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The Boy Who Wouldn't Be King

Second, there were his siblings to consider. Didn’t the others also want to reign? Rupert, being Rupert, declined to rule them out; nor, in fact, did he exclude Chernin, at least in the near term.

The kids are close—“insular,” says a family observer—bound by their many uprootings and also by being Murdochs. After all, they’d grown up in New York at a time when Rupert was, as one commentator put it, “an evil genius.” And yet each kid is, in his or her own way, fiercely competitive. “All the kids are confrontational, argumentative,” says one observer. Anna seemed sure the very idea of succession would bring out the worst in them and implored Rupert to put an end to it. It would spark “a lot of heartbreak and hardship for the kids,” she told an Australian journalist.

Yet the kids seemed unavoidably drawn to Dad’s business. How could it be otherwise? When they were growing up, Rupert was often absent. Lachlan recalls waking before dawn to catch a glimpse of Dad before he ran off. “Rupert is very devoted to his family, and he’s very devoted to his work,” says one observer. “The devotion to work is dominant.” And yet if Dad was distant, when he was there it was always a great time, which invariably involved the family business. “We would sit around the breakfast table and talk about newspapers, go through the paper, and my dad would say, ‘Good editing, bad editing, good story, bad, great headlines or not,’ ” Lachlan told one friend. Rupert’s newspaperman father had done the same with him. For the Murdoch kids, business was never off-limits. Indeed, business talk has long been the family’s emotional language.

“We could never take our family life out of business,” Anna said. “They were so intermingled.”

Perhaps Rupert viewed his kids as an extension of himself, an equivocal quality in a father. “As a father, you have to acknowledge your children in their own right,” says a person close to the kids. “I’m not sure Rupert is particularly good at that.” And yet, initially, all three children excitedly took to the business.

For Lachlan, the resulting closeness with his dad seemed a reward in itself. “You know him more than anyone else knows him,” he’d tell one News Corp. colleague. “He knows you more than people know you. You can be very honest with each other in ways that maybe other people can’t be.” Lachlan, like his siblings, often ends even business conversations with “I love you, Dad,” no matter who’s in the room.

“I have to be my own man,” Lachlan told his father over lunch. “I have to do my own thing.” Then news corp.’s Heir apparent walked away.

The media was fascinated with the story of a sibling rivalry with global stakes; the kids swore they never talked about it. And yet, each in his moment inevitably measured himself against his ability to do the top job. Were they ready? Were they in the running? Succession was a measure not only of corporate (and global) power but also of a distant father’s favor.

Publicly, the kids signed off on Lachlan’s elevation. Still, an executive who worked for James, younger than Lachlan by just fifteen months, recalls the day James spotted a newspaper article on his desk talking of Lachlan’s ascension. James had dropped out of Harvard to start a record label, Rawkus, with some classmates from Horace Mann. Rupert bought Rawkus and installed James to run News Corp.’s new-media division. Later, when James was just 30 years old, Rupert ushered him into the CEO position at British Sky Broadcasting, a publicly traded satellite company of which News Corp. owns 35 percent.

James grabbed the article from the exec’s desk. “He tore it up, crushed it into a ball, and stomped it on the ground,” recalls the exec.

“It’s not fucking true,” James announced.

Elisabeth, whom her father had sent to be general manager at BSkyB before James, once said she too hoped to be ready for the top job. “I have to hurry up,” she said, half-joking. “I have always and will always strive to be qualified and considered for that position.”

Even Prudence, Rupert’s daughter from his first marriage, who’d never worked at News Corp., seemed devastated at having been excluded from the charmed circle of candidates. When, in an article about succession, Rupert referred to “his three children,” Prudence was livid. “I rang up, I screamed at him, I hung up,” she told an Australian paper. “He then sent the biggest bunch of flowers—it was bigger than that sofa—and two clementine trees. The flowers kept coming, and he felt awful.”

Rupert sometimes explained his choice of Lachlan by saying he was the child who seemed to want it most. “He was the one who was always most interested,” Rupert told friends. “When he was a 13-year-old kid, he worked as an apprentice with the printers in the pressroom, cleaning all the oil and the grease off the press.” It didn’t seem a particularly flattering way to explain Lachlan’s favor, as if he were a hobbyist with peculiarly focused interests. And yet, no doubt, Rupert recognized in Lachlan his own passions. Lachlan was often said to be the least rebellious of the kids, with a crew cut and stable conservative politics. (James was a college dropout; Elisabeth married a Ghanaian son of a political prisoner, divorced him, and then, messily and to her parents’ initial dismay, married Matthew Freud, great-grandson of Sigmund.) Lachlan also shared Rupert’s deep, atavistic affection for newspapers. Rupert too had hung out in the pressroom of his father’s papers as a child and still loved their smell, their daily surprises, the provocation (as well as the political advantage) they afforded. He still occasionally phoned in stories. “He liked to call with a tip,” says one former business reporter at the Post. “He wouldn’t want us to follow it up. He wanted us to just go with it.”