How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World

Apr 4, 2019 by

The New York Times







Rupert Murdoch was lying on the floor of his cabin, unable to move. It was January 2018, and Murdoch and his fourth wife, Jerry Hall, were spending the holidays cruising the Caribbean on his elder son Lachlan’s yacht. Lachlan had personally overseen the design of the 140-foot sloop — named Sarissa after a long and especially dangerous spear used by the armies of ancient Macedonia — ensuring that it would be suitable for family vacations while also remaining competitive in superyacht regattas. The cockpit could be transformed into a swimming pool. The ceiling in the children’s cabin became an illuminated facsimile of the nighttime sky, with separate switches for the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. A detachable board for practicing rock climbing, a passion of Lachlan’s, could be set up on the deck. But it was not the easiest environment for an 86-year-old man to negotiate. Murdoch tripped on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Murdoch had fallen a couple of other times in recent years, once on the stairs while exiting a stage, another time on a carpet in a San Francisco hotel. The family prevented word from getting out on both occasions, but the incidents were concerning. This one seemed far more serious. Murdoch was stretchered off the Sarissa and flown to a hospital in Los Angeles. The doctors quickly spotted broken vertebrae, which required immediate surgery, as well as a spinal hematoma, increasing the risk of paralysis or even death. Hall called his adult children in a panic, urging them to come to California prepared to make peace with their father.

Few private citizens have ever been more central to the state of world affairs than the man lying in that hospital bed, awaiting his children’s arrival. As the head of a sprawling global media empire, he commanded multiple television networks, a global news service, a major publishing house and a Hollywood movie studio. His newspapers and television networks had been instrumental in amplifying the nativist revolt that was reshaping governments not just in the United States but also across the planet. His 24-hour news-and-opinion network, the Fox News Channel, had by then fused with President Trump and his base of hard-core supporters, giving Murdoch an unparalleled degree of influence over the world’s most powerful democracy. In Britain, his London-based tabloid, The Sun, had recently led the historic Brexit crusade to drive the country out of the European Union — and, in the chaos that ensued, helped deliver Theresa May to 10 Downing Street. In Australia, where Murdoch’s power is most undiluted, his outlets had led an effort to repeal the country’s carbon tax — a first for any nation — and pushed out a series of prime ministers whose agenda didn’t comport with his own. And he was in the midst of the biggest deal of his life: Only a few weeks before his fall on Lachlan’s yacht, he shook hands on a London rooftop with Robert A. Iger, the chief executive of the Walt Disney Company, consummating a preliminary agreement to sell his TV and film studio, 21st Century Fox, to Disney for $52.4 billion. But control of this sprawling empire was suddenly up in the air.


The four grown children had differing claims to the throne. The 61-year-old Prudence, the only child of Murdoch’s first marriage, to the Australian model Patricia Booker (whom he divorced in 1965), lived in Sydney and London and kept some distance from the family business. But the three children from Murdoch’s second marriage, to Anna Mann (whom he divorced in 1999), had spent at least parts of their lives jockeying to succeed their father. Elisabeth (50), Lachlan (47) and James (46) all grew up in the business. As children, they sat around the family’s breakfast table on Fifth Avenue, listening to their father’s tutorials on the morning papers: how the articles were selected and laid out, how many ad pages there were. All of them had imagined that his ever-growing company might one day belong to them. As friends of the Murdochs liked to say, Murdoch didn’t raise children; he raised future media moguls.

It had made for fraught family dynamics, with competing ambitions and ever-shifting alliances. Murdoch was largely responsible for this state of affairs: He had long avoided naming one of his children as his successor, deferring an announcement that might create still more friction within his family, not to mention bringing into focus his own mortality. Instead, Murdoch tried to manage the tensions, arranging for group therapy with his children and their spouses with a counselor in London who specialized in working with dynastic families. There was even a therapeutic retreat to the Murdoch ranch in Australia. But these sessions provided just another forum for power games and manipulation.

[Read 6 takeaways from this story.]

Over the years, Lachlan and James had traded roles, more than once, as heir apparent and jilted son. It was no secret to those close to the family that Murdoch had always favored Lachlan. (“But I love all of my children,” Murdoch would say when people close to him pointed out his clear preference for Lachlan.) But it was James who spent the first decades of the 21st century helping reposition the company for the digital future — exploiting new markets around the world, expanding online offerings, embracing broadband and streaming technology — while his older brother was mostly off running his own businesses in Australia after a bitter split from their father. When Lachlan finally agreed to return to the United States in 2015, Murdoch gave him and James dueling senior titles: All the company’s divisions would report jointly to them. It was an awkward arrangement, not only because they were both putatively in charge of a single empire. James and Lachlan were very different people, with very different politics, and they were pushing the company toward very different futures: James toward a globalized, multiplatform news-and-entertainment brand that would seem sensible to any attendee of Davos or reader of The Economist; Lachlan toward something that was at once out of the past and increasingly of the moment — an unabashedly nationalist, far-right and hugely profitable political propaganda machine.

MURDOCH FAMILY, 1987: LACHLAN, JAMES, ANNA AND RUPERT. Ron Galella/WireImage, via Getty Images

Only one of Murdoch’s adult children would win the ultimate prize of running the world’s most powerful media empire, but all four of them would ultimately have an equal say in the direction of its future: Murdoch had structured both of his companies, 21st Century Fox and News Corp, so that the Murdoch Family Trust held a controlling interest in them. He held four of the trust’s eight votes, while each of his adult children had only one. He could never be outvoted. But he had also stipulated that once he was gone, his votes would disappear and all the decision-making power would revert to the children. This meant that his death could set off a power struggle that would dwarf anything the family had seen while he was alive and very possibly reorder the political landscape across the English-speaking world.

