In an extract from his biography The Successor, Paddy Manning considers how Rupert Murdoch’s favored son dealt with the challenges of 2020, and what might come next
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on 25 May 2020, captured on video, turned Black Lives Matter into the biggest protest movement in the history of the United States, with more than 15 million people turning out to demonstrations, some of them violent, in 550 towns and cities across the country.
Fox News had a history of antipathetic coverage of BLM, which took off after the police killing of an 18-year-old Black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Former primetime host Megyn Kelly subverted the narrative, asserting that Brown’s reported last words, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” were a lie, and that Brown was the aggressor. Twenty-six-year-old Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren described Black Lives Matter as “the new KKK”. Fox commentators had also defended police and rejected claims of systemic racial injustice in America. Nevertheless, the public reaction to Floyd’s murder was on a completely different scale to earlier protests, and it took place amid swirling speculation that Donald Trump would declare martial law.
On the Monday morning, Lachlan Murdoch tried to set a conciliatory tone in an internal statement, urging Fox employees to “come together in their grief, work to heal, and coalesce to address injustice and inequity in our country”. After the tragic death of George Floyd, Murdoch continued:
It is essential that we grieve with the Floyd family, closely listen to the voices of peaceful protest and fundamentally understand that Black Lives matter. The FOX culture embraces and fosters diversity and inclusion. Often we speak of the ‘FOX Family,’ and never has the need to depend on and care for that family been more important. We support our Black colleagues and the Black community, as we all unite to seek equality and understanding … This is an ongoing conversation, and no one has all the answers in this moment.
Some of Fox’s highest-profile commentators seemed to miss Lachlan’s memo. That same night, Tucker Carlson bemoaned the protests. “The nation went up in flames this weekend,” he opined. “No one in charge stood up to save America. Our leaders dithered and they cowered, and they openly sided with the destroyers, and in many cases, they egged them on … The worst people in our society have taken control.”
Laura Ingraham blamed Antifa and “other radical elements” and said the death of Floyd had nothing to do with the violence, which was “part of a coordinated effort to eventually overthrow the United States government”.
Days later, Fox News had to apologize after an episode of Special Report with Bret Baier aired a chart showing how the stock market had rallied in the days immediately after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, the bashing of Rodney King in 1991, and the more recent killings of Michael Brown and George Floyd. Fox acknowledged the chart was insensitive and Baier apologized for a “major screw-up”. There followed an internal phone hook-up with many of its Black staffers, led by Scott, to discuss the network’s racist and hostile rhetoric towards the BLM protests. The open forum was unprecedented, but Lachlan wasn’t there and it resolved little.
As the protests dragged on, Carlson only grew more strident, attacking the president for failing to re-establish law and order, calling BLM a “terror organization” and Minneapolis “our Wuhan”. In early July, CNN discovered that Carlson’s chief writer, Blake Neff, had for years been using a pseudonym to post a stream of bigoted remarks denigrating African Americans, Asian Americans, and women on an online forum, AutoAdmit, that was a hotbed for racist, sexist and other offensive content. Fox accepted Neff’s resignation within hours of CNN’s inquiry and Suzanne Scott and Jay Wallace condemned his “horrific racist, misogynistic and homophobic behavior”, saying neither the show nor the network had known of the forum and there was zero tolerance for such behavior “at any time in any part of our workforce”.
More mainstream advertisers abandoned Carlson and Lachlan personally approved the comments Tucker made about Neff’s resignation in his next show. Carlson refused management requests to pre-tape the comments and struck a defiant tone, suggesting he knew he had Lachlan’s full backing. Dissociating himself from Neff’s posts, Tucker added, “we should also point out to the ghouls beating their chests in triumph of the destruction of a young man that self-righteousness also has its cost … when we pose as blameless in order to hurt other people, we are committing the gravest sin of all, and we will be punished for it, there’s no question.” Tucker announced he was going on a week’s vacation, effective immediately, which he insisted was “long planned”. One staffer told the Daily Beast off the record that Fox News had “created a white supremacist cell inside the top cable network in America, the one that directly influences the president … this is rank racism excused by Murdoch.”
