by Peter Maass Intercept edited by O Society April 5, 2019
In 1994, a philosophy student at Princeton University submitted a senior thesis that began with a famous passage from Lord Byron, the romantic poet. The passage reflected the student’s apparent uncertainty about who he was and what he would become after college.
Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
’Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be!
The thesis was written by Lachlan Murdoch, the eldest son of Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch. In the 57-page thesis, Lachlan tried to develop a system, rooted in German philosophy, for leading a life guided by morality and love. His thesis was titled, “A Study of Freedom and Morality in Kant’s Practical Philosophy,” and he salted it with spiritual inquiries. It even concluded with a striking Sanskrit line about yearning for the purity of infinity.
A quarter-century later, this document is strangely relevant because its author has become one of the most important yet least-known purveyors of white nationalism.
Until recently, the Murdoch who most dominated Fox News was Rupert, the craggy billionaire who created the network in 1996. But with Rupert nearing his ninth decade, the Murdoch who now oversees the network — who in the past year has presided over some of the most racist and conspiratorial programming it has ever broadcast — is Lachlan. The tattoo-flecked chair and chief executive of the parent company of Fox News is now 47 years old and lives in a mansion in Los Angeles with his wife and children.
Lachlan Murdoch represents an archetype of extremism that often escapes scrutiny, because he is not an on-the-barricades provocateur. Instead, he is a behind-the-scenes proprietor. He doesn’t publicize his views — there is even a polite guessing game about them. At a recent conference, he had to be asked whether he agreed with the ideas on Fox News. “I’m not embarrassed by what they do at all,” Lachlan replied. His general practice of gilded silence stretches across the decades and has been the opposite of the foot-in-mouth bluntness of his infamous father.
Lachlan’s emergence as the Murdoch in charge of Fox offers an opportunity to assess the family for what it truly is. In America, the Murdochs are usually treated as a financial success, not as a political plague. Rupert and his sons, Lachlan and James, regularly attend exclusive business conferences where they are celebrated like royalty; media coverage tends to be congenial. The anger that exists toward Fox News is mostly directed at the network’s on-air barkers, notably Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs, and Jeanine Pirro. But these far-right shouters wouldn’t be on our screens without the approval of the Murdochs. Just as the Sackler family owns the pharmaceutical firm that created and marketed OxyContin, at the center of the opioid epidemic, the Murdoch family is behind Fox News and the far-right sludge that has been injected into America’s political bloodstream.
The friendly narrative is showing signs of fraying. Earlier this month, Jane Mayer wrote an investigative story for the New Yorker, “The Making of the Fox News White House,” that detailed the network’s conspiracy-mongering and the connections between Rupert Murdoch and President Donald Trump. As Mayer noted, “A direct pipeline has been established between the Oval Office and the office of Rupert Murdoch.” Fox is not just a trumpet for Trump, though. A recent book co-authored by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts examined the spread of extremist ideas in America and identified Fox News as “the central node of the online right-wing media ecosystem.” The authors wrote, “Repeatedly we found Fox News accrediting and amplifying the excesses of the radical sites.”
Lachlan Murdoch has become the new boss of this far-right node. As with most tales about men in power, there is an interesting twist to his life. Unlike Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh or Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Lachlan does not appear to be an upstanding citizen hiding a terrible secret in a sordid past. His trajectory has been the opposite of the usual corruption arc — the decency was in his early years, before he slid into dishonor as a loyal son laboring for the approval of an imperious and reactionary father. The tale is so ripe with intrigue and pathology that it seems stolen from Shakespeare.
Lachlan Murdoch, from an early age, benefitted from the easy pathways that are a recurring feature of ruling-class privilege.
His father is Australian by birth and began his media empire there but moved to the U.S. in the 1970s to expand his holdings. Lachlan was enrolled in a series of private schools: Allen-Stevenson School and Trinity School in Manhattan, then Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and he graduated from Aspen Country Day School. According to a book by Neil Chenoweth, Lachlan, as well as his sister, had disciplinary issues at their East Coast schools — a “drinking episode” in Lachlan’s case — prompting their mother to move with them to the family’s winter vacation home in Aspen, Colorado. (Hope Hicks, the chief communications officer for the parent company of Fox News, described Chenoweth’s book as “not accurate” on these points. Lachlan declined to be interviewed for this story, and Hicks declined to respond to a list of additional questions.)