As the children hurried to their father’s bedside in Los Angeles, it seemed as if that moment had finally arrived.


Media power has historically accrued slowly, over the course of generations, which is one reason it tends to be concentrated in dynastic families. The Graham family owned The Washington Post for 80 years before selling it to Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos. William R. Hearst III still presides over the Hearst Corporation, whose roots can be traced to his great-grandfather, the mining-baron-turned-United-States-senator George Hearst. The New York Times has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family for more than a century. The Murdoch empire is a relatively young one by comparison, but it would be hard to argue that there is a more powerful media family on earth.

The right-wing populist wave that looked like a fleeting cultural phenomenon a few years ago has turned into the defining political movement of the times, disrupting the world order of the last half-century. The Murdoch empire did not cause this wave. But more than any single media company, it enabled it, promoted it and profited from it. Across the English-speaking world, the family’s outlets have helped elevate marginal demagogues, mainstream ethnonationalism and politicize the very notion of truth. The results have been striking. It may not have been the family’s mission to destabilize democracies around the world, but that has been its most consequential legacy.

RUPERT MURDOCH IN NEW YORK, 1977. Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images

Over the last six months, we have spoken to more than 150 people across three continents about the Murdochs and their empire — some who know the family intimately, some who have helped them achieve their aims, some who have fought against them with varying degrees of success. (Most of these people insisted on anonymity to share intimate details about the family and its business so as not to risk retribution.) The media tend to pay a lot of attention to the media: Fox News is covered almost as closely as the White House and often in the same story. The Murdochs themselves are an enduring object of cultural fascination: “Ink,” a play about Rupert’s rise, is opening soon on Broadway. The second season of HBO’s “Succession,” whose fictional media family, the Roys, bears a striking resemblance to the Murdochs, airs this summer. But what we as reporters had not fully appreciated until now is the extent to which these two stories — one of an illiberal, right-wing reaction sweeping the globe, the other of a dynastic media family — are really one. To see Fox News as an arm of the Trump White House risks missing the larger picture. It may be more accurate to say that the White House — just like the prime ministers’ offices in Britain and Australia — is just one tool among many that this family uses to exert influence over world events.

What do the Murdochs want? Family dynamics are complex, too, and media dynasties are animated by different factors — workaday business imperatives, the desire to pass on wealth, an old-fashioned sense of civic duty. But the Murdochs’ global operations suggest a different dynastic orientation, one centered on empire building in the original sense of the term: territorial conquest. Murdoch began with a small regional paper in Australia, inherited from his father. He quickly expanded the business into a national and then an international force, in part by ruthlessly using his platform to help elect his preferred candidates and then ruthlessly using those candidates to help extend his reach. Murdoch’s news empire is a monument to decades’ worth of transactional relationships with elected officials. Murdoch has said that he “never asked a prime minister for anything.” But press barons don’t have to ask when their media outlets can broadcast their desires. Politicians know what Murdoch wants, and they know what he can deliver: the base, their voters — power.

The Murdoch approach to empire building has reached its apotheosis in the Trump era. Murdoch had long dreamed of having a close relationship with an American president. On the surface, he and Trump have very little in common: One is a global citizen with homes around the world, a voracious reader with at least some sense of self-awareness. (Murdoch was photographed last year on the beach reading “Utopia for Realists,” by Rutger Bregman, the Dutch historian who later told Tucker Carlson in an interview that Carlson was a “millionaire funded by billionaires.”) The other is a proudly crass American who vacations at his own country clubs, dines on fast food and watches a lot of TV. But they are each a son of an aspiring empire builder, and their respective dynasties shared the same core value — growth through territorial conquest — and employed the same methods to achieve it, leveraging political relationships to gain power and influence. In Trump’s case, these relationships helped him secure zoning exemptions, tax abatements and global licensing deals; in Murdoch’s case, they allowed him to influence and evade antimonopoly and foreign-ownership rules.

Murdoch has carefully built an image during his six decades in media as a pragmatist who will support liberal governments when it suits him. Yet his various news outlets have inexorably pushed the flow of history to the right across the Anglosphere, whether they were advocating for the United States and its allies to go to war in Iraq in 2003, undermining global efforts to combat climate change or vilifying people of color at home or from abroad as dangerous threats to a white majority.

Even as his empire grew — traversing oceans, countries and media — Murdoch saw to it that it would always remain a family business. Underpinning it was a worldview that the government was the enemy of an independent media and a business model that depended nonetheless on government intervention to advance his interests and undermine those of his competitors. The Murdoch dynasty draws no lines among politics, money and power; they all work together seamlessly in service of the overarching goal of imperial expansion.

It would be impossible for an empire as sprawling as Murdoch’s to be completely culturally and ideologically consistent. He is a businessman who wants to satisfy his customers. His assets also include entertainment companies, sports networks and moderatebroadsheets. Murdoch embodies these same contradictions. He’s an immigrant stoking nationalism, a billionaire championing populism and a father who never saw any reason to keep his family separate from his business, and in fact had deliberately merged the two.

Most dynasties break apart eventually, as decision-making power is dispersed across individuals and generations with different attitudes about their family business and the world in general. No one knows this better than Murdoch, who in 2007 took over Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, by exploiting divisions within the Bancroft family, which had run the paper for more than a century. Murdoch thought he had protected himself from a similar fate by keeping a controlling interest in his empire; no one could take it away from him.

