ANDREW NEIL: Can the empire Rupert Murdoch built survive without him?

ANDREW NEIL: Can the global empire Rupert Murdoch built up over 70 years survive without its buccaneering, establishment-baiting founder at the helm?

Rupert Murdoch had a stock response to anybody indelicate enough to inquire if he might one day consider retiring. ‘They’ll have to carry me out of the office in a box,’ he would grunt, which was guaranteed to end any further discussion along these lines.

It certainly did on the occasions when I heard him deploy it.

Yet here we are. The greatest media mogul of modern times has announced he’s stepping back as boss of the newspaper and TV empire he’s spent a lifetime building on three continents and handing over control to his son, Lachlan – and not a box in sight.

True, at 92 he’s had an innings longer than most and lesser men would have jacked it in long ago. But nobody saw this coming and it took the media world, which likes to think it’s on top of such things, entirely by surprise. That will have tickled Murdoch.

Note that I wrote ‘stepping back’ rather than ‘stepping down’, much less ‘resigning’. Lachlan becomes the undisputed chairman of Murdoch’s two remaining companies, Fox (television) and News Corporation (newspapers). But Rupert is describing his move as merely a ‘transition’, he still plans to ‘participate’ in the years ahead, is full of ‘thoughts, ideas and advice’ for his companies and will still be in the office ‘late on a Friday afternoon’. This is not exactly retirement as mere mortals know it.

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch and broadcaster Andrew Neil at the launch of Sky TV in London, February 5, 1989

Publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch at the printing presses of the New York Post

Rupert Murdoch names Roger Ailes as the head of Fox News, New York, on January 30, 1996

He’s even given himself a fancy title: Chairman Emeritus. When Frank Giles, who served briefly in 1982-83 as editor of The Sunday Times between the legendary Harry Evans and myself, was shunted out to make way for me, Rupert gave him the honorary title Editor Emeritus. When asked what that meant Giles self-deprecatingly explained: ‘E means out in Latin, meritus means deserves to be.’ I don’t think Rupert will quite see his title in that way.

I suspect he’ll find it impossible to relinquish the reins of power entirely. Whatever guarantees he’s given Lachlan, I doubt Rupert will be able to forgo giving his tuppence-worth.

He will still regard it as his company, which in so many ways it is. Indeed, with no executive responsibilities, he’ll have more time to dabble in content and let his views be known. I’m sure his many editors and broadcasters can’t wait for the late Friday afternoon calls to come see him.

In many ways, however, it is a good time to pass the baton. Though the Murdoch media empire remains large by traditional media standards, it is a shadow of its former self.

Fox’s vast entertainment holdings – including the fabled 20th Century Fox film studios – were sold to Disney four years ago. Sky Television, which I launched for him in 1989 and which became an innovative jewel of British broadcasting, was sold to another American media giant.

READ MORE: Rupert Murdoch, 92, announces he will step down as chairman of Fox and NewsCorp after 70 years: His eldest son Lachlan wins the battle to succeed his father after decades of speculation 

Murdoch had concluded that even he didn’t have the scale to compete with the new streamers such as Netflix and decided to get out of the market for the best price he could. This made him and his children richer than ever. But, in terms of power and influence, it also brought him back to earth with a bump. The future was now consolidation and, perish the thought, even decline.

He was left with newspapers like the Wall Street Journal in New York and The Times/Sunday Times and The Sun in London, The Australian in Sydney – plus the hugely profitable if controversial Fox News cable TV channel in America. Most media entrepreneurs would give their right arm to own assets like that.

But for Murdoch, given he’d only recently been an unrivalled global media colossus bestriding all he surveyed, it left him curiously diminished, managing assets that were at best treading water, like the Wall Street Journal, or in circulation freefall, like The Sun.

The go-go, glory days were over. Time, indeed, to take a back seat.