Despite bouncing from school to school and graduating from a tiny one in a winter ski resort (there were just six students in his Aspen graduating class), Lachlan, like his siblings, landed quite well in college. While he was accepted to Princeton, his sister Elisabeth got into Vassar and his brother James went to Harvard. These Murdochs were either remarkable students or, as can happen in families of wealth, remarkably fortunate. The doors to elite universities often have magical openings for the offspring of the rich and famous.
Trinity holds a clue to the political bent that would set Lachlan apart from his siblings, who are not believed to share their father’s arch-conservative views. In 1987, Lachlan was a member of Trinity’s “Conservative Society,” a club that, according to the school yearbook, was created to respond to “a definite imbalance of political ideology in the school community” and was open to “those with a clear conservative conscience.” A club photograph shows five students, all of them boys dressed in jackets standing side by side, with Lachlan wearing a tie, his head tilted, the makings of a slight grin on his face.
It seems notable that he’s at the margin of the photo, away from the center, which is occupied by Harrison LeFrak, an heir to a billion-dollar real estate fortune. While enjoying the privileges of his station, Lachlan seems to have tried to avoid the attention that usually goes with it.
At Princeton, it was easy for a billionaire’s son to blend in, because even by Ivy League standards, Princeton is known for its high quotient of 1 percenters. There were princes from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in Lachlan’s class, as well as real estate heirs from Hong Kong and New York. I reached out to dozens of his classmates, including some who lived in Wilson College, his residential college, during their freshman and sophomore years, and others who studied in the philosophy department. Most of those who responded could not remember him.
“I frankly don’t recall that he was in the class,” said Neil Weber, a president of Lachlan’s class.
“Wow,” wrote a Wilson College student after I sent her a yearbook photo of Lachlan, “he does not look familiar at all.”
“Didn’t know Lachlan at Princeton,” replied another student who was a philosophy major.
John Fleming, the faculty head of Wilson College, had no recollection of him.
Princeton was known for its clubby culture, and Lachlan was the type of scion who would easily be at its apex, but he steered clear of it. After living in residential colleges for their first two years, as required, most juniors and seniors moved into campus dorms and ate meals in social organizations known as eating clubs. Lachlan lived in an off-campus apartment on his own and did not join an eating club, according to classmates and records obtained by The Intercept.
One of his lecture courses, which used the concept of time travel to investigate key ideas in metaphysics, involved study sessions known as “precepts” that were led by graduate students. Lachlan’s precept was headed by an Australian, Alan Hajek, and because of Lachlan’s roots in Australia, they became friendly and occasionally met for cappuccinos. Hajek told me that Lachlan never indicated his father was one of the most famous Australians in the world.
“It was only three years later when I saw him on TV, there was a documentary on him, and the penny dropped,” Hajek said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s who he was.’”
In retrospect, there had been hints, but not intended to give away the secret. Lachlan had mentioned that his family had a vacation home in Yass and had invited Hajek to visit in the summer. It was only after Hajek figured out Murdoch’s identity that he understood his missed opportunity: He had been invited to one of the most legendary estates in Australia, the Cavan Station, which is owned by the Murdoch clan.
“I want to stress that he was a really likable, modest guy,” Hajek said, adding, “I shouldn’t speak to his grade, but he was a good student.”
In 1993, Béatrice Longuenesse began teaching philosophy at Princeton, and her first course delved into German idealism. Exploring Kant and Hegel, the class was rigorous but didn’t scare away a polite student who asked whether Longuenesse might agree to serve as his thesis adviser. Longuenesse, new to Princeton, told a colleague about the inquiry she had received from a senior named Lachlan Murdoch.
“Do you know who that is?” the colleague asked.
Longuenesse guessed that he was related to Iris Murdoch, the British novelist.
This was not correct.
The real-world pedigree of her soon-to-be protégé didn’t matter to Longuenesse. She thought Lachlan was earnest and bright, and she agreed to his request, working closely with him for the rest of the year. Princeton has its share of spoiled kids, and while Lachlan was rich, he wasn’t arrogant. He quietly told Longuenesse about his affection for nature and rock climbing, and he worked hard on his thesis. During graduation week, she even attended a celebratory dinner in New York City with his father and other family members.