The challenge would be holding it together.


To understand how the Murdoch empire works, it is essential to return to its origins. On the day in 1931 that Rupert Murdoch was born, his father, Keith Murdoch, was in the midst of his first campaign to elect a prime minister from his newsroom in Australia. As a young newspaperman, Keith gained fame by evading military censors to report on the slaughter of his countrymen during the British-led Gallipoli campaign of World War I. He leveraged that fame to become a powerful executive at the Melbourne Herald and Weekly Times news company, a position that he in turn leveraged to punish his enemies and reward his allies: The candidate he was supporting for prime minister, Joseph Lyons, earlier helped Keith overcome regulatory restrictions to start a radio station for his company in Adelaide, according to the historian Tom Roberts’s 2015 biography of Murdoch’s father, “Before Rupert.” Lyons won, and as Keith saw it, Australia’s new leader served at his pleasure: “I put him there,” he reportedly said when the two later squabbled. “And I’ll put him out.”

RUPERT MURDOCH IN 1968. Aubrey Hart/Getty Images

As Keith was creating one of the country’s first national news chains, a regional Australian newspaper editorialized about the danger of his ambitions, warning, Roberts wrote, that he was creating “a press dictatorship for all Australia with Murdoch-inspired leaders and Murdoch-trained reporters.” Bound up with Keith’s business interests were ideological inclinations not just about how power should work but also about who should be allowed to exercise it: He was a member of the Eugenics Society of Victoria and in an editorial once wrote that the great question facing Britain was “will she, if needs be, fight — for a White Australia?”

Keith never built a true media empire. He did own two regional newspapers, one of which had to be sold to pay off his death duties when he died suddenly in 1952. That left only the 75,000-circulation News of Adelaide for his 21-year-old son, who was finishing his degree at Oxford. But Rupert Murdoch had already received something much more valuable from his father: an extended tutorial in how to use media holdings to extract favors from politicians.

His first order of business was to establish a proper Murdoch-owned empire in Australia. After buying a couple of additional local papers, he founded the country’s first national general-interest newspaper, The Australian, which gave him a powerful platform to help elect governments that eased national regulations designed to limit the size of media companies. He would eventually take control of nearly two-thirds of the national newspaper market. With the construction of his Australian media empire underway, Murdoch moved on to Britain and Fleet Street, using his newest acquisitions, The News of the World and The Sun, to successfully promote Margaret Thatcher’s candidacy for prime minister. Once elected, her government declined to refer his acquisition of The Times of London to antimonopoly regulators, giving him the country’s leading establishment broadsheet to go with his mass-circulation tabloids.

RUPERT MURDOCH IN 1969. Photograph from PA Images/Alamy

Television was next. After Murdoch lost the bidding for the British government’s sole satellite broadcasting license, Thatcher again came to his rescue, looking the other way when he started a rival service, Sky Television, which beamed programming into Britain from Luxembourg. The bigger Murdoch’s empire became, the more power he had to clear away obstacles to further its expansion. His influence became an uncomfortable fact of British political life, and Murdoch seemed to revel in it. “It’s The Sun Wot Won It,” The Sun declared on its front page in 1992, after helping send the Tory leader John Major to 10 Downing Street by relentlessly smearing the character of his opponent, Neil Kinnock. (“Nightmare on Kinnock Street,” The Sun headlined a savage nine-page package that included a satirical endorsement from the ghost of Joseph Stalin.) Murdoch could switch parties when it suited his purposes and ably supported Britain’s “New Labor” movement in the 1990s: Conservatives at the time had proposed regulations that would have forced him to scale back his newspaper operations in order to expand further into TV.

Murdoch used the same playbook in the United States. In 1980, he met Roy Cohn — the former adviser to Senator Joseph McCarthy and a Trump mentor — who introduced him to Gov. Ronald Reagan’s inner circle. It was a group that included Roger Stone Jr., another Trump confidant and the head of Reagan’s New York operations, who said in a later interview that he helped Murdoch weaponize his latest tabloid purchase, The New York Post, on Reagan’s behalf in the 1980 election. Reagan’s team credited Murdoch with delivering him the state that year — Murdoch gave Stone an Election Day printing plate from The Post over a celebratory meal at the 21 Club — and his administration subsequently facilitated Murdoch’s entry into the American television market, quickly approving his application for American citizenship so he could buy TV stations too.

The Reagan administration later waived a prohibition against owning a television station and a newspaper in the same market, allowing Murdoch to hold onto his big metro dailies, The New York Post and The Boston Herald, even as he moved into TV in both cities. The administration of George H.W. Bush suspended rules that forbade broadcast networks to own prime-time shows or to profit from them. That move allowed Murdoch to build the nation’s fourth broadcast network by rapidly filling out his schedule with shows from his newly acquired 20th Century Fox studio — “The Simpsons,” “21 Jump Street” — while also earning substantial profits from the production unit’s syndicated rerun hits like “M*A*S*H” and “L.A. Law.”

Maybe more than any media mogul of his generation, Murdoch exploited the seismic changes transforming the industry during the waning years of the 20th century (another lesson from Keith, an early adopter of radio and newsreels). These changes were driven by technology: It was now possible to transmit endless amounts of content all over the world in an instant. But they were also driven by regulatory changes, in particular the liberation of TV and radio operators from the government guidelines that ruled the public airwaves. The Reagan administration’s elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, which had for decades required broadcasters to present both sides of any major public-policy debate, spawned a new generation of right-wing radio personalities who were free to provide a different sort of opinion programming to a large, latent conservative audience that was mistrustful of the media in general. It was only a matter of time until similar programming started migrating to the burgeoning medium of 24-hour-a-day cable television. And it was of course Murdoch who imported it.