Rupert Murdoch shakes hands with Roger Ailes after naming Ailes the head of Fox News

News Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch leaves his house in London holding a copy of The Sun newspaper 

Signs for the four newspapers belonging to News International at the Wapping production plant on July 7, 2011 – including gone News of the World 

He’d come a long way from sleepy Adelaide in South Australia, where he’d started out almost 70 years ago, first with two local newspapers, then an insignificant broadcast licence.

He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, if not a big one. London poshos fell for his ‘wild colonial boy, man of the people’ schtick, but he came from as near as you can get to aristocracy in Australia. His genius was to turn a small inheritance in an Aussie backwater into the world’s first global media empire. He conquered Australia – at one stage more than 70 per cent of newspapers sold Down Under were Murdoch’s – and took Britain by storm from the late 1960s onwards, first in newspapers, then TV.

He wielded more power than any other Press baron in the country – and he loved it. Politicians queued to pay homage to him. But America – media capital of the world – was the real target and from the late 1970s onwards he created a newspaper and broadcast empire across the Atlantic.

These were amazing achievements, matched by no other. He was at his best when he was the buccaneering outsider, the insurgent challenging complacent incumbents, whether it was Britain’s Luddite print unions (which he destroyed in the Battle of Wapping), the smug BBC-ITV duopoly (which he took on with Sky) or the giant U.S. TV networks (which he challenged with a fourth network, Fox, when media experts were sure there was only room for the existing three). He was the slayer of monopolies, the media establishment’s worst nightmare.

READ MORE: The heir who won an empire: How Lachlan Murdoch was brought up in New York high society but ‘never behaved like a spoiled rich kid’ as he pored through newspapers with his mogul father before growing up to inherit his life’s work 

And he was prepared to take risks. In late 1988, the launch of the satellites which would beam down Sky to British households was delayed because of bad weather. He started calling me every half hour from New York desperate for updates.

I assured him everything would be fine and inquired what was making him so nervous. There was a silence. Then he said, slowly and deliberately: ‘Andrew, I’m betting the company on this.’ It wasn’t the only time he bet the company. He was a congenital risk-taker and on occasions he almost went belly up, especially when interest rates rose and he struggled to service his multi-billion-pound debts.

There came a time when he’d acquired so many prestigious media assets that it was absurd for him still to posture as an outsider. ‘Monopoly is a terrible thing,’ he said to me once. ‘Unless, of course, it’s your monopoly.’

And, as the inveterate outsider morphed into the consummate insider, he was not averse to doing whatever it took to defend his interests and assets.

The phone-hacking scandal, which cost him the News of the World and, in its aftermath, more than £1billion in compensation for victims and legal fees, was a direct consequence of a red-top tabloid culture at the time in which it was fine to do whatever it took to beat the opposition to a story.

During my 11 years as editor of The Sunday Times, he generally treated me with courtesy and respect. The few times he was rude and harsh was when I had deigned to criticise his precious tabloids, who could do no wrong in his eyes. He regarded himself as their trusty defender. Those who attacked them were just effete snobs. It was an absurd conceit for which he paid dearly and from which he has never quite recovered in Britain.

The same cavalier attitude to proper journalistic standards has brought him low in America too.

Rupert Murdoch, speaking at the launch of Sky’s multi-channel package, giving viewers a choice of more than 20 channels

Chairman of News Corp, Rupert Murdoch, Photographed in his office in Melbourne

On February 7, 1975, Rupert Murdoch sips coffee as he sits back from his desk covered with copies of the National Star, a weekly tabloid he founded in 1974

Anchors at Fox News spread untruths about the 2020 presidential election: in particular that it had been ‘stolen’ from Donald Trump.

Above all, his broadcasters were unleashed on Dominion, a voting-machine company whose software, it was claimed on the basis of zero evidence, had turned votes for Trump into votes for Joe Biden. It was stuff and nonsense and it cost Murdoch almost $800million in damages to Dominion to settle.

Hacking produced stories which bolstered tabloid circulations. Indulging Trump in his ‘stolen election’ fantasies was allowed because Fox News discovered that to tell the truth about Trump cost it audience, big time.