“It was quite clear that he wanted to be a decent person,” Longuenesse told me. “And he was a decent person.”
The thesis he completed under her tutelage follows along the lines of what a diligent, soul-searching senior would produce. As Lachlan wrote, “What is morality if not a human ideal by which we can measure our human actions?” For a close reading of his thesis, I interviewed Longuenesse a few months ago as she waited to perform jury duty at a Manhattan courthouse. I brought a copy of the manuscript and sat quietly as she paged through it for the first time since she had graded it more than two decades ago (she wouldn’t disclose the grade). As she began reading, she nodded her head and said, “I had forgotten how good this is.”
Longuenesse looked at the epigraph from Byron, which seemed to have less to do with German philosophy and more to do with Lachlan’s state of mind on the cusp of leaving college and doing whatever he would end up doing in the world. “That’s interesting,” she said. “I had forgotten that at that time, he was kind of a poetic character, because of his interest in the outdoors.”
The thesis starts by examining Immanuel Kant, then moves to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Lachlan found Kant’s views of morality to ultimately be limiting and preferred Hegel’s openness to human agency. “Hegel’s notion of the will allows for a much fuller, and ultimately rewarding, moral theory than Kant’s,” he wrote. His thesis finished with a nod to Harry Frankfurt, a Princeton philosophy professor who, as Lachlan noted, argued that “love can be valued as a motivator under Kant’s strict definition of freedom and morality.”
The thesis does not make for light reading. “A certain effect follows a certain cause, bound to it by the apparent laws of nature,” Lachlan writes at one point, in a passage that is not the most impenetrable. “A ball drops, as an effect of the cause of gravity, by law. Causes cause effects, just as my will wills the effect of an impulse to act. But what causes my will? As a free will, it must cause itself. If I am hungry for a snack, I may or may not will to eat one. The choice is mine and the cause of my ultimate action originates with me.”
Yet the document is, in places, accessible and, it seems, revealing. In both the introduction and conclusion, Lachlan wrote about the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Sanskrit scripture generally understood as a call for living selflessly. With its grounding in Hindu mythology and metaphysics, the Bhagavad Gita is a staple on college campuses. Lachlan, in his introduction, evoked the differences between the Bhagavad Gita’s exploration of the ideas of renunciation and discipline, writing that the debate “has raged throughout the history of ethical study.” His final paragraph returned to the Bhagavad Gita. In what seems a prescription for his own life, or the life he hoped would be his, Lachlan ends with one of the sacred text’s most famous passages: “The man of discipline has joy, delight, and light within; becoming the infinite spirit, he finds the pure calm of infinity.”
Longuenesse read these final lines closely.
“It’s a young man struggling with questions that are clearly his own questions, but working on them through major issues in philosophy,” she noted.
Longuenesse had hoped that Lachlan might follow his romantic muses — as she put it, “disappearing into nature” — but she was well-aware of the expectations, forces, and rewards that he would face after Princeton. “He was not going to rock the boat of the world he was in,” she said, a bit sadly. “He was the son of Rupert Murdoch, after all.”
Much more than his father, Lachlan has an innate ability to cover his tracks. His thesis reveals, for instance, the curious story of a friend who had a major influence on Lachlan, even though, as it turns out, the friend had no idea of his influence and still isn’t sure what it was.
The story begins in the two-sentence acknowledgements of the thesis, in which Lachlan wrote, “I also should thank Peter Hunt for the example he set for me, which led to the two most happy and fulfilled years of my adult life.” There is no further mention of Hunt — who he was or how Lachlan knew him — but it didn’t take long, thanks to Google, to figure it out.
In 1990, Peter Hunt, then a Stanford graduate student, spent a year taking seminars at Princeton. A decade older than Lachlan, Hunt was an experienced climber and became Lachlan’s climbing partner. Hunt, now a classics professor at the University of Colorado, told me that in the beginning, he had no idea who Murdoch was and referred to his new friend as “Loughlin” without being corrected. Hunt’s girlfriend figured things out and informed Hunt that his young climbing partner was not like most others.