Murdoch had watched enviously as his younger rival, Ted Turner, built his own cable news network, CNN. In 1996, he and Roger Ailes, a former media adviser for Nixon and George H.W. Bush, started their conservative competitor, Fox News, which catered to those Americans whose political preferences had gone unaddressed on television news. Another political favor was crucial. When Time Warner, which owned CNN, refused to carry the new network on its cable system in New York, the city’s Republican mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani — another future Trump adviser and a lion in the pages of The Post — publicly pressured the cable company as the two sides moved toward an eventual deal.

A round-the-clock network with a virtual monopoly on conservative TV news, Fox conferred on Murdoch a whole new sort of influence that was enhanced by politically polarizing events like the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the post-Sept. 11 war in Iraq that marked its early years. If Murdoch’s papers were a blunt instrument, Fox’s influence was in some ways more subtle, but also far more profound: Hour after hour, day after day, it was shaping the realities of the millions of Americans who treated it as their primary news source. A 2007 study found that the introduction of the network on a particular cable system pushed local voters to the right: the Fox News Effect, as it became known. In a 2014 Pew Research poll, a majority of self-described conservatives said it was the only news network they trusted. Murdoch’s office above the Fox newsroom in Midtown Manhattan became a requisite stop on any serious Republican presidential candidate’s schedule.

Fifty years and an untold number of deals after taking possession of The News of Adelaide, Murdoch had arrived at the pinnacle of global influence. “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us,” David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, said in an interview with “Nightline.” “And now we’re discovering we work for Fox.”


Murdoch’s success in building his empire inevitably raised the question of who would rule it after he was gone. As he grew older, he would often say privately that he didn’t want to become another Sumner Redstone, the aging media mogul who had refused to cede control of CBS and Viacom, even as he was losing the ability to speak or eat unassisted. But as he turned 75, and then 80, Murdoch, too, had declined to lay out a plan for the future of his empire.

Initially he favored Lachlan, installing him as the general manager of one of his Australian newspaper chains at age 22 and overseeing his rise to the post of deputy chief operating officer of News Corp by age 33. But Lachlan’s rise was cut short after he clashed repeatedly with seasoned executives who viewed him as an entitled princeling. Furious at his father for siding against him in these disputes, Lachlan left the company — and the United States — in 2005, returning to the Murdochs’ ancestral homeland with a $100 million payout from the family trust. James, then the chief executive of British Sky Broadcasting — formerly Sky Television, later shortened to Sky — took over the mantle of heir apparent.

MURDOCH WITH HIS SONS, LACHLAN (LEFT) AND JAMES, IN ADELAIDE IN 2002. Peter Mathew/Fairfax Images, via Getty Images

But by the summer of 2015, Murdoch, now 84, had changed his mind: James was out, and Lachlan was once again next in line. The news was delivered to James not by his father but by Lachlan and the company’s president, Chase Carey, over lunch in Manhattan: Lachlan was moving back to the United States to take over the business. James would report to him.

James was livid. The two brothers and their father had explicitly discussed succession not even two years earlier. James was supposed to take over, and Lachlan would never assume more than a symbolic role. As James saw it, he had not only been promised the job; he had earned it. He had devoted years of his life to trying to build the company — moving his family to Hong Kong and London, making monthly trips to Mumbai to push the family’s satellite-TV businesses into emerging technology and new markets — while his brother was off in Australia spearfishing and making dubious investments. Angry and appalled, James threatened to quit, heading straight from lunch to the airport for a flight to Indonesia.

With a clipped, near-British accent and a penchant for wearing bluejeans and espadrilles, James reads as an archetype of today’s global power elite. Years ago, he was the family rebel, piercing his ears, dyeing his hair and having a light bulb tattooed on his right arm. As an undergraduate at Harvard, James flirted with becoming a medieval historian and joined the staff of The Harvard Lampoon before dropping out in 1995 to follow the Grateful Dead and start an independent hip-hop label, Rawkus Records, whose artists included Talib Kweli and Mos Def. A year later, his father bought Rawkus and brought James into News Corp, ending his short-lived foray outside the family business. In 2000, James married Kathryn Hufschmid, a fashion-marketing executive and part-time model from Oregon, whom he met on a mutual friend’s yacht bound for Fiji and whose more liberal politics made her an outlier in the Murdoch family. She argued frequently with her father-in-law over Fox’s politics. The constant sparring grew tiresome for Murdoch, who worried that Kathryn had too much influence over his younger son. He would often suggest to James that the two of them just go out to dinner alone when they needed to discuss something, according to a person close to Murdoch.

Even inside his father’s empire, James continued to view himself in idealistic terms, as the one best suited to drag the sprawling, often backward-thinking company into the future, whether that meant making all of its offices carbon-neutral, leading investments in digitally oriented businesses like Hulu or moderating the wilder impulses of Fox News. A self-described political centrist, James saw the network as one of the biggest obstacles to his efforts to diversify and expand the company. In a meeting of senior executives, one attendee recalled, he said he wanted to change the image of the Murdoch empire so that it was no longer viewed as a company “defined by a single product with a charismatic founder.”

