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The Boy Who Wouldn't Be King

A son who craves his father’s love. A father who believes in his own immortality. The intimate story of the clash that rocked the Murdoch dynasty.

Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch in 1999.  

In late July, Lachlan Murdoch, who is 34, took a business trip to Australia. He did this in his capacity as deputy chief operating officer of News Corp., the media empire assembled by his father, Rupert, who is 74. In addition to his important title, Lachlan was, as everyone knew, the person Rupert had designated to succeed him.

From Sydney, Lachlan put in a call to his dad—Lachlan usually refers to him, even in business settings, as “Dad.” Rupert likes to keep in touch with his vast kingdom via frequent phone calls, and for most of Lachlan’s adult life, few workdays passed without talking to his dad about some business matter. Mostly, Lachlan looked forward to these calls. Working closely with his dad had been, for a long time, one of the job’s pleasures. Lately, though, there’d been a shift, an unhappy one. Something unarticulated had come between father and son, creating a strain. Lachlan felt it keenly.

On the phone, the two at first chatted genially about the state of the company’s Australian papers, of which Lachlan was now chairman. Australia was one of their bonds; Rupert was born there, and Lachlan called it his spiritual home. The newspaper business was another. Rupert grew News Corp., now worth some $55 billion, out of a single Australian paper; Lachlan’s first assignment had been to help manage the Australian papers.

Then, unexpectedly, Rupert changed subjects. He brought up the company’s 35 TV stations. Lachlan ran those as well, along with the New York Post and HarperCollins. As Lachlan learned, Roger Ailes, the feisty CEO of Rupert’s beloved Fox News, had grabbed a minute with the boss. Lachlan knew the elder Murdoch adored Ailes, with whom he shared an affinity for hard-right politics. Also, Ailes was Rupert’s programming genius, the guy who had CNN on the run. Ailes liked to hatch programming ideas for Lachlan’s station group. The latest brainstorm was a news-based police series tentatively called Crime Line. Lachlan had resisted. He ran the stations, and he’d decided to hold off on Crime Line for a few months. “It was a 100 percent right decision if you want to save tens of millions of dollars,” Lachlan told his staff.

But Ailes had made a little fuss—“a whinge,” Lachlan called it, using the Australian term. “Why can’t I do the show?” Ailes asked Rupert.

“Do the show,” Rupert told Ailes. “Don’t listen to Lachlan.”

Lachlan had encountered meddling before—that was how his dad always operated. And the incident itself wasn’t a big deal. Still, on the plane ride back to New York, Lachlan couldn’t get it out of his head. He stewed; it recalled other small incidents. He loved his father, but he felt undercut, maybe humiliated. The feeling mushroomed. Lachlan began to brood not just about Crime Line but about his identity, in the company and out. Where was the respect due a successor, a deputy COO, a son?

If nothing changed, Lachlan imagined that his relationship with his dad might deteriorate, might not even survive the business. No wonder people noticed that happy-go-lucky Lachlan, with that tribal tattoo (visible when he rolled up his cuffs, which, like his dad, he did a lot), recently seemed “morose.”

“Look, at the end of the day, my dad’s not going to change. I would never ask him to,” Lachlan reflected to News Corp. colleagues. Still, Lachlan decided he had to say something. Rupert had to be made to understand that he couldn’t simply override his decisions. On July 25, a Monday, Lachlan called his father at News Corp.’s Los Angeles offices. He said he was flying out from New York to see him the next day.

At lunch, Rupert was attentive, receptive. He could think of a couple ways to address the problem. Different reporting lines, tinkering with the organization chart.

“Look, that’s not going to work,” Lachlan interrupted. The press might celebrate him as the person picked to one day run the world’s most encompassing media empire, but today, he couldn’t see this changing—he felt a little lost.

Lachlan didn’t totally understand it. He’d been at the company for eleven years. The emotion was new. “Not like an anger, not like a disappointment,” Lachlan later confided. “It’s more cathartic. It’s something that’s your whole life, my dad’s as well, his whole life.”

As their talk progressed, both became emotional. Lachlan hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking of himself apart from the company, or apart from his dad. It seemed to shake him. It’s just difficult to sort of uncouple your life and your identity from the company, he thought. But that’s what he now proposed. “I have to do my own thing,” Lachlan told his dad. “I have to be my own man.” Then the heir apparent walked away.