April 15th, 2012

What happens when Rupert Murdoch dies?

Since he’s made fortunes by pandering to the public’s voyeurism about the private life of every other celebrity in the world, he and his adult family are fair game for less idle speculation. There’s a strong public-interest defence. Paris Hilton, English football referees, and the Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland &c are inconsequential from 20,000 feet. Not so the tycoons and dynasties of the Second Gilded Age, the Buffetts, Gates’, Kochs and Slims; and most especially the media barons, the Berlusconis, Marinhos, and Murdochs, who wield more than economic power. Berlusconi only wrecked public life for a generation in one country, Italy. Rupert Murdoch has shifted the public discourse of the most powerful country in the world in the direction of ignorant, paranoid and callous populism; worldwide, he has delayed action on global warming by perhaps a decade. at a social cost of hundreds of billions. These are far greater (I mean worse) achievements than Hearst’s Cuban war.

Politically, we are interested in two questions:

  • will Fox News in the US implode or become less virulent?
  • globally, will News Corp’s media continue to sponsor climate denialism?

My speculations at the end. But first, pass the popcorn for the forthcoming struggles for News Corporation, they will be quite something. Your guide to the show should be diligent Murdoch-watcher Sarah Ellison at Vanity Fair.
The dramatis personae:
King Rupert, aged 81, an ailing but still dominating tyrant; planning to die in harness. He has the health problems inherent to his age; that is, within the next few years, he is likely to suffer either sudden death or a deterioration which will force him, like Lear, to hand over the kingdom to his children. The transition will be rapid and complete. If a graceful retreat into grey eminence had been within his character, he’d have done it long ago. Slideshow of the family here.
The heirs:
Elisabeth, Duchess of Soho, age 43; held high posts in Murdoch’s British TV operation BSkyB, left around 2000 to pursue an independent career in TV production, but rejoined News Corp. in 2011.
Lachlan, Duke of Brisbane, age 40: once groomed for the succession, but quarrelled with his father in 2005 and now runs an independent TV operation in Australia.

James, Duke of Wapping, aged 39; current heir apparent, but very exposed in Britain as a result of the phone hacking and police corruption scandal created by News’ British tabloid newspapers. ¬≠
The chorus of women, who have no known interest in the operations of News Corp but intervene to protect their partly overlapping, partly divergent dynastic interests:
Lady Prudence, Rupert’s daughter by his first wife Patricia, deceased;
Lady Anna, Rupert’s second wife, mother of Elisabeth, Lachlan and James;
Lady Wendi, Rupert’s third wife, mother of two minor children, Grace (age 11) and Chloe (age 9).
Grace and Chloe can be counted out as possible managerial successors unless Rupert lives to 100.
Others:
Ailes, a plebeian soldier of fortune, age 71, condidant of King Rupert; CEO of Fox News; capable but disliked by everybody else.
A large crowd of flunkies, lawyers, prosecutors, politicians, rivals, and Page 3 girls.

A note on the personalities. Rupert is an evil genius: though “evil” suggests grander flaws than Murdoch’s petty resentment of the √©lites that have always despised him and his brand of hack journalism. The business talent he has put to such trivial ends is undeniable. His spiritual heir is Roger Ailes, the creator of the astonishingly successful and demagogic Fox News, another man of great and ill-used talents. The three adult children, going by their public records, are media executives of reasonable competence. You and I would probably also have made a fair go at the independent careers that Elisabeth and Lachlan have carved out, if we’d started like them with multi-million grubstakes from the divorce settlement. More important, they seem to be culturally and pyschologically normal members of the business elite. They are the entitled toffs that their father hates as a class.

The prize is control of News Corporation, annual net profits $2.7 bn, current market cap $15.7 bn, and its sprawling portfolio of print, television and film media properties. It claims to be the largest English-language media publisher worldwide. News has a two-tier share structure. Family control is exercised through a trust that owns 40% of the voting shares; sufficient to hold off outside shareholders in most circumstances, provided the family stay united. In this trust, Rupert has four votes and Elisabeth, Lachlan and James one each. As part of Rupert’s divorce setllement with Anna, Wendi and her children have no votes; nor does Ailes. Nobody seems to know what happens to Rupert’s votes when he dies, though it looks plausible that Anna’s lawyers blocked their transmission to Wendi and her children post- as well as ante-mortem.

The dynamics of the succession are as impossible to predict as those of the struggle between Alexander’s diadochoi. It’s anybody’s guess whether News Corp will survive as a single company, or be broken up. There don’t seem to be any obvious economies of intercontinental super-scale, or synergies between its scattered parts, providing an economic argument against breakup. If that’s the way it goes, Lachlan could get the Australian interests, Elisabeth Fox Studios and other production companies, and James the satellite broadcasting. They would sell off the newspapers – none of the heirs have much experience or interest in the dead-tree media.

