Cameron Mitchell reports that the Murdochs are back in court over their succession plans
“Succession” doesn’t miss a beat as its Murdochian family feud continues
The same line has been running through the Murdoch press for more than a decade. “Who will succeed the chief executives of News Corporation?” it begins, and “who will be named chief executive of News Corporation?” read the rest of the accompanying headline in the UK newspaper the Sun at the time. In 2000, George Pataki, the governor of New York, who said at the time he would accept the role “if and when Rupert Murdoch asks me”, launched an inquiry into whether News Corp executives had followed proper succession practices.
“You’ve got to have a president,” the centrepiece of the inquiry, the investigation was led by former solicitor general David Miranda to examine whether company executives had complied with “legal obligations” “that would make it clear in the future what the role of the chief executive would be.” After questioning 24 News Corp executives, the inquiry suggested that some News Corp directors, its employees and lawyers had breached “basic standards” on the basis of their lack of knowledge of such duties.
Now, Rupert Murdoch and his sons are back in court, squaring off over their succession plans. It is a very familiar story: old disputes, not just over money, but power and influence, inevitably escalate. It takes place as Murdoch’s empire shrinks and increasingly controls fewer media outlets. Today’s tussle, the first in 20 years, is over whom will succeed his older son, Lachlan, as executive chairman of Fox. The implications for the rest of the company, and the wider media world, may be enormous, as a dispute over who will succeed a boss risks scuppering his plans for a new generation of rich people.
In 2000 Pataki’s inquiry began to rattle Rupert Murdoch and his empire, not just because of the strong brand for a “succession” but because of the promise of a role in politics. His UK business The Sun had long since turned against Tony Blair and called for his resignation. Also this month, the Sun is right-winging Labour. “The poison stains of Blair and Brown are splattering the ground and demanding to be taken to the cleaners,” the Sun declares in its most recent edition, likening Labour’s NHS policy to state healthcare, leaving with the run of the scrabble with The Telegraph and BBC as the left pulls out all the stops to try to reclaim the electoral centre.
He is fighting with his own party to unite his empire. He fought, he seems to be suggesting, to prepare for a battle in New York. Given the challenge facing News Corp to expand its empire into the fastest-growing market in the world, the UK is hardly an over-riding concern.
Rival company employees and directors are almost always keen to prove their independence by appearing for their bosses’ grilling by media select committees. Prominent businessmen don’t get galled and will answer every question from the media. The CEO may have been questioned by the old inquiry in 2000 and it is at that point they face scrutiny by regulators and opposition politicians, but Rupert Murdoch is still his boy.
Rupert Murdoch is not a traditional media CEO who rarely expresses his political opinions, however. A lifetime of influence can change that. Despite changing US media consumption habits, the largest media company in the world remains closely identified with one man. This is not entirely a good thing.
• This article was amended on 10 January 2019 to correct that the “succession” line was not written by Pataki.