Lachlan identified closely with that charismatic founder. His trajectory was very different from James’s. He shared his father’s attachment to Australia, both to his family’s long history inside the country and to its hypermasculine, rough-hewed culture. When he was younger, he worked as a jackeroo, herding and vaccinating sheep and lambs in rural Australia, and culled kangaroos from the family’s ranch in Cavan with a shotgun. (His father stuck to clay pigeons.) After graduating from Princeton, Lachlan returned to Australia to work in the family business, becoming an instant celebrity, known for wearing outback boots with his suits, riding a Kawasaki motorcycle to work, showing off his armband tattoo while rock climbing and courting the Australian model Sarah O’Hare, whom he married in 1999.

Lachlan doesn’t speak publicly about his politics, but his employees in Australia found that he took a hard line on many issues. Chris Mitchell, the longtime editor of The Australian, recalled in his 2016 memoir, “Making Headlines,” that “Lachlan’s conservatism is more vigorous than that of any Australian politician” and that his views were usually to the right of his father’s. Lachlan once presented himself at one of the family’s papers to express displeasure with its decision to run an editorial in support of same-sex marriage, according to three people who knew about the interaction at the time. (Lachlan said through a representative that he had no recollection of the incident and that he supports same-sex marriage.) According to people close to him, Lachlan questions what he sees as the exorbitant cost of addressing climate change and believes that the debate over global warming is getting too much attention.

Lachlan viewed his brother as a good executive, but he felt that he was the one who had taken risks and proved himself in Australia. It was true that some of his investments had failed — he’d bought a TV network, Ten, that went into receivership after losing $232 million in six months — but others, including a group of Top-100 and easy-listening radio stations, were earning tens of millions of dollars a year.

Murdoch had been trying for years to coax Lachlan back from Australia. Murdoch’s 2013 divorce from his third wife, Wendi Murdoch, helped change Lachlan’s mind. He and James had tried to talk their father out of marrying Wendi over a 1999 dinner at the Manhattan restaurant Babbo — she was the rare subject on which the two sons agreed — and both of them had grown even less fond of her in the years that followed. James and at least one other company executive had heard from senior foreign officials that they believed she was a Chinese intelligence asset. And family members felt that she treated their father terribly, calling him “old” and “stupid.” (A spokesman for Wendi Murdoch denied these claims.)

Apart from Wendi, the sons were at odds about almost everything. They were not only fighting over control of their father’s empire; they were fighting over one of his homes, a 8,651-square-foot Spanish-style mansion in Beverly Hills. Murdoch bought the house furnished in the 1980s from the music mogul Jules Stein, and his sons had a sentimental attachment to it, having spent a lot of time there as children. According to six people close to the family, James and Lachlan were upset to learn that their father had put the house on the market and had a $35 million offer on it from Leonardo DiCaprio. The brothers briefly discussed buying the house together; whoever happened to be in L.A. at any given moment could use it. James finally agreed to buy the house himself at a discounted price of $30 million, though after he and Kathryn did so, they learned that it needed four new retaining walls, costing them millions of dollars more. Lachlan was upset that his brother had gotten the house. As a gift, Murdoch gave him some of the antique furniture inside, even though James and Kathryn thought they had bought it furnished.

While James was overseas, ready to quit, his father and brother came up with a compromise: All of 21st Century Fox’s divisions would report to both of them. James would be chief executive, while Lachlan would share the more exalted title of co-chairman with his father. The announcement would be carefully worded to suggest that they were coequals, to protect James from the public humiliation, even though Lachlan was technically the senior executive. Their salaries were identical, roughly $20 million a year to start. Each would have access to corporate planes for professional and personal use. James would be based in the company’s corporate offices in Midtown Manhattan, Lachlan on the other side of the country, in the vast chairman’s office formerly occupied by his father in Building 88 on the 21st Century Fox lot, which he decorated with a picture of the Cavan ranch and a 1979 black-and-white photograph of Murdoch standing in front of a New York Post printing press.


James warily agreed to the terms, but the question of succession was not fully resolved. The news coverage of their promotions made no distinction between the seniority of their respective positions: Publicly at least, James was still seen as the heir apparent. When the dust finally settled, the two sons sat down for an interview with The Hollywood Reporter headlined, “The New Age of Murdochs.”

Lachlan described the transition as “seamless.”


In early 2015, Murdoch got a call from Ivanka Trump, proposing lunch with her and her father.

They met soon after in the corporate dining room of the Fox News building in Midtown Manhattan. Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, came, too. Just as the first course was being served, Trump told Murdoch that he was going to run for president.

Murdoch didn’t even look up from his soup, according to three people who independently shared the story. “You have to be prepared to be rapped up badly,” Murdoch replied, using an expression for taking some knocks.

Murdoch was deeply entwined with the Trump family. Trump had aggressively cultivated The Post during his rise to celebrity in New York in the late ’70s and ’80s. Kushner became close to Murdoch after he purchased The New York Observer in 2006. An improbable friendship blossomed between the octogenarian mogul and the 30-something publishing parvenu, with Murdoch and Wendi even taking Kushner and Ivanka on vacation in the Caribbean on Murdoch’s yacht. After Murdoch’s divorce in 2013, Kushner, who was also in the real estate business, helped him find a decorator for his new bachelor apartment. Ivanka was one of five individuals designated to oversee the trust for Murdoch and Wendi’s two daughters, which held $300 million in stock in News Corp and 21st Century Fox. (She relinquished her role as a trustee in 2016.)