The hub of climbing at Princeton was an artificial wall in a warehouse-like building known as the Armory. By today’s standards, the wall was primitive — on one occasion, Hunt remembers a climber falling a few feet to the ground after a piece of webbing failed. He said Murdoch was a decent climber who improved rapidly once they began training in an intentionally harsh regimen.
The wall’s limited height, about two stories, meant that it wasn’t much of a workout to get to the top. They made things more difficult by wearing 20-pound weighted vests and doing laps up the wall. One of them would climb to the top, then belay down, then climb back up again, and repeat until exhaustion, when they would switch positions and the belayer would become the climber. “He pushed very hard,” Hunt recalled.
Lachlan and Hunt went on road trips together, driving to a climbing mecca in upstate New York, the Gunks, and in the summer they climbed in the Colorado Rockies at Shelf Road (at the time, Murdoch was staying in Aspen, while Hunt was in Boulder). Their conversations focused on climbing. “From pretty early, I figured that we had different political views,” Hunt recalled. “I don’t think we talked about politics, [but] I saw no sign in any active way of reactionary or far-right views. He was a very pleasant person. … I thought of him as being very soft spoken.”
Hunt was surprised when I told him that Murdoch had thanked him prominently in his thesis. He had no idea about it.
“That’s very nice of him,” Hunt said, but added that he didn’t know he had set any example that impressed the younger man. “I’m very flattered, but I don’t know. We climbed together. Yeah, I really don’t know.”
I prodded a bit more and Hunt remembered a call years ago from an Australian reporter writing about Lachlan. The reporter said Lachlan had mentioned Hunt as a model of intensity. This made some sense to Hunt — not only was he a rigorous climber, he was a classics scholar, which isn’t that far from philosophy in its rigor and paucity of direct applications to the modern world.
“He considered himself a philosophy nerd at Princeton and he was really into it,” Hunt recalled. “A theory about what led to his happiness [at Princeton] is that he saw someone else who was doing something impractical and difficult and enjoyed it.”
Just as Lachlan had brought Longuenesse to a graduation dinner with his father, he had extended a friendly invitation to Hunt, asking him to an engagement party for his sister. Hunt regrets not attending. “It would have definitely been the most posh thing I’d been to,” he said.
Lachlan had a unique distraction during his Princeton years: his father’s business.
At the start of the 1990s, Rupert Murdoch still had his principal assets, and his greatest notoriety, in Britain. In the 1980s, he had incurred the ire of the British establishment by buying the Times of London and other publications and turning their politics further to the right, while also crushing a yearlong printers strike. Britain’s left, in particular, despised Murdoch. Then, in 1990, his empire was threatened by a liquidity crisis that Lachlan was drawn into.
Rupert had always involved his children in his business affairs. A profile of Lachlan in 1998, by the writer Geraldine Brooks, noted that as a child, he was woken by his mother to have pre-dawn breakfasts with Rupert before he flew off for business meetings. At breakfasts that weren’t pre-dawn, Rupert and his children would read the morning papers and discuss what was in them. Lachlan told Brooks that he would also stay up late at night “listening to his father at the dinner table hashing out strategies with famous guests.”
During the first semester of his freshman year, as creditors circled around the family business, Lachlan was summoned by his father to attend tense meetings in London, according to the Brooks article. It described the two Murdochs walking home late at night on Fleet Street, with Lachlan wanting to put his arms around his dispirited and unsteady father. As Brooks wrote, “Some sons bond with their fathers through baseball, some through fishing. But for Lachlan Murdoch and his father, Rupert, there has only ever been the Business.”
The crisis passed and Lachlan returned to Princeton. But his devotion to German philosophy and the spiritual questions of the Bhagavad Gita did not dominate the next phase of his life. Princeton, like other top universities, tends to function as an incubator of the status quo. After four years of apparently sincere immersion in history, philosophy, or literature, a large number of students from Princeton and other elite universities glide to the highest reaches of the business world, which they do not tend to disrupt with the lofty ideas they explored as undergraduates. A poll at the fifth reunion of Lachlan’s class showed that at least half of them had become bankers, lawyers, managers, or consultants.
