Rupert Murdoch is stepping down as chair of Fox and News Corp, marking the end of an era for the powerful media billionaire.
Lachlan Murdoch, his elder son, will become sole chair of News Corp and continue as executive chair and chief executive of Fox, from mid-November.
The Australian-born mogul, 92, has over the past seven decades transformed an Adelaide newspaper that he inherited from his father into a global media empire, which is feared and courted by politicians across the English-speaking world.
However, Mr Murdoch told employees that he would remain engaged in the company as chair emeritus. He promised to “be involved every day in the contest of ideas”, as he hit out against elites and other media outlets.
“Our companies are in robust health, as am I. Our opportunities far exceed our commercial challenges,” he told employees on Thursday.
Mr Murdoch, who earlier this year agreed to pay nearly $800 million (€750 million) to halt a trial over Fox’s role in peddling conspiracy theories about the 2020 US election, went on to warn of what he described as a “battle for the freedom of speech”.
“Elites have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarefied class. Most of the media is in cahoots with those elites, peddling political narratives rather than pursuing the truth. In my new role, I can guarantee you that I will be involved every day in the contest of ideas,” he wrote.
Mr Murdoch will leave an indelible impact on the global media industry and hands over an empire that has had unrivalled political sway in the US, UK and Australia.
Murdoch’s decision to step down will not affect the positions of longtime allies Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News UK, and Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp in New York, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Mr Murdoch bought The Sun newspaper in 1969, mastering the tabloid formula of mixing scandals, celebrity gossip and political influence. In 1989 he started satellite television company Sky, kicking off the pay-TV market. In the US, he gatecrashed the television news business, launching Fox News in 1996 and building it into a rightwing political powerhouse.
Andrew Griffith, the Conservative minister who spent 20 years as an executive at Sky, said Murdoch had “transformed British media — making it more competitive and with many more voices on air”.
“He inspired admiration and loathing but no one doubted he was the most potent force in the media, from tabloid hot metal to digital media and global television,” said Geordie Greig, editor-in-chief of the Independent who worked for Murdoch titles in the 1980s and 1990s. His former boss had “outpaced and outplayed even Citizen Kane”, he said.
But in recent years Murdoch broke up his empire, splitting 21st Century Fox and selling many of its crown jewels to Disney for $71 billion. That deal is viewed as a masterstroke for Mr Murdoch, who sold at the top of the market, before the technological disruptions that battered big Hollywood studios in recent years.
Fox in the US and News UK titles The Times and The Sun have remained the core of the empire, although the TV business has been hurt by the $785 million cost of settling the lawsuit brought by voting machine manufacturer Dominion and the newspaper group is still mired in phone hacking claims.
Thursday’s announcement concentrates power in the hands of Lachlan, but a succession dilemma still hangs over Murdoch’s children, who will control the family trust once Rupert dies.
Murdoch watchers expect more jockeying for power over the trust, which controls about 40 per cent of the voting shares of Fox and News Corp. James Murdoch is largely estranged from his older brother Lachlan and has spoken out against Fox News, while the loyalties of sisters Prudence and Elisabeth are uncertain.
Even by Murdoch’s standards, 2023 has been a chaotic year. He tried to reunite the two halves of his media empire, News Corp and Fox, but scrapped the merger in January.
A separate deal to sell News Corp’s property listings websites also fell apart. After his 2022 divorce from Jerry Hall, he got engaged to be married for a fifth time, only to call off that engagement within weeks.
In April he agreed at the last moment, with opening statements about to begin and embarrassing messages already in the public domain, to settle the Dominion lawsuit over Fox’s role in spreading conspiracy theories about the US election. Later that month, he abruptly fired Fox’s star host Tucker Carlson, sending shockwaves through media and political circles.
Smartmatic, another voting machine company, is still seeking $2.7 billion from Fox over its airing of false claims of election rigging in the 2020 election. A court hearing in New York on Wednesday, in which lawyers clashed over the production of evidence, suggested the two sides remained far from a resolution. - Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023