In both cases, parts of the Murdoch empire allowed money to triumph over proper journalistic ethics. He has been forever tainted by both. Nothing, not even hundreds of millions in reparations, can wash away the stain. Another reason for this to be a good time to stand back.

Now his legacy, for good and ill, falls to Lachlan. In some ways it has become his by default. Murdoch loved playing his children off against each other in his very own version of Succession.

This left only Lachlan standing, though not necessarily because he was the best. The eldest daughter from his first marriage, Prudence, has never been much interested in media. His second daughter, Elisabeth, was sidelined in the early days because of her gender. When Murdoch shook off these antediluvian views, she’d already made a media career of her own and didn’t seem much interested in returning to the family fray.

READ MORE: Read Rupert Murdoch’s letter in full as he announces he is stepping down as chairman of Fox and NewsCorp after 70 years 

Which left Lachlan’s brother, James. He was groomed for the succession but was forever scarred by the hacking scandal.

He came to loathe Fox News and reinvented himself as something of a New York liberal, critical of how his father had made his money (though not offering to return that bit of it which had enriched him). Far from a competition to succeed down to the wire, Lachlan was last man standing.

It is not necessarily good news for the British branch of what is left of the Murdoch empire. Murdoch has invested in his UK newspapers in good times and in bad because he loves newspapers and likes (or liked) being a player in British politics. Lachlan has some of his father’s love for newspapers but almost no interest in Britain. I understand he’s rarely been here in the past decade. Recently he was trying to run the American bit of the empire from Sydney. That was hard enough. Events in London have largely passed him by.

Murdoch stepping back is, of course, something of a watershed. A far more significant watershed will come when Rupert goes to the great newsroom in the sky. I suspect that after a decent interval, his UK newspapers will be put up for sale. After all, there would then be no Murdoch left that ticks the two boxes – love of newspapers, fascination with Britain – essential to keeping them in the family.

Prospective buyers might regard The Sun as a commercial basketcase but Times Newspapers is a profitable business and will command a hefty price.

None of this will happen while Rupert lives. He might now only have the honorary title of Chairman Emeritus but he holds the controlling vote in the trust which controls the family’s stake in the media empire.

Publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch with sample newspapers and magazines published by his international conglomerate at the offices of the New York Post

News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch photographed with the heirs to his media empire – James, Elisabeth and confirmed-successor Lachlan 

There will be no further dismantling as long as he is still around. But when he’s gone, his four eldest children – Lachlan, Elisabeth, James and Prudence – will be left with an equal vote on the empire’s future. It’s already clear they don’t agree on much. In a post-Rupert world the easiest and most lucrative way forward might be a sale of assets on both sides of the Atlantic.

Empires that seem solid can quickly crumble. The Barclay brothers’ media assets, including The Daily Telegraph, are now in the hands of the receivers.

Who knows if the much bigger Murdoch empire will be any more permanent?

Lachlan has emerged victor in the Murdoch succession. But perhaps only for now. He is regarded as competent, efficient, hard-working, a chip off the old block in ideological terms (he shares his father’s Right-wing populism) if not necessarily in entrepreneurial acumen. But there is no sense of any vision to take the companies forward to new possibilities. Without that, without growth and purpose, a break-up is likely.

Many years ago, I watched Rupert tease Lachlan and James about who might end up succeeding him. They were only teenagers. But he was of a mind to create a Murdoch dynasty even then. I ribbed him about it. He didn’t like the Royal Family because it was a hereditary dynasty. He believed, like me, in meritocracy – except when it came to his own company, in which he believed in dynasty with all the fervour of the Windsors. He changed the subject.

Lachlan will know that he would not be where he now is if he did not have the Murdoch name. Nor did he build the company over which he now presides. That was his father’s work.

Now Rupert has stepped back and there’s a strong chance that will be the precursor to a great unravelling.

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