The irony of the current conflict is that, until the phone-hacking scandal blew up, Liz and James had been the closest of the three siblings. They socialized together in London’s elite circle, imbibing the same ideas about where the culture was going and what News Corp. should become. They admired their father but shared a distaste for Rupert’s tabloid ventures, especially Fox News (even if James respected Fox’s nearly $1 billion profit). They had both grown to share the belief that News Corp. needed to shed its predatory, down-market image. “Liz and James talked all the time. They complained about Rupert together,” a London-based media executive tells me. Freud had cultivated a close relationship with Wendi Murdoch, who, like James and Liz, believes News Corp. should abandon its outlaw ethos.
But their mind-meld about the company had its limits. James, with a tattoo, a black belt in karate, and his aggressive hair, wore the trappings of a rebel. But with his father he was an insider. Whereas Elisabeth was … female, and Murdoch was “old-fashioned,” as Freud once told Vanity Fair.
It was Freud who encouraged Liz to break away from the family and strike out on her own. From the time she was a child, Liz had a complicated relationship with her famous family. Growing up on the Upper East Side, Liz attended Brearley and went to Vassar. While she was at school with the well-off set—her friends included Carolina Herrera, the actress Catherine Kellner, and filmmaker Noah Baumbach—she bartended at the Mug, the campus watering hole, and waited tables at the Dutch Cabin, a scruffy bar and restaurant in Poughkeepsie. “She was extraordinarily down-to-earth,” a classmate recalls. “She ran in the cool crowd, but she wasn’t inaccessible,” another college friend told me. “She had her 21st-birthday party at Tavern on the Green. Bryan Ferry serenaded her. That’s when people were like, ‘Oh, shit, this isn’t your average Upper East Side money family.’ ”
At Vassar, she worked for the campus television station. While conducting interviews for a show she had started, Liz ran into Elkin Pianim, the son of a prominent Ghanaian economist and a Dutch mother. They soon were dating and fell in love. Elkin was popular on campus, known for his rakish wit and charm. In 1993, they married, which was no small source of dismay for Rupert.
After a couple of low-level jobs at News Corp., Liz moved to Carmel, California, with Elkin and paid $35 million to acquire a pair of local NBC affiliates. She was determined to prove herself as a businesswoman. When a reporter brought up her father’s name several times during an interview, Liz snapped, “Is this an interview about us or about my father?”
As much as Rupert dislikes Freud’s tactics, he’s never challenged him: “Liz is Freud’s human shield.”
Her early management decisions infuriated the staff at the stations. To cut costs, she required staffers to dial an access code before making long-distance calls. Within months, several staffers had quit. She clashed with the well-liked evening-news anchor Rick Martel over a salary negotiation, leading to his departure. “She wanted to negotiate my salary over the telephone,” Martel recently told me. “She was just an ass. She was difficult.” (Liz declined to comment for this article.)
Despite the office turmoil, Liz made a killing on the deal. A little more than a year after buying the stations, she sold them for a $12 million profit and then later joined BSkyB, in which News Corp. had a large stake, in charge of broadcasting and programming. It was a time of rapid expansion for Rupert’s London-based pay-TV service. In 1992, BSkyB, then being run by the pugnacious, New Zealand–born CEO Sam Chisholm, won the rights to broadcast Premier League soccer. The business took off.
Liz pushed Chisholm to develop original programming. She’d cut deals to broadcast shows like Friends and ER on Sky, but she wanted to create her own content. Chisholm resisted. Chisholm didn’t like that Rupert had, in his view, foisted his daughter on his company. He openly mocked Liz to executives, sometimes referring to her as a “management trainee.”
At BSkyB, Liz also experienced the pain of watching the competition with her siblings play out in public. When Rupert made the first-among-equals remark to the Guardian in 1997, Liz was furious. “She called Rupert and asked him to go on the record to say he didn’t say it,” one executive recalls. “She wanted a retraction of the comment, but Rupert wouldn’t do it. She was livid.”
Around this time, Liz found out she was being passed over for the top job at BSkyB. She was upset that Rupert wouldn’t consider her for the promotion. “He never told her the job was open. It’s the reason she left,” one executive who worked for her at the time recalls.