Celebration was in the air as Rupert Murdoch, his sons Lachlan and James and executives from his newspaper and broadcast empire took their seats in the private dining room at Hammersmith’s River Cafe.
As ever, the fashionable watering hole of London’s media elites was abuzz with lively mid-week chatter, but even among these sophisticates the presence of the three Murdochs together stilled conversations.
They were in town to mark the success of a deal the media tycoon had struck, yet at the table with its crisp white cloth and freshly cut flowers, family tensions were palpable.
One of the guests that evening recalled the very different tone Murdoch senior adopted when addressing his two sons.
Rupert Murdoch at the Newscorp Summer Party at the Oxo Tower,London with James, Lachlan, and Elisabeth
Elisabeth, 55, was said to be the sharpest of his children, but Murdoch the establishment disruptor curiously subscribed to the old-fashion traditions of a son with the family name inheriting (Pictured, Elisabeth Murdoch at The Eurostar Station, Waterloo)
‘With James there was this sense almost of contempt coming from the older man at what he had to say,’ the guest said. ‘When he talked to Lachlan, on the other hand, there was an altogether different and warmer quality to his responses.
‘I don’t know how many other people picked up on it, there was a lot of drinking going on, but it certainly struck me.’
The guest noted one other thing: a bubbling animosity bordering on hostility between the two brothers separated in age by just 15 months.
Brothers who were once whisper close, but are now also separated by politics and outlook. ‘I kept thinking one of them was going to leap over the table and attack the other,’ he added.
This extraordinary scene was played out some time before the seismic events of this week in which 92-year-old Murdoch announced he was stepping back from his vast empire and handing over control to Lachlan, 52, his elder son and for some time his designated heir apparent.
At a stroke this bold move appeared to answer a question which has obsessed broadcasters and politicians across the globe for decades: who would succeed Rupert Murdoch as the most powerful media figure in the English-speaking world?
But has the issue finally been resolved? Because many are now wondering if, rather than drawing a line under the machinations, this Succession-style ending will instead trigger the kind of infighting and bitter sibling rivalry that was at the heart of the TV drama based on a billionaire media family eerily similar to the Murdochs.
The suggestion is that the battle for both the soul and the riches of a corporation Rupert spent 70 years building up is, rather than ending, only now beginning.
For if Lachlan’s accession to the throne of The Sun King — as his father was dubbed — was widely expected, it by no means guarantees his long-term security.
Once Murdoch senior is no longer around, leadership of this vast family business is likely to be contested — unless a peaceful accommodation can be reached between Lachlan and James.
And, as we have seen, that prospect seems as far away as ever. In which case it will become a shoot-out between the brothers with the winner being the one who can win the support of their sisters.
Thanks to the way Murdoch structured the ownership of his companies, his four adult children from his first two marriages — Prudence, Lachlan, Elisabeth and James — will eventually inherit his voting control of News Corp and Fox, a conglomerate with assets ranging from the Wall Street Journal, New York Post and the Fox News channel in the U.S. to The Sun, The Times and publishers Harper Collins in Britain.
Flowing from all of that are the proceeds from the old man’s extreme wealth — his vast portfolio of homes on three continents: the condos, penthouses and mansions as well as ranches and vineyards.
Not to mention an art collection, a sumptuous yacht which has never been publicly identified, cars, and an $84 million jet, the G650, the largest and most luxurious private jet on the market.
There is certainly a lot to go round, from the 340,000-acre Montana ranch and Los Angeles winery to the $50 million New York apartment with floor-to-ceiling glass walls and the Central London home in St James’s.
This will be a game of homes to put even King Charles’s lavish property interests in the shade.
It is not as though his children are exactly paupers, either — all four received $2 billion five years ago from the sale of Murdoch’s entertainment arm 21st Century Fox to Disney, now widely regarded as one of his slickest coups as he sold at the top of the market.
Each lives in sumptuous style. Lachlan has a $150 million mansion in Los Angeles’s ritzy Bel Air built on the scale of a French chateau, while James has an equally vast pile in Beverly Hills.
Elisabeth, who is married to the Turner Prize-winning artist Keith Tyson, has been building a sprawling property in the Cotswolds, not far from the home of her former husband, PR guru Matthew Freud with whom she lived in a fabulous Grade I-listed Oxfordshire priory.
Prudence, Murdoch’s daughter from his marriage to first wife Patricia, lives quietly in Australia where there are other family properties, including a 25,000-acre sheep and cattle station her father bought in the 1960s before he became a media mogul.
It was, of course, Murdoch himself who set the path for what is now about to unfold between his eldest children (his daughters Chloe and Grace from his third marriage to Wendi Deng have a financial stake but no voting rights in the empire).
James did not attend the 90th birthday celebrations for his father and wasn’t there this summer while the tycoon was wooing the new love in his life, Elena Zhukova. (Pictured, Rupert Murdoch and molecular biologist Elena Zhukova)
He long wanted one of the three children he had with second wife Anna — Lachlan, James and Elisabeth — to take over the company and believed a Darwinian struggle would produce the most capable heir. ‘He pitted his kids against each other their entire lives,’ Vanity Fair quoted a family source saying. ‘It’s sad.’
