Ginsberg, along with Matthew Freud, was involved in dealing with Wolff on the book. (Murdoch didn’t need convincing to grant Wolff access. He had been impressed by a Vanity Fair column Wolff did about his purchase of the Journal and had passed it around to News Corp. board members.) But ultimately, much of what Wolff wrote infuriated many camps inside News Corp. When Ailes read Vanity Fair’s excerpt of the book, which recounted how embarrassed Murdoch was by Ailes and Bill O’Reilly—a view Wolff says came from interviews with Rupert—Ailes became enraged. “Is this true?” he demanded in a September 2008 meeting.
“No, it’s not true,” Murdoch replied, assuring Ailes he was happy with Fox News and signing him to a new five-year contract.
James was unhappy about the book. Even before Rupert agreed to do it, James felt Wolff was the wrong writer to do the book and didn’t bother to read much of it when it was published. He believed News Corp. needed to be understood as a global company, and yet despite all the access Wolff had been granted, News Corp. was reduced to a circus of clashing egos.
James began to blame Ginsberg for mishandling Wolff’s book. But in some ways, this was only a pretext—an opportunity for James to gain more control over News Corp.’s corporate structure. Chernin’s announced departure in February 2009 created a leadership vacuum at the top of the company, and James quickly moved to fill it. “What James figured out is, whoever controls the press and investor relations controls James’s image,” one person close to Ginsberg says. “James knew Gary’s allegiances.” Last year, soon after the Wolff book was published, James told Rupert that he wanted Ginsberg out. Rupert resisted his son’s effort to manage personnel. But when Ginsberg got word from his friend Freud that his job was in doubt, he offered Rupert his resignation, despite having just signed a new five-year contract. Rupert didn’t resist and paid Ginsberg millions to go.
Perhaps emboldened, James then tried to move one of his key players from London into the company’s inner circle. He had already gotten his human-resources director moved to New York in 2007, and now James wanted his own London-based PR adviser, Matthew Anderson, to head up marketing and investor relations from New York. (In a phone conversation, Anderson says he never sought a role in New York.) This was a step Rupert would not tolerate. He rejected James’s move out of hand.
James’s rapid ascent comes with major risks. His father is by no means ready for the pasture, however obsessive and retrograde his enthusiasms, and members of Rupert’s inner circle wonder if he recognizes James’s power grabs. “James will need to be careful,” a former executive says. “As he moves into the orbit of the Sun King, the more chance you have of getting burned. The challenge is not to outshine Dad. James can’t ever put Rupert into a position where he’ll be forced to stop something or do something he doesn’t want to do.” News Corp. executives were surprised when, in January, Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, News Corp.’s second-largest shareholder, endorsed James to be Rupert’s successor. But as much as James wants the succession question closed, it must be frustrating for the would-be heir that Rupert keeps his options open. Earlier this month, Rupert took Lachlan on a sailing trip in the South Pacific along with Ailes. It was Ailes and Lachlan’s first reunion since they clashed five years ago—a surprising move that reignited speculation that Rupert is trying to repair relations and bring Lachlan back into the empire. Elisabeth, too, is hovering in the background. “I think all three of them will be in the company,” says a former executive who is close to the family. “Someone once said to me, ‘If you add Lachlan, James, and Elisabeth up, you get Murdoch.’ ”
“The challenge for James is not to outshine Dad.”
Some who have worked with Murdoch sense a perilous moment for the empire, a sadness even about what might become of his dynasty. Andy Steginsky, an informal adviser who helped Murdoch on the Journal deal, told me Murdoch was upset that, in the end, the Bancroft family unraveled. “Early, when it appeared the only way [the Journal] would be bought was a big family feud, he said, ‘I don’t want to cause a family feud,’ ” Steginsky remembers. “How could you feel good about it? It wasn’t the route he hoped the family would take.”
“Those of us who care for Rupert, and I do very much, hope we don’t get the fifth act of King Lear,” says David Yelland, former editor of Murdoch’s London tabloid the Sun, now a partner with the Brunswick Group. “You won’t find anyone to say anything critical about James Murdoch on or off the record. But the moment Rupert goes, that changes. Once he does pass, it will be very difficult to keep the company together. I almost wonder if he senses that and, toward the end of his life, we’ll suddenly wake up one morning and we’ll see an announcement he’s taking it private, or merge it with Google, or Microsoft, or [Liberty Media’s chairman] John Malone.”
For the Journal, the worry is that no future owner will have Murdoch’s bond with print. “We’re all hoping Rupert lives for a long time,” one reporter told me, “at least long enough for us to figure out a game plan. Everybody just assumes James or whoever would succeed him would not have the love for this property that he does.”
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with Murdoch’s mother, the remarkable Dame Elisabeth Murdoch. When I reached her by phone, it was the day after her 101st birthday. Rupert had flown in to celebrate with her. She is still sharp and spends her time at Cruden Farm, the seat of the Murdoch dynasty, outside Melbourne. Rupert, she says, has “been a very good son … I’m full of energy, and so is Rupert!”
I ask her if he’s changed over all these years. “He hasn’t changed,” she says. “I think he’s happy. It’s hard to say. I think he’s thinking he’s doing a good job, and he’s a family man.”
Rupert and Dame Elisabeth have had their differences. His divorce from Anna was a particularly difficult experience. “I hardly know [Wendi] at all,” she says. “I’m very fond of Anna. I was very upset when they split. But there we are, it’s history now.”
I ask about the future and her grandkids’ role in the company. “They’re all capable,” she says. “It’s really hard to say [who will run the company]. James is very different from Lachlan. Lachlan is very solid, and James is more volatile.” As for Wendi and Rupert’s young children, Chloe and Grace, Dame Elisabeth is adamant that they not be placed in the line of succession. “I hope it never happens,” she says.
Dame Elisabeth explained she doesn’t really have much more to say about succession; it’s a topic that doesn’t come up. “I don’t discuss it with him. I’m sure he’ll never retire,” she tells me. “I don’t intend to retire either, and I’m 101.”