On 1 November 2018 Lachlan Murdoch, the eldest son of the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, made a rare public appearance at a New York Times DealBook conference. Dressed in a sharp blue suit and open-necked white shirt, he looked relaxed and on top of the world.
He had just been named chief executive and chairman of Fox’s TV businesses, while his brother James, a possible rival for the top job, was heading for the company exit. Lachlan was finally emerging as his father’s sole and undisputed heir.
Not that everything was plain sailing at the Fox ship. A few days before Lachlan took the stage, a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 Jewish worshippers.
Before the attack the alleged shooter had repeated on social media a number of Fox News talking points about Central American migrants “invading” America. He had also posted a Fox News report that showed a truck stamped with the Star of David carrying asylum seekers to the US border.
On stage, DealBook’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, asked Murdoch what he thought about the many false flags and conspiracy theories that Fox News routinely trafficked. “When you see that stuff, are you proud?”
Murdoch, appearing unruffled, tried to characterize the material as opinion broadcast separately from the network’s news reporting. But he did say this: “All news organisations, when they get something wrong they have an absolute responsibility to correct it and to apologise for it.”
Five years on from that rare expression of public accountability, Murdoch, 51, might wish he had taken his own advice. He now finds himself deeply embroiled in the latest scandal to engulf his father’s media empire, one that threatens to destabilise the Fox News vessel and with it the well-laid plans for his own succession.
“Lachlan is in the mire,” said David Folkenflik, media correspondent for National Public Radio and author of Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires. “This is an incredible signal moment for him, and his fingerprints are not absent here – he is part of this.”
The “this” to which Folkenflik was referring is the $1.6bn defamation lawsuit that has been brought against Fox News Network (FNN) and its parent company Fox Corp – of which Lachlan Murdoch is executive chairman and CEO – by Dominion Voting Systems. The firm, one of the largest providers of electronic vote counting machines in North America, is claiming that its business was harmed by falsehoods aired by Fox News hosts and their guests in the wake of the 2020 presidential election based on Donald Trump’s lie that the election was stolen from him.
On Friday Lachlan Murdoch gave his first public comments on the Dominion case since Fox was swamped by new revelations about the behavior of its top executives and stars. Speaking at a Morgan Stanley conference, he tried to belittle the scandal as so much “noise”, and stood by Fox News coverage of the 2020 election saying it had done its job “without fear or favour”.
That phrase sits uneasily with the devastating picture of the inside workings of the media empire that has emerged from Dominion court filings. As Folkenflik intimated, Murdoch’s fingerprints are liberally scattered through the documents.
Dominion claims that Murdoch played a central role in allowing lies to be broadcast about its machines flipping votes from Trump to Joe Biden to steal the election. His involvement was more than theoretical, “it was direct”.
In the days after the November 2020 election, Lachlan and his father kept in close contact with the CEO of Fox News, Suzanne Scott. When Lachlan was deposed by Dominion lawyers, he testified that he gave “specific direction on both the tone and narrative of Fox’s news coverage”.
According to Dominion, Murdoch admitted that he suggested which guests should appear on Fox shows, the content of those programs, and even specific questions to ask interviewees. He went so far as to criticize individual chyrons at the bottom of the screen, complaining that they were “anti-Trump”.
The thrust of Murdoch’s interventions, Dominion argues, was to rein back criticism of Trump and portray him in a more favorable light, in tune with the former president’s overwhelming popularity among Fox viewers. Ten days after the election, he told Scott to make sure that reporters were careful in their coverage of a Trump rally that was happening in real time.
“So far some of the side comments are slightly anti, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this is a huge celebration of the president,” he said.
Fox has insisted that Murdoch’s comments were not intended to be pro- or anti-Trump, rather they were designed to ensure coverage was “respectful to all viewpoints”.
The period around the election was one of turmoil, even panic, for Fox. In the wake of Fox News’s early calling of the key battleground state of Arizona for Biden, the channel was under fire from its own incensed Trump-supporting audience, which was defecting in droves to even more extreme rightwing outlets such as Newsmax and One America News Network (OANN).
On 8 November 2020, a day after Fox and other major news outlets had called the election for Biden, Lachlan, his father and Scott had what Dominion describes as a “long talk” about the “direction Fox should take” in response to falling ratings and viewer backlash. It was at that meeting, Dominion claims, that the trio decided to allow Fox hosts such as Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs to continue airing election denial lies even though they knew the information was untrue and anti-democratic.
Dominion concludes its billion-dollar lawsuit by accusing Lachlan bluntly of being “involved in all aspects of FNN and responsible for the defamatory broadcasts”.
Folkenflik pointed out that Dominion had so far only shown slices of the evidence, and that a full picture of what happened would have to wait for the trial that is scheduled to start on 17 April. “Having said that, everything we’ve seen from Lachlan so far suggests that he was very front-of-mind worried about appeasing and serving their audiences. It was business first, then politics and political influence, then the ideological agenda, and only then came journalism, which looks like a distant fifth right now.”
The Guardian reached out to Fox Corp for its response to the charges against Lachlan Murdoch.