DONALD TRUMP, ANNA MANN AND RUPERT MURDOCH IN THE 1990S. The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

Murdoch recognized Trump’s appeal as a tabloid character and ratings driver, but he did not see him as a serious person, let alone a credible candidate for president. “He’s a [expletive] idiot,” Murdoch would say when asked about Trump, three people close to him told us (Through a spokeswoman, Murdoch denied that he ever used this phrase to describe Trump.).

Roger Ailes, the longtime head of Fox News, was no more generous, at least when Trump was out of earshot. Ailes was close to Trump, too: Their alliance dated back to Rudolph Giuliani’s 1989 New York mayoral campaign, for which Ailes worked as a media adviser and Trump as a fund-raising figurehead. It was Ailes who, in 2011, gave Trump his regular Monday-morning slot on “Fox & Friends,” which Trump used to advance his “birther” campaign. Still, Ailes ranted indignantly about the notion of a Trump presidency, saying that he wasn’t remotely worthy of the Oval Office, a person close to him at the time told us.

Fox News’s initial resistance to promoting his candidacy came as an unpleasant surprise to Trump, who had assumed that his relationships with Murdoch and Ailes would ensure positive coverage. Ailes had even written Trump an email asking what he could do to help him. (After scrawling an enthusiastic note on top, Trump sent a printout of that email to his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.)

During the campaign’s early months, it fell mostly to Ailes to manage the network’s tumultuous relationship with Trump, who complained constantly that Fox favored Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Trump was driven into a near-weekly rage by the Fox News host Bret Baier’s Friday-night segment, “Candidate Casino.” Opening with a graphic of a spinning roulette wheel and Vegas-style lights, Baier and his round table of political analysts would place bets on the probable party nominees. Even though Trump was winning in most of the polls, Baier’s parlor of experts regularly placed him toward the bottom of the pack.

It was especially galling to Trump because he and Baier had golfed together, and Baier had briefly been a member at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach. (Baier dropped his membership when it became clear that Trump was likely to run for the presidency.) After the Fox contributor and Weekly Standard editor Stephen F. Hayes called Trump “a clown,” Trump faxed Baier a copy of his résumé, with a note scrawled across it in black marker: “Tell Hayes no clown could have done all this!” Trump even complained about Fox while appearing on Fox, ticking off, during a live interview with Sean Hannity, the contributors who should be fired because they were “biased” against him.

Trump wasn’t without leverage in his relationship with Fox. The Murdoch formula was to deliver the enthusiasm of reactionary readers and viewers to chosen candidates, but Trump was already generating plenty of enthusiasm on his own. His hard-core supporters made up Fox’s core audience, and his social media accounts gave him a direct connection to them. If these supporters had to choose between Trump and Fox, Ailes might not like the results. At the same time, a new crop of right-wing outlets — Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, One America News, Sinclair — were embracing his candidacy, and mainstream broadcasters were no less aware of what he could do for their ratings. “I can go on the ‘Today’ show in my pajamas, and five million people will watch,” he warned Ailes, a former Trump campaign official recalled.


After the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly asked Trump, during the first Republican primary debate in the summer of 2015, to defend his comments about women — “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals” — Trump demanded that Ailes force her to publicly apologize, according to the former Trump campaign official. (She didn’t.) Six months later, on the eve of another Republican debate in Des Moines, which Trump was boycotting because Kelly was once again moderating, Ailes tried desperately to persuade Trump to change his mind. His hopes were dashed when Trump called him from the tarmac in Iowa to refuse, having just watched the Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer mock him on the network. Without Trump, the event drew just half the viewership of Fox’s first debate.

Kushner was privately lobbying Murdoch to reconsider his attitude toward his father-in-law, showing him videos of the candidate’s overflowing campaign rallies on his iPhone. Even as Trump gained momentum, Murdoch continued to look for alternatives. Over the summer of 2015, he wrote a personal check for $200,000 to the super PAC of Gov. John Kasich, the relatively moderate Republican from Ohio, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Aware of her father-in-law’s dim view of Trump, James’s wife, Kathryn, tried to broker a meeting between Murdoch and Hillary Clinton. Having worked for the Clinton Climate Initiative, she knew both the Clintons and their inner circle of advisers and hoped Murdoch might consider an endorsement, or at least commit to staying neutral. The idea was not so far-fetched. Murdoch had, after all, backed Tony Blair, a Clinton-style Labor Party centrist, and had once even hosted a Senate fund-raiser for Hillary. Murdoch felt he didn’t need his daughter-in-law’s help. In fact, he called Clinton personally, leaving a message at her campaign headquarters. Clinton called back almost immediately but declined his invitation to meet with him. (A spokesman for Clinton did not respond to a request for comment.)

During the primaries, Trump honed his political identity, railing against military intervention, free trade and immigration. They were all positions that directly contradicted Murdoch’s own, more neoconservative views. Murdoch had enthusiastically supported the Iraq War, evangelized for open immigration policies — even urging Australia to avoid the “self defeating” anti-immigration debate in the United States — and endorsed international trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His attitude toward Trump’s emergent ideology was often captured on the unremittingly anti-Trump editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. The page’s editor, Paul Gigot, was in frequent contact with his paper’s owner, according to sources familiar with the conversations. And yet Murdoch was in a sense responsible for unleashing the forces that were now propelling Trump’s rise. During the Obama years, Fox News had found ratings and profits with its wall-to-wall coverage of raucous Tea Party rallies and the opinion shows that advanced the campaign to delegitimize the country’s first African-American president. As the Republican nominating process progressed, this populist, anti-establishment energy was unmistakably coalescing around Trump.


