Rupert Murdoch turned 90 in March, but only managed to throw a belated birthday party this month. Held at Holmwood, his £11.25m Georgian manor in the Chilterns, it was attended by a who’s who of politicians, including Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove. An hour-long video tribute organised by Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth was cheekily soundtracked by the theme tune for Succession – a show that shares uncanny similarities with the Murdoch family drama.
Is there a new series of the Murdoch show to compete with season three of Succession?
Looks like it. Murdoch has taken advantage of GB News’s shakiness to announce a new channel, talkTV, which will be launched early next year. He hasn’t had a stake in the British television market since he gave up his share in Sky in 2018. With The Sun beset by rising losses and falling circulation, Murdoch needs a new source of income and influence. Piers Morgan has been signed up as a figurehead for the station, so talkTV should dominate our Twitter feeds, if nothing else.
Can’t wait. But isn’t Murdoch too old for all of this?
As a nonagenarian with a more than healthy net worth of $23.1bn, you might think so. In 2018 he tripped up on his son Lachlan’s yacht and broke a vertebra. His fourth wife, Jerry Hall, 65, was so worried that she summoned his children to potentially make their peace. But Murdoch pulled through, went back to work and still hasn’t touched his pension. His mother, Elisabeth, died at 103, which bodes well for his longevity. That said, he oversees “a much-diminished empire, like Britain after 1945”, says Andrew Neil, one of his former editors. In 2017 Murdoch sold his entertainment business 21st Century Fox to Disney for $71bn. Each of his six children got $2bn from it. But the News Corp media machine endures: countless papers in his native Australia; The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post in America; The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times in Britain. He also owns Fox News.
How did he build it up?
Pretty much from scratch. His father, Keith, owned papers in Australia but after his premature death when Rupert was 21, trustees passed only one of them to his son. Feeling robbed of his inheritance, Murdoch set about building his own empire, which by 2011 accounted for 59% of all newspapers sold in Australia. He helped to force at least two Aussie PMs out of office; one, Kevin Rudd, called him “the greatest cancer on the Australian democracy”. Murdoch entered the British market in the late 1960s, snapping up the News of the World and The Sun – the latter, which quickly lived up to his vision of “a tearaway paper with lots of tits in it”, had 10 million readers in 1997.
And what did he tell them?
To vote for Thatcher. The Iron Lady returned the favour by not referring his 1981 acquisition of The Times and The Sunday Times to anti-monopoly regulators. New Labour took notice and set about courting Murdoch: in 1995 Tony Blair flew to Hayman Island, Australia, to address a News Corp conference. The Sun backed Blair at the 1997 election – according to Alastair Campbell, Murdoch originally described the partnership as “two porcupines making love”. But things got smoother: with Blair in power, News Corp and No 10 were in constant communication, and Murdoch’s papers fiercely backed the invasion of Iraq. Blair even became godfather to one of Murdoch’s children with his third wife, investor and film producer Wendi Deng. Relations cooled after Murdoch suspected Blair and Deng of having an affair.
That would be quite the love-in. Have Murdoch’s political colours stayed red?
The Sun went back to blue by supporting David Cameron in 2010 and has stayed Tory since. Rebekah Brooks, a powerful Murdoch editor and exec, pivoted from being a close friend of Blair to a paid-up member of Dave’s Chipping Norton set. The honeymoon didn’t last: rumbling allegations about phone hacking erupted in 2011, when Murdoch had to testify in front of a parliamentary committee. With characteristic ruthlessness, he shut down the News of the World, one of the worst offenders. Between 2011 and 2020, the scandal cost News Corp £1bn in legal fees, compensation for victims and other expenses, and more cases have been launched this week.
Indeed. But Murdoch bounced back. He was a staunch Brexiteer, largely because Brussels never listened to him as closely as Canberra, London or Washington did. Murdoch was initially dismissive of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, but got firmly on board in mid-2016. Fox’s populist, fact-light reporting set the tone for the next four years, and Murdoch, an old buddy of Trump’s, had the White House on speed dial. Then, when Trump faced defeat in the 2020 election, he mercilessly dumped him. According to Michael Wolff’s book Landslide, Murdoch gave the order for Fox to call a crucial state for Joe Biden with “a signature grunt” and the phrase: “Fuck him.” (Fox News has called Wolff’s account “completely false”.)
Very Logan Roy. But what about the children?
Murdoch has two with Wendi Deng: 19-year-old Grace, now at Yale, and 18-year-old Chloe, who’s at Stanford. That’s quite a gap to sixtysomething Prudence, his eldest from his first marriage. They all have a chunky share of the Murdoch riches, but it’s the three kids from his second marriage, to journalist Anna Mann, who’ve been duking out the succession for decades. Even a group therapy session at the Murdoch family ranch in Australia turned into a power struggle. Elisabeth, 53, was an early favourite, although these days she’s more concerned with her TV production company, Sister. James, 48, was on top in the 2000s, but his proximity to the phone-hacking scandal knocked him off his perch. He resigned from the News Corp board last summer because of his queasiness over the Murdoch media’s politics, and didn’t even turn up for his father’s 90th. Some reckon he supported the Disney deal so his 50-year-old brother, Lachlan, now the heir apparent, would inherit a gutted empire. As things stand, his four eldest children will have an equal say in the control of his companies once Rupert dies. All hell might break loose.
Now that would make a box set and a half