Last week Rupert Murdoch announced that he was stepping down as chairman of both News Corp and Fox, walking away from a global empire that he built out of a regional Australian newspaper publisher. Questions have been raised over the future of its dominant Australian media platforms in a post-Rupert world, as when the Murdoch succession is finalised in November the two multinational mass-media giants will be taken over by his son Lachlan Murdoch, who is currently the executive chair and CEO of Fox Corporation.
For Rupert, it’s the end of a prominent career that has not just “shaped Prime Ministers and their agendas”, but also redefined public communication, according to associate professor Shane Homan, head of Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism.
“In establishing Fox News, he provided the template for a post-truth world where winning the debate must always triumph over the public good of informing societies,” Homan says.
Like father, like son; this ethos seems unlikely to change.
A cast of prominent characters
This turning point in the Western media landscape has long been anticipated. Public interest in the complex web of Murdoch family relationships made HBO’s Succession one of the biggest shows in the world, as the drama is inspired by the lead-up to this very event.
Once the assumed – though not clear – heir apparent, Lachlan began working for his father at a young age, spending significant time in the Australian media as part of a globetrotting apprenticeship. But after a conflict with Rupert in 2005, Lachlan stepped away into a decade of “exile” to make his own path, finding both success with Nova Entertainment and failure in a venture with James Packer to take over Network Ten.
His siblings had been ready to step in. Though there are six Murdoch children in total, only those from Rupert’s second marriage were reportedly ever considered. Elisabeth Murdoch had previously been part of the game, but by 2005 she had also resigned to pursue a path of her own with Shine Group, a successful yet indebted production company that was eventually sold to Fox in 2011.
Younger brother, James Murdoch was the likely successor, for a time. He held various portfolios across his time with the company, but became best known for his entanglement in the fallout of the 2011 News of the World hacking scandal alongside Rupert. Most recently he served as chief executive of Fox’s entertainment division but resigned in 2020 after it was sold to Disney and Lachlan stepped up to lead the company. James became a vocal critic of the strategies of News Corp, diminishing the chances of his return to the business.
The unfolding transition seems to have been on the cards since, and any further challenge, though rumoured, seems unlikely.
Is The Australian in trouble after the Murdoch succession?
According to the ABC, a strategy pivot won’t be rushed for the Australian brands of News Corp. But, there is potential for a reduction of investment into the newspaper format as Murdoch generations change with the times, despite Lachlan’s own past leading News Limited in the 1990s.
“Murdoch has always been the master of the signature acquisition – for example, the Wall Street Journal. With a new wave of management, it will be interesting to see if the current News Corp structures endure, especially in the ways that broadcasting subsidises some branches of his print empire,” says Homan.
This year, earnings across News Corp collapsed, with full-year profits falling 75 percent to US$187 million from US$760 million, it announced in August. Since News Corp Australia’s digital and print advertising profit declined more sharply than overseas, pressure has likely been placed on the subsidiary and The Australian in particular given its poor record of profitability post-GFC. As ad spend is down across the industry in this similarly harsh climate, advertising revenue seems unlikely to come rushing back soon for News Corp.
Other prominent Murdoch platforms are better equipped to thrive in the digital age compared to a costly national newspaper. Under Lachlan, Fox and Sky News have introduced a focus on digital, building an online presence of short-form content that can be spread across social media.
Media analyst Peter Cox told The Guardian that Lachlan could look to sell Foxtel and News Corp’s influential newspapers, despite the best time for such sales having passed.
“The best windows of opportunity have passed on those, but that’s not to say Lachlan still can’t do it. But he needs to have the newspapers to have the influence he wants.”
Another Australian face could soon have a controlling stake in the media empire, as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was recently nominated for a position on the board of directors of Fox Corporation.
His “skills, experience and perspectives” were celebrated by Lachlan after the nomination was announced.
Image sourced from News Corp.