After Princeton, Lachlan started working for his father in Australia, where he oversaw the family’s media properties, though at least one part of his college life followed him there. In the garage of his $5 million home in Sydney, he built a fiberglass climbing wall. Another bit of continuity: Some accounts from those years describe him as courteous and modest, though he was no longer the semi-anonymous figure he had been at Princeton. He gave speeches, attended parties, and married a model.
Lachlan began to manifest, quietly, the inclinations he had gestured toward as a member of the Trinity Conservative Society. Speaking with Brooks, he described himself as “economically conservative but libertarian on people’s individual rights.” He offered an example. “I don’t smoke,” he said. “But I think taxes on cigarettes are the most outrageous example of the nanny state. It would be one thing if every penny went to researching lung cancer, but in fact it’s greedy politicians using the money to pork-barrel roads or put into the welfare state. People who want to smoke shouldn’t be burdened because of the political correctness of our times.”
Unlike his father, who is not shy about expressing the problematic ideas that have found their xenophobic expression on Fox News, Lachlan has tipped his political hand mostly behind closed doors, and even then, infrequently. The existence of his hardening views has mostly emerged in little-known accounts from former insiders of the Murdoch empire. One of those is Chris Mitchell, a longtime editor-in-chief of The Australian, the country’s largest newspaper.
In an obscure memoir, Mitchell described a Pebble Beach retreat at which Al Gore debated a vocal skeptic of climate change. Lachlan, according to Mitchell, was “almost cheering” at the challenges to the former vice president. Mitchell also wrote about a private dinner at which Lachlan urged the prime minister of Australia not to object to Indonesia’s plans to execute two Australians on drug smuggling charges. The Australians, Lachlan argued, were getting what they deserved. Mitchell wrote, “As with his views on gun control in the United States, Lachlan’s conservatism is more vigorous than that of any Australian politician, [Tony] Abbott included, and usually to the right of his father’s ideas.” (Mitchell, contacted by The Intercept, declined to comment further.)
Of course, it’s difficult to know whether Lachlan developed right-wing views on his own, whether he embraced them to please his father, or whether it is both. But what’s clear is that father and son engaged in an intergenerational transfer of an extreme ideology.
Families are crucibles, and the Murdochs are no exception. Rupert Murdoch has put the three children he had with his second wife, Anna, through a public competition to succeed him. For a while, Lachlan was assumed to be ahead, then James and Elisabeth, then Lachlan once more. In its emotional intensity, the succession saga mixes Freud, Hobbes, and Marquis de Sade. The father loves and punishes his children to gain their obedience — and to discern which of them is most devoted.
How did Lachlan, whose senior thesis ended with a line about seeking the pure calm of the infinite, wind up overseeing the impure hysteria of Fox? An answer may lie in the one occasion he broke from his father, in 2005.
At the time, Lachlan was the deputy chief operating officer of News Corp, and he was living in New York. He was constantly jousting against two of his father’s most trusted lieutenants, Peter Chernin, who was president of News Corp, and Roger Ailes, then the chief executive of Fox News. Chernin and Ailes were notoriously sharp-elbowed and not averse to undermining the young prince. After Rupert gave Ailes (subsequently fired for sexual harassment) a green light to ignore a directive from Lachlan, the jilted son decided he’d had enough.
That rupture was just one twist in several decades of Murdoch-on-Murdoch warfare that has been documented in shelves of books and articles, and even informed the HBO drama “Succession,” about a megalomaniac media billionaire and his squabbling adult children. One of the chroniclers, the writer Michael Wolff, has described an emotional tension that others have noticed too — Rupert’s humiliation of Lachlan, whom Wolff interviewed for his 2008 book on the family. “The point he wants to make is about being infantilized,” Wolff wrote, referring to Lachlan.
He makes it without obvious recrimination but with a sense of great burden, weariness almost. Lachlan, whose career has, in a sense, yet to start, has already experienced a great rollercoaster ride in his professional life. He has been tutored, elevated, anointed, then thwarted by his father’s courtiers — and finally turned his back on it all. … The father in small but constant ways humiliated the son, which made him a joke to everybody else. In every meeting the father was the impatient, domineering, fussing presence. He couldn’t stop calling attention to himself and away from the son. At the same time, the son, stamping his foot, was trying to call attention to himself.