It was all too much for James Murdoch, who had been negotiating an exit for some months, hoping to sever his connection to the family business. At the end of July, James sent a two-line letter of resignation to the board of News Corp, effective that day, with only the briefest explanation: “My resignation is due to disagreements over certain editorial content published by the Company’s news outlets and certain other strategic decisions.” In a bland joint statement, Rupert and Lachlan thanked James for his service and wished him well.
James continued, of course, as beneficiary of a one-sixth share of the Murdoch Family Trust, which ultimately controlled both Fox and News Corp. In a sit-down interview with the New York Times a few months later, James told Maureen Dowd that he felt he could have little influence as a non-executive director, wanted a cleaner slate and “pulled the ripcord” because:
I reached the conclusion that you can venerate a contest of ideas, if you will, and we all do and that’s important. But it shouldn’t be in a way that hides agendas. A contest of ideas shouldn’t be used to legitimize disinformation. And I think it’s often taken advantage of. And I think at great news organizations, the mission really should be to introduce fact to disperse doubt – not to sow doubt, to obscure fact, if you will.
It was a direct shot at Lachlan, whose mantra was to defend free speech, even that of commentators he did not agree with from time to time, and apparently regardless of whether the speaker was spreading disinformation.
Dowd canvassed a scenario which was doubtless briefed by James and which could give Lachlan nightmares. Despite appearances, she wrote, the succession game may not truly be over: “Murdoch watchers across media say James is aligned with his sister Elisabeth and his half-sister, Prudence, even as he is estranged from his father and brother.”
It was true that there had been a thawing of the relationship between James and Elisabeth, which had come apart during the phone hacking crisis of 2011, when Murdoch titles were pitched into controversy in the UK. When James bought Tribeca Enterprises, which ran the famous New York Film Festival, Liz soon joined the board. The implied threat from the Dowd piece was clear: once their father was gone, when control of the empire passed to the four elder siblings, each with an equal vote on the Murdoch Family Trust, Lachlan could find himself getting rolled by James, Liz, and Prue, who were generally more liberal than Rupert.
In a plausible scenario, after Rupert has died and his shares are dispersed among the four adult children, the three on the other side of Lachlan could choose to manifest control over all of the Murdoch businesses, and to do it in a way that enhances democracies around the world rather than undermines them. In this scenario, the role of Fox News has become so controversial inside the family that control of the trust is no longer just about profit and loss at the Murdoch properties. In one view that has currency among at least some of the Murdoch children, it is in the long-term interests for democracies around the world for there to be four shareholders in the family trust who are active owners in the business. Just such a scenario is freely canvassed by investors: a Wall Street analyst who has covered the Murdoch business for decades and is completely au fait with the breakdown in the relationship between the brothers, volunteers off the record that it would be “fair to assume Lachlan gets fired the day Rupert dies”.
It is a formula for instability and intra-family feuds that must weigh on the minds of directors of both Fox and News Corporation as they contemplate the mortality of the 91-year-old founder, although they deny it. A source close to members of the Murdoch family questions the extent of succession planning by the boards of Fox or News Corporation and whether discussions among the directors can be genuinely independent, as corporate governance experts would like.
“Rupert has total control over all the companies as long as he is alive,” the source says. “It’s an unrealistic expectation that the boards of those companies are going to use their voices to manifest independence. What is their succession plan? What if something happens to Lachlan? Do they put Viet in charge?”
At the same time James announced his resignation from the News Corp board, he and Kathryn were ploughing millions into climate activism, the defeat of Trump, and other political causes. The couple had invested $100m worth of Disney shares into their foundation, Quadrivium, and through 2020 were heavy backers of mostly Democratic-leaning outfits, including $1.2m to the Biden Victory Fund and a handful of anti-Trump Republican organizations such as Defending Democracy Together, led by Bill Kristol. That was only some of the couple’s total political funding. A year later, CNBC obtained a Quadrivium tax return showing donations of $38m toward election organizations, including those dedicated to protecting voting rights.
