A Short History of Rupert Murdoch's Heirs Apparent

Reports say James Murdoch will take a new position that sets him up to assume his father’s role. It’s not the first time the world has heard that, as any student of Fox’s zig-zagging history of succession rumors knows.

From left, Lachlan, Rupert, and James Murdoch (Rick Wilking / Reuters)

In every empire with an aging monarch, the hint of a new crown price is enough to whip courtiers into a frenzy. So it was Thursday, when CNBC reported, based on inside sources, that James Murdoch, Rupert’s son, is being tapped to take his father’s chair as CEO of 21st Century Fox.

There’s a great deal that’s still unclear about the change—for example, when it will happen and exactly what role James Murdoch will play. His older brother Lachlan is also getting a new role, as co-chairman. There’s also some questions about how serious a role change this is. The 84-year-old Australian mogul doesn’t seem ready to fade off into retirement anytime soon. CNBC cautioned that “no one doubts the elder Murdoch will still have the final say on whatever goes on at Fox.” (Markets, apparently not so sure, battered Fox’s stock after the news.)

James Murdoch, 42, seems to have survived a near-death experience as head of News International, the British division of the company. (Lachlan is 43.) When the company was investigated in a massive phone-hacking scandal, he was forced to testify before Parliament, was repeatedly accused of being a liar, and eventually resigned. In contrast to the prevailing politics at the company, he is said to be “steadfastly liberal.”

But obscure palace intrigue in the Murdoch empire is nothing new. In fact, it’s the norm, as a quick trip through old news headlines makes very clear. Let’s look back.

  • 1997: Rupert Murdoch states that Lachlan Murdoch is “first among equals” in the race to succeed him.
  • July 2005: Lachlan Murdoch abruptly resigns from News Corp., “relinquishing his status as heir apparent,” The Los Angeles Times reports. “The departure of the 33-year-old Lachlan Murdoch, who was being groomed to succeed his father, appears to signal the ascendancy of Murdoch's younger son, James, 32, who runs News Corp.'s British satellite operations.”
  • August 2011: Reuters reports that Chase Carey, Murdoch’s magnificently mustachioed longtime lieutenant, is next in line for the throne at News Corp.: “Rupert Murdoch acknowledged publicly for the first time that his son James is not the preferred choice to succeed him as News Corp. CEO, at least in the near-term.” CNBC reports, however, that “Murdoch has made it clear he wants his family to remain in charge of News Corp.”
  • February 2012: USA Today reports that Carey has solidified his position as second-in-line to the boss with James’s resignation from News International. "James' resignation was inevitable," Louis Ureneck, a Boston University journalism professor, tells the paper. "He either condoned the hacking or was irresponsibly unaware. Neither is acceptable in a top executive of a media company."
  • August 2012: “Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth has moved to distance herself from her brother James and position herself to play a major role at the helm of News Corporation,” The Telegraph reports.
  • July 2013: The Guardian reports that in a secretly taped conversation with staffers at his tabloid The Sun, Rupert Murdoch said his son Lachlan would succeed him. "Will the company's support vanish overnight if you're not here?" an editor asked. "Yes—if I wasn't here, the decision would be—well, it will either be with my son, Lachlan, or with Robert Thomson [News Corporation chief executive],” Rupert replied. “And you don't have any worries about either of them.”
  • March 2014: The Guardian again reports that Lachlan is once again the heir apparent. “The decision caps a remarkable comeback for the 42-year-old, who once dared to turn his back on his father's empire, and who had long been seen as lagging behind younger brother James and older sister Elisabeth in the eagerly studied succession race,” writes Roy Greenslade. But as The New York Times noted, both sons got new roles: “Lachlan, 42, became nonexecutive co-chairman of the News Corporation and 21st Century Fox, returning to his father’s side after a nine-year absence. James, 41, was appointed co-chief operating officer at 21st Century Fox.”
  • September 2014: Elisabeth Murdoch leaves Shine, the company she founded and sold to News Corp. “Her departure, for now at least, seems to take her out of ‎any contention to one day succeed her father, although she has in the past expressed no interest in such a role,” says The Hollywood Reporter.
  • June 2015: It is reported that James Murdoch will become CEO of News Corp.; Lachlan Murdoch will become executive co-chair; and Rupert Murdoch will become executive chairman. Chase Carey will reportedly leave his role as chief operating officer but continue to advise the company.

That brings us up to the present—though it doesn’t even take in every one of the tortuous turns in Fox’s drama. Why is there so much controversy? First, as any aging dynast knows, it’s wise not to let any successor get too powerful, lest he eclipse the ruler. Second, it’s just how Rupert Murdoch rolls, according to veteran Fox-tracker Gabriel Sherman.

“Rupert long ago established a family dynamic where the children fought for his affections. As the brothers ascended the ranks of his empire, they remained intensely competitive with each other,” Sherman wrote Thursday. “And now the patriarch is elevating both sons.”

In other words, this may not be the last time a new heir apparent takes up his mantle. Don’t get too comfortable, James—but then, you knew that.