It is 24 years since Lachlan Murdoch admitted to the Financial Times that he found the constant speculation over who would follow his father “a pain in the ass”. Even then, though, he conceded that it was “a juicy story”.
At 91, Rupert Murdoch is newly divorced and pitching his next deal, which would reunite News Corp and Fox after nearly a decade apart. When his US newspapers switched their support from Donald Trump to Ron DeSantis after the recent midterm elections, most observers instinctively assumed that the older Murdoch had instructed them to do so.
But Rupert has pulled back and Lachlan, as the only one of his six children with an executive role, now looks best placed to end up running the family empire — if he wants to.
There are larger media groups, and the Murdochs’ industry is now dwarfed by the giant tech platforms. But Rupert has used his properties to acquire unrivalled political influence on three continents, so the question of who will inherit that power — and what they might do with it — still matters.
Despite decades of scrutiny of the family tensions that inspired HBO’s viciously addictive television series Succession, Lachlan is remarkably little known outside Australia. So Paddy Manning’s unauthorised biography The Successor is as well timed as it is cannily titled.
It is rich in TV-worthy details of $175mn yachts, Ducati motorcycles and “James Bond-like” lifts to garages containing $300,000 Porsche Panameras. The action spills from a $25mn mansion in Sydney to a ski lodge in Aspen to the 11-bedroom Los Angeles estate seen in the credits of The Beverly Hillbillies, a snip at $150mn.
Lachlan may bristle at coverage from the newspapers he does not own, but he has provided plenty of fodder for their gossip columns, throwing lavish parties for friends such as film director Baz Luhrmann and rival media heir James Packer.
“At work, he was a ruthless five-star general in the culture wars,” Manning says. “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.”
The Successor paints Lachlan, 51, as a fiercely protective son and competitive brother, an ambivalent heir who is now, finally, in charge. But it leaves readers little clearer about the intentions of a man who stands to become the most consequential media owner in Australia, the UK and the US.
Manning, an Australian journalist who once worked for the Murdoch-owned newspaper The Australian, did not persuade Lachlan to sit for an interview. Many others he approached were afraid to talk, even off the record, he says.
As a result, his accounts of key moments, from the UK phone-hacking scandal to the fall of Fox News founder Roger Ailes, rely heavily on earlier reporting. Among the 60 people who did talk are loyal News Corp employees such as Col Allan, the former New York Post editor who was accused of harassment earlier this year. (News Corp has dismissed the accusations as meritless; Manning does not mention them.)
Such allies add colour, but Manning also allows them to soften Lachlan’s image, casting him as an earnest devotee of free speech who shouldn’t be held responsible for the controversies that have made Murdoch properties such regular targets of opprobrium and litigation.
The author makes a convincing case that the young billionaire’s political views have moved to the right of those of his opportunistic father, but also makes clear that he lacks Rupert’s appetite for political intrigue. “Lachlan’s agenda was simple: it was not about right or left; Republican or Democrat; gender, race or class; war or peace,” he concludes: “It was just business.”
Amount spent on media acquisitions under Lachlan Murdoch since 2019
There is some support for this argument. Lachlan has spent at least $7bn on acquisitions since 2019, but none have been of the kind of media assets that sway elections. His sports-betting, streaming and blockchain deals have little to do with news.
Such diversification seems surprising for a scion who showed more interest in newspapers than his siblings did, spending summer jobs reporting and cleaning printing presses. Rupert made him general manager of Brisbane’s Courier-Mail when he was just 22, and publisher of The Australian at 23.
Those years cemented Lachlan’s love of Australia, the country he returned to in 2005 after walking away in frustration from an earlier try-out for News Corp’s top job. Non-Australian readers may struggle with Manning’s detailed retelling of the Super League wars and the collapse of One.Tel, but his reporting offers a reminder of Lachlan’s mixed record: a $10mn stake in Realestate.com.au turned into a multibillion-dollar digital growth story while Channel Ten TV network collapsed into administration.
Lachlan’s reputation now looks more likely to rest on decisions he takes in the US, particularly over Fox News and its incendiary rightwing opinion hosts. Tucker Carlson remains “one of Lachlan’s personal favourites”, Manning says, even as the ratings-winning firebrand stands accused of promoting the racist “great replacement theory” and stoking conspiracy theories about the January 6 2021 attack on the US Capitol.
“Hands-off to a fault” and instinctively hostile to criticism, Lachlan could have stopped Fox News from amplifying Trump’s false claims of election fraud with a single call to its CEO, Manning points out. Instead, his company is facing defamation lawsuits from two voting technology companies, Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic, which are seeking at least $2.7bn and $1.6bn respectively.
A costly loss in such litigation may yet change the succession equation. For now, we know that when Rupert dies, control of Fox and News Corp will pass to his four oldest children, with equal shares in the family trust.
In a curiously unsourced passage, Manning floats the idea that siblings Prudence, Elisabeth and the alienated James could join forces to steer the company “in a way that enhances democracies around the world rather than undermining them”.
One unnamed analyst goes further, telling the author that it would be “fair to assume Lachlan gets fired the day Rupert dies”.
If we have learnt anything from decades of watching media’s juiciest succession story, in other words, it is that you should never rule out another plot twist.
The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch by Paddy Manning, Sutherland House Books $28.95, 344 pages
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s US business editor
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