The company did not comment on the case made against him, but a spokesperson did accuse Dominion of using “distortions and misinformation in their PR campaign to smear Fox News and trample on free speech and freedom of the press. We already know they will say and do anything to try to win this case, but to twist and even misattribute quotes to the highest levels of our company is truly beyond the pale.”
Born in London, raised in the US from the age of three, married to an Australian actor, with mansions in Sydney and LA, Lachlan Murdoch epitomises the globalised elite that his networks rail against. He entered the family business at 18, and by 22 was running his first Queensland newspaper, with the national title the Australian falling into his hands the following year.
By 2005 it was clear he was being groomed for greatness. By then he was the third most senior executive in News Corp, in charge of several Fox TV franchises in the US as well as the New York Post.
Murdoch grew weary of tensions with other senior figures within the hierarchy and unexpectedly withdrew to branch out on his own. He spent the next 10 years in the Murdoch wilderness, founding a private investment firm, Illyria, in Australia, and carving out his own profile as a media player all his own.
As a result of his decade-long hiatus, Lachlan was able to immunize himself against the first great scandal to befall the empire – the 2011 phone hacking furore in which British journalists working for News International were revealed to have broken into the phones of celebrities, royalty and even a murder victim. The scandal damaged the prospects of brother James, but gave Lachlan a valuable pass.
“It was a win on multiple levels,” Folkenflik said. “He could be supportive of his father, act as a trusted counsellor, without worrying about having to clean up his own mess.”
As the dust settled over the crisis, Lachlan made his return to the family stable in 2014 dubbed the “prodigal son”. When the next great scandal broke in 2016 – the sexual harassment perpetrated by the Fox News chairman, Roger Ailes – Murdoch was this time as hands-on as he had been hands-off during phone hacking.
As his unauthorized biographer, Paddy Manning, writes in The Successor, “Lachlan was right in the thick of Ailes’ downfall.”
Ailes’s resignation in July 2016 was an inflection point for the company. Should the Murdochs, as James was counselling, radically refocus Fox in a less partisan, more mainstream direction?
Or should they continue the path laid down by Ailes, and march ever more rightwards in search of ratings and profits? Lachlan was firmly with his father on taking the second road, which he saw as “a winning strategy”.
Similar hard-headed, business-first logic has defined Murdoch’s approach to Trump. “Whether he loved Trump or loathed him, for Lachlan there was an overwhelming commercial logic in following the news cycle and in creating audiences where there was a gap in the market, on the right,” Manning writes.
The watchdog Media Matters for America has noted that the lock-tight relationship between Fox and Trump coincided with Lachlan’s rise within the family business. “Fox News’ transformation into an unchained pro-Trump propaganda outlet came as Lachlan Murdoch’s control over the network steadily increased,” it reported.
The hand of Lachlan can be seen behind the emergence of Tucker Carlson as Fox’s provocateur-in-chief. When Carlson has shocked even Fox sensibilities by suggesting that immigrants make America “dirtier” or by embracing the white supremacist “great replacement” theory, it was Murdoch who rushed to his defense.
Yet again this week Carlson pushed the limits of Fox credibility by airing security footage of the 6 January 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol and distorting it to make the event seem like “peaceful chaos”. His latest escapade earned a rebuke from the Republican leader in the US Senate, Mitch McConnell, and denoted a level of hypocrisy given that Dominion documents were simultaneously exposing Carlson as having said in private that “I hate [Trump] passionately”.
“Lachlan has defended Tucker Carlson in the past, and this week’s January 6 effort suggests he continues to defend him,” Manning, speaking from Tasmania, told the Guardian. “The question is, will he do so in the future? I still believe that it is an iron law in the Murdoch empire that no one is indispensable, except at the vertex.”
Following his own formula, Manning sees Lachlan Murdoch as indispensable for as long as his father, who is 91, is alive and in the driving seat. “There is no question that Lachlan is the designated successor, and while Rupert is around his position is secure.”
Lachlan already finds himself firefighting on two fronts. He has opted to open up a second legal front in Australia by suing a small independent outlet in Melbourne.
Murdoch claims that Crikey defamed him by posting a column last year that described Murdoch as Trump’s January 6 “unindicted co-conspirator” (a phrase attached to Richard Nixon during Watergate). His hopes that Australian libel law will play to his advantage may be dashed by a new “public interest” defense that Crikey is deploying.
Meanwhile in the US, Dominion continues to sap his strength. “The Dominion case has exposed a failure of leadership at the heart of Fox, a failure to rein in the talent. That could be problematic once Rupert is gone,” Manning said.
Under the trust that was set up for the Murdoch children, Lachlan has to contend with three of his siblings – Prudence, Elisabeth and James – who jointly control with him the family stake in the business. In recent years James has become increasingly outspoken about Fox News which he clearly sees as a threat to democratic values.
Just days after the January 6 riot, James told the Financial Times that “outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years”. He didn’t name names, but then he didn’t have to.
Can James Murdoch and the other siblings be relied upon to go quietly into the night as Lachlan is anointed as successor? After Dominion, Folkenflik believes, all bets are off.
“Could this affect things? Absolutely,” he said. “The Dominion case will certainly be fodder for James, or other Murdoch children, if they want to challenge Lachlan over a smooth ascent.”
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