By March 2016, Donald Trump, the man Murdoch had so quickly dismissed a year earlier, was now the clear front-runner, and Murdoch was taking his first tentative steps toward embracing him.

“If he becomes inevitable, party would be mad not to unify,” he tweeted.


Across the Atlantic, a similar right-wing wave was threatening to drive Britain out of the European Union. Murdoch had a hand in that as well. His most influential tabloid, The Sun, had long been advocating for an exit from the E.U., and so had Murdoch himself, distilling his opposition to the E.U. into a single quote to Anthony Hilton, a columnist at The Evening Standard: “When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice.” (Murdoch subsequently denied saying this; Hilton stood by the quote.) Prime Minister John Major told a judicial inquiry that in 1997 Murdoch said that he could not support him if he didn’t change his stance toward Europe, which the prime minister took as a demand for an E.U. referendum. (Murdoch denied this, too.) As the summer of 2016 approached, that referendum was finally coming.

The idea of Britain’s splitting from the E.U. had always seemed more like a nativist fever dream than a realistic political goal. But in 2016, Brexit proponents could scan the globe and see cause for optimism. Not only was Trump’s campaign surging in the United States, but reactionary nationalism was also gaining supporters worldwide: In Austria’s presidential elections, the candidate of the Freedom Party, founded by former Nazi officers, narrowly lost in a runoff. The Philippines had just elected as president Rodrigo Duterte, following a campaign during which he inveighed against the country’s business and political elites and promised to kill so many criminals that the fish in Manila Bay would “grow fat” from feeding on their dead bodies. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, had already built his own version of a border wall, miles of barbed wire aimed at turning back what he later called “Muslim invaders.”

In the weeks leading up to the vote, The Sun led the London tabloids in hammering the case for leaving the European Union. It cast Brexit as a choice between the “arrogant europhiles” and the country’s working class, while railing against “mass immigration which keeps wages low and puts catastrophic pressure on our schools, hospitals, roads and housing stock.” It still looked like a long shot, and Murdoch’s other British newspaper, the more sober Times, had encouraged its wealthier and more politically moderate readers to vote in favor of remaining in the European Union. But The Sun was where Murdoch’s heart — and influence — lay.


How much influence he still wielded in British politics was an open question. Murdoch had effectively been chased out of London five years earlier in the wake of the biggest crisis of his career: the revelations that his News of the World tabloid had, in search of dirt, been systematically hacking into the phones of politicians, celebrities, royals and even a 13-year-old schoolgirl. The scandal that followed, itself fit for tabloid headlines, would permanently alter the course of both the family and its empire. One of Murdoch’s executives, Rebekah Brooks, a virtual seventh child to Murdoch, was arrested, tried and acquitted. Andy Coulson, a former Murdoch editor who had gone to work for Prime Minister David Cameron, was sent to prison for encouraging his reporters to engage in illegal practices. In a futile effort at damage control, the company spent millions of dollars settling claims from hacking victims. Murdoch and James, who was running the company’s European and Asian operations from London at the time, were grilled in a public hearing before Parliament. James denied knowing that the phone-hacking was widespread but was publicly confronted with an email he was sent in 2008 alerting him to the potential severity of the problem. (He said that he had not reviewed “the full email chain.”)

It was a corporate scandal, but because of the nature of this corporation, it was also a family matter. James blamed his father for having allowed the freebooting, anything-goes culture to take root at the paper and for forcing him to absorb so much of the blame for the scandal, when the hacking itself took place before he took charge. As James saw it, his father was angry that he wouldn’t conduct a cover-up; James went so far as to tell some members of the board that he was concerned about Murdoch’s mental health. For his part, Murdoch blamed James for surrounding himself with feckless, sycophantic advisers who failed to neutralize the crisis when it still could have been contained. Elisabeth, having long been out of the succession mix, reinserted herself, urging her father to fire James and replace him with her, four people familiar with the conversations told us. (Through a spokesperson, Elisabeth denied that she encouraged her brother’s firing or asked for his job.) Murdoch agreed to fire James but reversed his decision before it became public. Lachlan used the opportunity to play the family savior in a time of crisis, calling his father from Bangkok — en route to Britain from Australia — to urge him not to do anything rash. He swept into the company’s London offices looking tan, fit and rested, despite the daylong flight from Australia. His presence appeared to be an instant comfort to his father.

The public shaming did not end with the scandal — a worldwide news event for months — or the interrogation by Parliament. A judicial inquiry investigated the practices of the British press, with Murdoch’s papers front and center. The resulting document, the Leveson Report, depicted a country in which a single family had amassed so much power that it had come to feel that the rules did not apply to them. “Sometimes the very greatest power is exercised without having to ask,” the report said. In their discussions with Murdoch, “politicians knew that the prize was personal and political support in his mass-circulation newspapers.”

By the time the Leveson Report was released in 2012, Murdoch had shut down The News of the World and was keeping a low profile in Britain. Several factors accounted for his return in 2016, including his recent marriage to his fourth wife, Jerry Hall. They met in Australia, where Hall was playing Mrs. Robinson in a stage adaptation of “The Graduate.” Hall had a teenage son in London, and she and Murdoch were spending a lot of time in the 26-room house that she owned with her former partner, Mick Jagger.