The speculation as to the succession can be dated to 1994 when, prophetically, he said: ‘I expect to do it [hand over] in about 30 years.’ Give or take a month he was almost spot on.
Elisabeth, 55, was said to be the sharpest of his children, but Murdoch the establishment disruptor curiously subscribed to the old-fashion traditions of a son with the family name inheriting.
Lachlan, he declared, was first among equals and soon after, in 2000, Elisabeth quit the family business and launched her own successful television production company, Shine.
Lachlan shared his father’s Right-wing politics and, apparently, his love for newsprint as well as the rugged landscape of their Australia homeland.
He was seen as the ‘golden child’, the one with whom his father was most closely aligned. But just as with TV’s Succession, this drama had its share of reverses and shifts in the perceived rankings of the siblings.
Murdoch worried that tattooed, easy-going Lachlan, with his love for rock climbing, was a little too relaxed and did not want the top job enough.
When Lachlan clashed with Fox News’ then chief Roger Ailes, it all but confirmed it.
News Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch leaves his house in London holding a copy of The Sun newspaper
Publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch at the printing presses of the New York Post
Chairman of News Corp, Rupert Murdoch, Photographed in his office in Melbourne
Abruptly in 2005 he quit as News Corp’s deputy chief operating officer, moved back to Sydney with his young family and set up a private investment firm.
That left James as heir apparent and for a decade it seemed he was the likeliest successor.
But his liberal politics — he vowed to make the business carbon-neutral and invested in prestige brands such as National Geographic channel — led to another crisis, again over Fox News. This time it was over the network’s hardcore conservative bias and he, too, quit.
In the years since, James has developed an atavistic hatred for Fox News, delivering an implicit rebuke of the channel without naming it over the storming of Washington’s Capitol building in 2021.
‘The sacking of the Capitol is proof positive that what we thought was dangerous is indeed very, very much so,’ he said. ‘These outlets that propagate lies to their audiences have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years.’
He withdrew completely from the family’s news operations and began a media fund called Lupa Systems investing in Left-leaning companies. By then his brother had returned from Australia and resumed his position as his father’s heir.
So what does all this mean? Of one thing we can be certain: it is the UK-based Elisabeth who will be kingmaker.
The media executive, who this week was in Cambridge for the Royal Television Society’s conference, remains close to both brothers who are now polar opposites, both politically and ideologically.
Indeed, the two men are now said to no longer speak.
Lachlan is in step with his father’s conservative opinion; James loathes Fox for its full-throated defence of former president Donald Trump, which he considers toxic and a menace to American democracy.
Last year, he hosted a fundraiser for Joe Biden’s Democrats. Murdoch observers believe James is, however, biding his time until he and his sisters can seize control of the company after Rupert is gone and sell or purge Fox. But there is no guarantee this scenario will come to pass.
The family dynamics are constantly shifting. When James was based in Britain during the crisis over the phone-hacking scandal and the now-defunct News of the World, Elisabeth was reported to have told her father that her brother should be sacked.
When the family celebrated Lachlan’s 40th birthday in 2011 on board Rupert’s 184ft yacht, Rosehearty (which he later sold), Elisabeth left before James and his wife Kathryn arrived.
They are close now, but she is equally fond of Lachlan — joining him and their father for this year’s Super Bowl in Arizona.
A figure close to her was reported as saying that she wants to enjoy the time she has left with her father. ‘She’s terrified of Rupert dying mad at her,’ the source added.
In a family as volatile as the Murdochs — just like Successions’ Roys — there are simply no absolutes.
Remember, it is not that long ago that Vanity Fair was reporting that Lachlan had accused James of leaking storylines to the makers of the TV series and told his father that he thought this was happening.
James did not attend the 90th birthday celebrations for his father and wasn’t there this summer while the tycoon was wooing the new love in his life, Elena Zhukova, former mother-in-law of oligarch Roman Abramovich. Tellingly, Lachlan and his children were present.
In every empire with an ageing monarch the first hint of a new crown prince is enough to whip courtiers into a frenzy. It happened in Succession and many believe it will inevitably happen with the Murdochs, too.
Publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch with sample newspapers and magazines published by his international conglomerate at the offices of the New York Post
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
Yesterday, it was suggested that Rupert’s announcement was aimed at an audience of just two — daughters Liz and Prue.
For now, Murdoch can do as he pleases but, after his death, the family trust holds the assets and each of the four siblings carries an equal vote. How the women cast their votes will be crucial.
Insiders tend to the view that Elisabeth will ultimately back James and Prudence will side with the majority.
That would be 3-1 against Lachlan. Within this highly competitive family there is said to be a motto: you either win or walk away. Which is why no one is taking bets on the final outcome.
Curiously, there is one recent and rare example of unanimity — the antipathy of his elder children towards his fourth marriage to the model Jerry Hall. When it ended in divorce after six years, she blamed Murdoch’s kids.
What baffles Murdoch-watchers is why he was prepared to unleash a new frenzy of speculation about the company so soon after matters had finally settled down following the multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Fox over its claims about vote-rigging in the 2020 U.S. election.
It has shone a light on the empire’s uncertain future and triggered a Succession-style furore.
For decades the Murdoch name has evoked admiration, envy and fear. Suddenly the legacy question has triggered another emotion: uncertainty.