We can say two things. The external pressures will be enormous. Rupert’s power and misdeeds have earned him powerful enemies, from Barack Obama and Julia Gillard to the London Metropolitan Police. The majority external shareholders are a transmission channel for such pressures into the boardroom. Crises are inevitable and inaction won’t be an option.

It is not fortunately necessary to predict the entire future course of News Corp. to make a good guess at the two politically interesting questions.

First, what happens to Fox News? Oedipus will, I predict, win out over mere commerical self-interest. The family history of these children quarrelling with their domineering patriarch suggest to me that there will be a quarrel with Ailes, as a surrogate for Rupert – and Ailes is a non-voting hired gun. Either he will be fired, or the Murdochs will sell off Fox News as an embarrassment. Would any other owner put up with Hannity and friends? Either way, Fox News will become much more vulnerable to the Democratic party (if it finds some cojones, street protesters, and business rivals.
Second, will News Corp continue to give platforms and editorial cover to denialist cranks, on Fox News, the WSJ, and The Australian newspaper? I think not. First, the current pattern is unsystematic – there is no strong line imposed by Rupert Murdoch. The London Times and BSkyB are reasonable. He backs denialists at Fox News etc. because he likes contrarians, and doesn’t think the issue is that important. News Corp’s corporate policy is remarkably green. a puzzle I noted a few years ago (along with wishful thinking about its portent). The children, with their elite educations and circles of friends, very probably accept the consensus that global warming is a clear and present danger. (One data point against this is Lachlan’s sponsorship on his TV channel of the Australian denialist hack Robert Andrew Bolt [corrected, h/t commenter CM], a rough equivalent to Bill O’Reilly.) If I’m right, the denialists will be asked to fold their tents. About time too.

I for one will cheer when Rupert Murdoch departs the stage to fertilise roses, whether in his garden or from beneath.

16 Responses to “The House of Murdoch”

  1. CM says:

    Interesting reading, but I think you mean Andrew Bolt, not Robert. As far as practitioners of the rhetorical arts go, he is articulate, combative and intelligent. He is not thoughtful or careful and I disagree with him vehemently on almost everything. But I think at this point he would be prominent in the Australian media with or without Murdoch (jnr or snr) support. Whether their sponsorship intervened earlier to get him to this point I do not know.

  2. Mitch Guthman says:

    What makes you that Rupert Murdoch will die? Perhaps limitless power and imortality were the things he wanted in exchange for starting Fox News?

  3. You Don't Say says:

    What happens before his death is just as interesting, no? Isn’t the hacking scandal about to jump the pond?

  4. larry birnbaum says:

    In reality, he’s Netanyahu’s puppet. Or maybe Soros’s. I get confused. Let’s ask Gunter Grass.

  5. NickT says:

    It will be interesting to see what happens when Rupert Lannister finally croaks. How many people will attend the funeral just to make sure the old vulture really is dead?

  6. Warren Terra says:

    I tend to assume that, Fox News having built its brand and created an all-encompassing bubble of paranoia, delusion, and falsehood from which its regular viewers fear to emerge, they’ll never do anything to risk popping that lucrative bubble and letting the sheep emerge. So, no, they won’t moderate after Rupert drops the reins.

    • Barry says:

      Seconding here; for Fox to abandon their notable characteristics would be like Boeing deciding to get into the auto business, abandoning aircraft. Ain’t gonna happen.

  7. R Johnston says:

    Surely Rupert Murdoch will be cremated and not fertilize anything. Not that he’d fertilize anything if buried, but you don’t risk Zombie Rupert Murdoch or the salting of the soil.

  8. Keith Humphreys says:

    This is extraordinarily clever James. Who would get the Iago-esque part in all this?

    • Warren Terra says:

      I don’t think she’s Iago, but some part must be found in the dramatis personae for Rebekah Brooks. So colorful, and she’s got her own horse, which must be useful in staging the play somehow. Well, not her own horse, but she’s got a horse. Or had one, anyway.

    • Ebenezer Scrooge says:

      One could always give old Rupert’s ghost a role in this, if an Iago is needed. Wendi, from what I’ve heard, is not a bad candidate either.

    • Jamie says:

      I almost feel like William Gibson wrote this 20 years ago, as well.

      Which just demonstrates that there has been no original literature since Beowulf*.

      *certain Icelandic Sagas might count, but those seem to be court documents. Also, Japan has a lot to offer, but I’m woefully ignorant on that topic.

  9. BroD says:

    Methinks Lady Wendi is the one to watch–she strikes me as formidable. I’m not sure the the legal shackles will thwart her.

    • James Wimberley says:

      Formidable, yes. But the other Murdoch womenfolk aren’t walkovers either. Say that for Rupert, he has not gone for bimbo trophy mates, hasn’t stifled his daughter’s ambitions, and promoted Rebekah Brooks. Then again, Hitler was very sound on smoking.