‘Why Rupert’s Really Splitting Up the Family Business’: Opinion


Illustration by: Zohar Lazar

When the media titan unloads the bulk of Fox to Disney rather than letting it pass to his heirs, it proves he has always has had a favorite Murdoch — himself.

At least since he nearly went bankrupt in the early 1990s, Rupert Murdoch has been obsessed with handing his business to his children. He has navigated this course through vast turmoil in the media industry, multiple marriages, frayed family dynamics, occasional signs of shareholder rebellion at such family entitlement in a public company, and even the resistance of his own children. He seemed to have succeeded in this quest — elevating his oldest son, Lachlan, cajoled back from Australia, and his youngest, James, miraculously rehabilitated for his part in the phone-hacking scandal in the U.K., to the top of his company in 2015. But now, all of a sudden, he appears ready to abandon his dream of a Murdoch dynasty.

In a $52.4 billion deal announced Dec. 14, Murdoch will unload the bulk of his assets to The Walt Disney Co., a transforming event in the media industry and, by many reports, a direct rebuke to his son James, who had aggressively maneuvered to position himself as his father’s heir. In fact, while Rupert, 86, has tried to game his children’s future, he also has speculated about how they — variously at odds with him and one another — might frustrate his plans.

The facts on the ground have never been especially hospitable to a Murdoch dynasty. His older children — Lachlan, 46, and James, 44, their sister Elisabeth, 49, and half-sister Prudence, 59 — each share an equal voting interest in the Murdoch Family Trust, which controls the family holdings. They divide their economic interest with their younger half-siblings, Grace, 16, and Chloe, 14, Murdoch’s children with Wendi Deng, who are denied a vote under the terms of the divorce agreement with his second wife, Anna. (Originally they were denied an economic interest, but, with a cash payment to his older children, Murdoch negotiated their participation). The trust has no tie-breaking mechanism: Four often-squabbling siblings must agree.

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The corporate-family dynamic that’s developed is one in which James has become the most tenacious and dominant member of the family, but the sibling the others get along with the least. Indeed, his power has often come from opposing his family — including his father and brother, both of whom he has often publicly contradicted and criticized. Everybody, resentfully, gets out of James’ way.

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