Lachlan’s personal political donations through the 2020 cycle were much smaller and were overwhelmingly directed towards the GOP, according to Federal Election Commission records. The politician he favored most was Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, an establishment Republican who made a calculated decision to become Trump’s “enabler-in-chief ” and was married to Trump’s transportation secretary, Taiwanese-born Elaine Chao, a former director of News Corp. Lachlan contributed $31,000 in four donations in March, including to the Bluegrass Committee for Kentucky Republicans. Ten days after the November election, Lachlan made a much bigger personal donation, of $1m, to the Senate Leadership Fund, which had one goal: protecting the Republican Senate majority. Lachlan did make one small donation on the Democrats’ side in the 2020 cycle, after he attended a fundraiser for Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg, the gay ex-mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pledging $1,500 to his campaign. Realizing the potential for embarrassment, he asked for it back and was duly refunded.
Fox’s profitability fell by more than two-thirds in the June quarter, which would later prove to be the low point of the pandemic, as sports leagues went dark and general ad revenue collapsed. Fox News was the only bright spot, accounting for 90% of operating profit, despite advertiser boycotts of Tucker Carlson Tonight, as the 2020 presidential election campaign intensified.
Three weeks out from polling day, on 14 October, the New York Post broke a story that might have influenced the outcome of the 2020 election. It had obtained a trove of messages, documents, photos and videos “purportedly” recovered from a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, son of the Democratic presidential candidate, which had been taken to a Delaware computer shop for repair in 2019 and never picked up. The computer shop owner was a Trump supporter and handed the water-damaged laptop to the FBI, but also sent a copy of the hard drive to Rudy Giuliani, who had long sought to tarnish Joe Biden with conflict-of-interest allegations concerning his son’s involvement with the Ukrainian oil and gas company Burisma.
The Post story zeroed in on a “smoking gun” email sent to Hunter in 2015 by Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to Burisma. The email read: “Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together.”
According to the Post, the email gave the lie to Joe Biden’s claim that he had “never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings.” However, it was not clear whether Pozharskyi had in fact ever met with Biden, who as vice-president had handled the Ukraine portfolio for President Obama, and the Biden campaign explicitly denied it, after going back over his official schedule.
However irresistible the story was to the Post and its warhorse editor Col Allan, the rest of the mainstream media was exceedingly wary. The Post would not provide a copy of the laptop or hard drive to allow other media to verify the contents. The timing was transparently intended to damage the Biden campaign and memories remained fresh of the FBI’s momentous decision to investigate Hillary Clinton in the final days of the 2016 election campaign, after emails stolen by Russian operatives were dumped online by WikiLeaks. Twitter and Facebook intervened dramatically to stop circulation of the Post story. Twitter even temporarily locked White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s account, as well as that of the Post itself.
More than 50 intelligence experts signed an open letter stating that the story “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation”. The Times reported that at least two Post journalists had refused to put their byline on the laptop story, while the lead reporter, Emma-Jo Morris, had not had a previous byline with the paper. Furthermore, News Corp stablemate the Wall Street Journal had been offered much the same story before the Post but concluded the central claims could not be proved. The whole story failed to gain much traction beyond the Post, Fox News, and avowedly rightwing media like Breitbart.
Post-election, Hunter Biden would reveal that he was under federal investigation for tax offenses and over the following year and a half, the industrial scale of his influence-peddling became clearer, including possible breaches of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the same legislation that Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had pled guilty to violating. In mid-2021, the Post revealed that Joe Biden had indeed met Pozharskyi in 2015, and in early 2022, both the New York Times and the Washington Post reported that independent experts had examined the files which purported to be from Hunter Biden’s laptop and they appeared genuine. That did not prove Hunter Biden was guilty of anything, of course, only that the laptop was his. But for his part, Lachlan believed that an important news story about the Bidens had been deliberately suppressed by the tech companies and a liberal-leaning media, saying much later:
… had the laptop belonged to another candidate’s son, it would certainly have been the only story you would have heard in the final weeks of the election. But lies were concocted: ‘the laptop was hacked, or stolen;’ it was not. Or ‘it was Russian disinformation;’ it was not, and the story was completely suppressed. It was censored by EVERYONE.
The scene was set for one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history.
The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch will be published in the US by Sutherland House on 15 November