Wolff is a controversial figure in media circles, regarded as prone to flourishes with the truth, but his psychological assessment tracks closely with what appears to be Lachlan’s own account of the rupture. An emotionally complex story of the father-son breakup was told years ago in a lengthy article by Steve Fishman, who described the events from Lachlan’s point of view. The article detailed the thoughts that were running through Lachlan’s head at various times, as well as his confidential remarks to friends and his father. While Lachlan was never described in the story as being its source, there is no other explanation for Fishman’s information, and he has coyly hinted at it.
“He loved his father,” Fishman wrote, “but he felt undercut, maybe humiliated. The feeling mushroomed. Lachlan began to brood … about his identity, in the company and out. Where was the respect due a successor, a deputy COO, a son? … ‘You don’t want to wake up in ten years’ time and feel your soul has been destroyed,’ Lachlan thought. ‘For what? One day you might run the company?’”
Lachlan met his father for lunch in Los Angeles to break the news to him.
“As their talk progressed,” Fishman continued, “both became emotional. Lachlan hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking of himself apart from the company, or apart from his dad. It seemed to shake him. It’s just difficult to sort of uncouple your life and your identity from the company, he thought. But that’s what he now proposed. ‘I have to do my own thing,’ Lachlan told his dad. ‘I have to be my own man.’ Then the heir apparent walked away.”
It is one of the ironies of the succession battle that walking away from it was a demonstration of strength rather than weakness. By participating in the competition, the Murdoch offspring had to bend to their father’s will and wishes. They enriched themselves, of course, while also debasing themselves by managing their father’s noxious newspapers and TV stations.
Lachlan was 34 when he stepped away. He was still a rock climber, but he had moved along in life and was not about to return to college for another degree in philosophy or in some other way unplug himself from the business world. He remained in close touch with his father, continuing to serve on the board of News Corp, but he relocated to Australia, eventually upgrading to a $21 million mansion in Sydney, and set up his own media company (it was called Illyria and would have mixed results).
The most surprising transformation involved James, who is a year younger than Lachlan. James is decidedly liberal. At Harvard University, he worked at the Harvard Lampoon, a humor magazine that skews sarcastically left. He has donated to Democratic Party candidates and causes. After a woman in Charlottesville was killed by a neo-Nazi who in 2017 drove his car into a peaceful crowd, James and his wife Kathryn gave $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League, writing in an email to friends that “standing up to Nazis is essential.”
James might not seem a likely candidate for running or aspiring to run a far-right media entity, yet for a number of years, he led the succession contest. In 2007, after Lachlan had gone to the sidelines of sibling competition, James was placed in charge of the Murdoch papers in Britain, including the right-wing News of the World and The Sun. They were among the most retrograde tabloids in the U.K., and they didn’t waver while James was in charge. Before he took over, the News of the World had even gained an unusual measure of infamy for illegally hacking the cellphones of British royalty, politicians, and celebrities.
The paper’s hacking method was deviously simple, taking advantage of famous people who did not change the factory settings for accessing their voicemail. Employees of News of the World called their targets’ cellphones and used default codes, such as 0000 or 1234, to listen to their messages. This practice, first exposed in the mid-2000s, caused a far larger scandal when Guardian reporters Nick Davies and Amelia Hill revealed in 2011 that the voicemails of a murdered 13-year old girl had been hacked by News of the World, impeding the police effort to find her killer. Voicemails of the relatives of fallen British soldiers had also been accessed illegally, and the paper was additionally revealed to have bribed police officers.
Although these crimes occurred before James assumed his position, he was the boss when the full extent came to light, and was accused of overseeing a cover-up. He has claimed that he was not aware of the scope of the hacking, but evidence emerged, in the form of an email to him, that he had been updated on it. When that email’s existence was made public, James claimed that he hadn’t read through it. He also claimed, during implausible testimony to a parliamentary committee in 2011, that he had approved large hush payments to a hacking victim but didn’t fully realize what they were for.
A Conservative member of the committee, Philip Davies, could not withhold his withering skepticism.
“I find it incredible, absolutely incredible, that you didn’t say, ‘A quarter of a million? Let me look at that,” Davies began. “I can’t begin to believe that that is the action that any self-respecting chief operating officer would take, when so much of the company’s money and reputation is at stake.”
Another member of the committee, Labour’s Tom Watson, went many steps further.
