In Britain, where he laid the foundations of his global media empire and his own omnipotence, Rupert Murdoch never met a political leader of either of the main parties he couldn’t manipulate to his own ends. He grew used to that pernicious sense of power.
He thought the same of Donald Trump. Like many others, Murdoch did not see a Trump presidency coming in 2016, but when it arrived he still believed—for the first time—there would be a man in the Oval Office whose ear he would capture and who could serve to make him America’s dominant media mogul.
Now that he’s relinquishing control of Fox Corp and News Corp to his son, Lachlan, the valedictory verdict on Murdoch’s skills and reputation must be that, like so many others who got too close to Trump, Trump destroyed him.
Murdoch had reason to believe Trump rode to victory on a base that Fox News had created—a new synthesis of the aggrieved, the angry, and white supremacists that then-Fox News supremo, Roger Ailes, had first identified and drawn to together to build the highest primetime ratings in cable news.
Surely, Trump would acknowledge this and be duly grateful and accept Murdoch as an indispensable counsel—one who shared his abhorrence of government regulation of the airwaves and the northeastern liberal media establishment, particularly that liberal bastion, The New York Times?
It didn’t work out that way. At the beginning the two spoke frequently, and Fox News gave Trump fawning and endless coverage. But as Murdoch became frustrated, Sean Hannity became Trump’s chosen counselor—far more available, attentive, and pliant than his boss.
But, at the same time, the copulation of Trump and Fox News introduced a decisive split within the Murdoch family.
James Murdoch, once seen as his father’s natural successor, who had skillfully managed the British tabloid business clear of the infamous phone hacking scandal—including shutting down News of the World (to which his father was emotionally attached because it was his first British property)—could not stomach the sight of Fox News as the nightly mouthpiece of unhinged Trumpists.
James’ decision to quit the business essentially settled the Murdoch succession, as it has now been confirmed by Lachlan Murdoch taking over at his father’s retirement.
And it has to be said that the complex pathology of Murdoch family rivalries makes the psychodrama of the fictitious Logan Roy brood (of HBO’s Succession) seem comparatively tame.
First, at the top, was Rupert Murdoch’s realization that Trump is off his rocker—particularly when Trump-following quacks and anti-vaxxers appeared on Fox News and were directly responsible for thousands of unnecessary deaths.
And yet, Rupert couldn’t bring himself to stop the rot, because the profits were so immense. This despite the fact that his then-wife, Jerry Hall, made sure that Murdoch, then in Britain, was himself at the head of the line for the COVID vaccine and she—like James Murdoch—was appalled that Fox News played such a malignant role in the pandemic.
Then there was the turmoil over journalistic ethics in the rest of the Murdoch empire, particularly the most valuable print assets—The Wall Street Journal and, in London, The Times and The Sunday Times.
They have the same boss, but the association with Fox News and Trump was so potentially damaging that they had to establish a firewall between the completely unprincipled prime time television newsroom and the newspapers.
In New York, Robert Thomson, the long-serving Australian chief executive of The Wall Street Journal, steered a successful transition from print to digital and kept true to the traditional Republican base, while also steering clear of the stink of what has become Lachlan Murdoch’s great money machine. (Lachlan is by now sure that his father won’t spoil his fun and inheritance.)
How much did the father really understand the price to him of his son’s success? (Lachlan’s single-minded and, some would say, simple-minded ruthlessness is well elaborated in Michael Wolff’s stunning new book on Murdoch.)
And, how much did the father rue the day when he made the pact with Trump?
He could reflect back to his first conquest of a British politician, the formidable Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who allowed him (against forceful advice) to buy and take control of The Times and Sunday Times? And all the obsequious British politicians since then, including Tony Blair, the charismatic Labour party leader and long-serving prime minister, as well as a succession of Tory prime ministers.
Indeed, when Rupert this year gave his annual summer garden party in Britain to which, like a monarch, he invited the most powerful in the land, he invited the man everybody believes will be the next prime minister, Labour leader Keir Starmer—who dutifully obliged, causing outrage among many members of his party.
It was a small triumph for Murdoch to measure against the immeasurable harm caused to him by Trump.