Now back in the city where he once wooed Margaret Thatcher, Murdoch used Britain’s largest tabloid to rally readers to vote to leave the European Union. The Sun’s cover on the day of the Brexit referendum was a picture of corporate synergy: “Independence Day: Britain’s Resurgence,” it read, over a mock version of the poster for the 21st Century Fox movie “Independence Day: Resurgence,” which opened in Britain that day. Murdoch flew in to London from Cannes for the vote and soon visited the newsroom of the anti-Brexit Times to gloat, joking to his reporters about their glum faces. Later, he likened the country’s decision to leave the European Union to “a prison break” and celebrated the vote with Nigel Farage, a leading architect of Brexit (and a future Fox News contributor), at a garden party at the London mansion of the Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev.

The referendum represented the realization of a long-deferred dream for Murdoch. But it also returned him to a position of influence in British politics that seemed inconceivable just a few years earlier. Not only had The Sun played a critical role in delivering the Brexit vote, but in the ensuing political upheaval, it had swung behind Theresa May, helping ensure her election as prime minister. Once in office, she found time for a private meeting with Murdoch on one of her first foreign trips: a less-than-36-hour visit to New York to address the United Nations.


Days after the vote, Trump, who had seemed to be struggling with the basic principles of Brexit in an interview with The Sun a few weeks earlier, visited Scotland for a victory lap of his own: “I said this was going to happen, and I think that it’s a great thing.” He, too, found time for Murdoch, inviting him and Jerry Hall to dinner with Kushner and Ivanka at his golf course in Aberdeen. Photographers captured them riding off in a golf cart, with Trump at the wheel and Murdoch lounging in the back.


The summer of 2016 was a good time to be a network with a dedicated audience of right-wing viewers. And yet the future of Fox News had never seemed more uncertain: Murdoch’s flagship network was now backing a Republican presidential nominee who not only represented a radical departure from the party’s traditional platform but who also seemed destined to lose in a few months. What’s more, that network’s lodestar, Roger Ailes, had just been forced out following multiple claims of sexual harassment.

It was James and Lachlan who teamed up to push Ailes out, over the initial objections of their father. Ailes was another rare subject on which the two sons agreed, though they disliked him for different reasons. Lachlan had clashed repeatedly with Ailes early in his career in New York. He told friends that he reached his breaking point with his father in 2005 when he learned that Murdoch had said to Ailes, “Don’t worry about the boy.” For his part, James saw Ailes as a boorish showman who embodied many of the most retrograde impulses of the network’s opinion programming: its nativism; its paranoiac attitude toward Muslims and undocumented immigrants; its embrace of conspiracy; and, maybe most of all, its climate-change denialism.

James saw in Ailes’s exit an opportunity to push the network in a new direction. He wanted to bring in an experienced news executive who would reposition it as a more responsible, if still conservative, outlet — one whose hosts would no longer be free to vent without adhering to basic standards of accuracy, fairness and, as he saw it, decency. One candidate he had in mind was David Rhodes. Then the president of CBS News, Rhodes was a former Fox News executive, as well as the brother of Ben Rhodes, a foreign-policy adviser for Obama. Both Murdoch and Lachlan dismissed the idea. They wanted continuity, not change. Like his father, Lachlan considered the idea of meddling with such an important profit driver a form of madness.


Rather than replace Ailes with a new executive, Murdoch moved into his office and took over the job himself, a short-term solution intended to reassure both shareholders and talent. He was soon back in the newsroom, attending meetings and visiting sets — “my retirement job,” he called it — and was having more fun than he’d had in years.

Having once dismissed Trump’s candidacy, Murdoch now threw himself wholly behind it. During the final stretch of the campaign, Fox cut back appearances by anti-Trump analysts and contributors and added pro-Trump ones, while also ramping up its attacks on Hillary Clinton. Sean Hannity built shows around the same sorts of false claims that were circulating on far-right internet sites and suspected Russian social media accounts, suggesting that Clinton was sufferingfrom a possibly life-threatening illness and that one of her Secret Service agents was carrying a diazepam pen, which is commonly used to treat seizures. (It was actually a flashlight.) One anti-Clinton segment was built around an appearance by Jeff Rovin, who had for years been the editor in chief of The Weekly World News, the supermarket tabloid best known for claiming that Hillary Clinton was possessed by Satan and had carried on an affair with a space alien named P’Lod. Other Murdoch outlets were swinging behind Trump, too: At The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, Trump critics felt increasing pressure to moderate their positions. (The Journal’s news side, by contrast, broke the first story about The National Enquirer’s role in Trump’s efforts to buy the silence of women claiming affairs with him.)


With Clinton taking on an air of inevitability, James and Kathryn invited Kushner and Ivanka to a small dinner salon they were hosting at their Upper East Side townhouse with a guest speaker: Adm. James Stavridis, a Democrat who had been talked about as a possible vice-presidential pick for Clinton. James and Kathryn knew Kushner and Ivanka socially and considered the invitation a gesture of empathy, a person who attended the dinner told us. They had endured their own public humiliation during the hacking scandal in London and wanted to show solidarity with the couple, and they also let them know that they would be welcomed back into polite Manhattan society after Trump lost.

As the early returns came in on election night, Kathryn received a text message from her father-in-law, who was in the Fox newsroom: “Looks like your girl’s going to win.”

Continue reading Part 2, when Trump’s presidency cements Murdoch’s global influence — and the bitter struggle between his sons threatens to tear the company apart.

Jonathan Mahler is a staff writer for the magazine who has previously written about the relationship between CNN and Donald Trump. Jim Rutenberg is the Times media columnistand a writer at large for the magazine, writing about media and political organizations.

Photo illustrations by Joan Wong

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