“You’re familiar with the word Mafia?” he asked James.
“Yes, Mr. Watson,” James replied.
“Have you ever heard the term omertà, the Mafia term they use for the code of silence?”
“I’m not an aficionado of such things.”
“Would you agree it means a group of people who are bound together by secrecy, who together pursue that group’s business objectives with no regard for the law, using intimidation, corruption, and general criminality?” Watson asked.
“Again, I’m not familiar with the term particularly,” James replied.
“Would you agree with me that this is an accurate description of News International in the U.K.?”
“Absolutely not,” James responded. “I frankly think that’s offensive and not true.”
Watson was not done.
“Mr. Murdoch, you must be the first Mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise.”
During those hearings, Rupert Murdoch, seated next to James, even had a pie thrown at him by a protester. (Rupert’s wife at the time, Wendi Deng, famously lunged at the pie-thrower.) In the committee’s final report, Rupert was described as “not a fit person” to run a major corporation, and James was criticized for “willful ignorance” and a “lack of curiosity” in finding out what had happened. Deflecting attention from calls for his father to resign, James fell on his sword, shedding his post in London and relocating to New York, where he assumed different duties in his father’s empire. With the aura of disgrace, James was sidelined in the competition to succeed his father.
Around this time, attention focused on Elisabeth Murdoch, who had worked for her father before establishing her own television company, which was called Shine. Her company, which had an early infusion of capital from a satellite broadcaster partly owned by News Corp, expanded quickly and after a few years was bought by News Corp for an amount that struck some observers as generous. One newspaper even ran a front-page headline that read, “Murdoch’s Daughter To Get £370M From Daddy.” Payouts of this sort have been one of the incentives Rupert Murdoch used to keep his children in his orbit. In 1995, James dropped out of Harvard and established his own hip-hop label, Rawkus, which was later bought by News Corp. Last year, James and Lachlan each received more than $50 million in compensation for their work.
Elisabeth did not go far in the competition, reportedly because Rupert believed her gender was not appropriate for the task. In a 2012 article in the New Yorker, Elisabeth spoke elliptically about her decision to pursue a career outside her father’s empire. “Each time I tried to work in his company, he wasn’t impressed,” Elisabeth said. “I realized I had to just go and be myself.” A family friend who spoke far more bluntly was quoted as saying, “She loves her father, but she’s the wrong sex.”
For nearly a decade, Lachlan refused his father’s requests to return to the family business, especially after the hacking debacle in 2011.
But then, suddenly, Lachlan changed his mind. On March 26, 2014, News Corp issued a celebratory press release that Lachlan had been named nonexecutive co-chair of the company, and quoted his father as saying, “In this elevated role, Lachlan will help us lead News Corp forward as we expand our reach.” It was, as a Reuters article described it, “the return of the prodigal son.” Although James was still in the picture — he had a senior role at 21st Century Fox, which was the entertainment part of the family’s holdings — it was a clear sign that Lachlan was not just back, but in the lead.
Four years later, in 2018, Rupert Murdoch agreed to sell Disney most of his entertainment assets for $71 billion; the Murdochs got about $12 billion of the total when the deal closed earlier this month, with shareholders getting the rest. The still-considerable holdings that remain under family control include a new company called Fox Corp. that has Lachlan as its chair and chief executive, with Fox News as its political heart. The epigraph from Byron that was on his 1994 thesis — “How little do we know that which we are!” — found its answer more than two decades later. Lachlan was the victor of a survival contest in which it was not necessarily the strongest who prevailed, but the most malleable.
Béatrice Longuenesse lost touch with her protégé. She saw Lachlan at a Princeton reunion a few years after his graduation, and she encouraged him to visit again, even offering to host him at her home. But she laughed, as she waited for jury duty, at the hopes and ideas she once had of him. Lachlan Murdoch would never need to crash at her place in Princeton, and he was never going to become the citizen she wished he might become.
Now a professor at New York University, Longuenesse recalled listening to a recent interview in which Lachlan defended Fox News. It left her disappointed but not surprised. The lures and pressures that create ruling-class conformity — what she described as “social determinism” — are difficult to resist. Even his voice had changed, becoming harder. Little remained of the Lachlan she once knew.