, James would not be in serious contention for Mr Iger's job.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2017, with the headline 'Rupert Murdoch's heir unapparent'. Print Edition | Subscribe