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The Boy Who Wouldn't Be King

Clearly, Lachlan was the child who most closely followed in Rupert’s footsteps. When Rupert was 21, his own sometimes difficult father—“I don’t think he’ll ever please him,” one friend was quoted as saying—died suddenly. Rupert returned home from Oxford University and marched into his father’s place, determined to grow the family newspaper business. At 22, straight out of Princeton, Lachlan shipped off to work for News Corp.’s Australian newspapers.

Of course, fatherhood (especially, perhaps, if a kingdom is at stake) is partly a sadistic enterprise. Rupert liked to toss the kids in the deep water. As one observer put it, “It’s a very grueling sort of special-ops training. You give them a job, and you don’t necessarily support them.” Rupert, though, seemed to like the idea. He did it “to test them,” he’d say. “I had the same experience.”

Rupert would defend Lachlan’s quieter side, his emotional streak, even an ill-advised investment. Still, he seemed to admire his children most when their ambitions showed—the more muscular, the better. “He believes in survival of the fittest,” Lachlan knew—even if those trying to survive are his kids.

At News Corp.’s Australian newspaper group, Lachlan entered as a middle manager “and pushed his way into the number-two position,” Rupert recounts with admiration. “Then he took over [all the papers].” Here, clearly, was Rupert’s favorite narrative: unchecked ambition, brawny self-assertion. Plus, of course, success. And in Australia, Lachlan was a terrific success, developing a very loyal team, efficient management, and a profit center. Outside of the newspapers, he’d take the lead in investing in a telecommunications company that lost a half-billion dollars. Still, “he did a fantastic job,” Rupert told everyone.

For Lachlan, Australia proved more than a business success. He stayed for a half-dozen years, and ever after would seem nostalgic, almost melancholy, for the place. Lachlan was born in London and spent most of his life and all his schooling in the United States; he speaks with an American accent, though he sprinkles his conversation with Australianisms like “G’day, mate.” “I’m most myself when I’m in Australia,” he once told a friend. Lachlan married an Australian beauty, the supermodel Sarah O’Hare. One thing she liked about him was his Australian-ness. “I never thought I’d meet anyone in love with Australia more than me,” she said in an interview with an Australian journalist.

Lachlan wasn’t always able to explain why Australia grips him so. He isn’t super-articulate—in that way he’s like Rupert, who, though disarmingly direct, isn’t hyperarticulate either. “I wish I could come up with the word,” Lachlan occasionally says, and at times he speaks with a slight, thoughtful stammer.

Perhaps it was that in Australia, a country of just 20 million, Lachlan was their Murdoch. Rupert was gone and, in his stead, Lachlan was a star, the celebrated, most handsome member of the imperial clan. The papers called him “Lachie” (and “gorgeous” and “most eligible”) and chronicled his parties and his girlfriends.

At the same time, Lachlan managed to strike the press as a regular guy, genuinely interested in others, nice. Often, Lachlan is described by what he is not. There’s a lack of showiness, of conceit, of pretension: regular-guy qualities that Lachlan likes to think of as Australian. The country, he thinks, is invitingly “egalitarian,” an odd term from the prince sometimes paired with friends Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. But Lachlan means that Australians are honest, open, and they take responsibility for themselves, virtues that, coincidentally, he believes make for a good leader. “In Australia, it was easy to be a leader,” Lachlan confided to a colleague. There were no messy politics. “You’re the boss, you take credit, you do your job, you learn from your mistakes.”

When Rupert contemplated moving News Corp.’s home from Australia to New York, Lachlan resisted, aggressively, “violently,” says one insider. “I certainly was the only person in the company who argued against the domicile change,” Lachlan would tell an associate. Everyone else, including Rupert, favored transferring the company from the Australian to the New York Stock Exchange. Among other things, the move was supposed to boost the value of News Corp.’s stock. Lachlan lost, though he hadn’t been wrong. The share price hasn’t popped. And the complicated revaluations that accompanied the transfer allowed John Malone, the cable mogul and the one businessman Rupert is said to fear, to gain a huge ownership position—18 percent of News Corp.—putting him in a position to potentially challenge the Murdoch family’s control.

In 2000, Lachlan moved to New York from Australia. Rupert bestowed on him the new title of deputy chief operating officer. “He wanted a big portfolio, as big as he could get,” says one senior News Corp. executive, who adds, “He grabbed too much too quickly.” Perhaps that was a problem. There were others. In New York and Los Angeles (he had offices on both coasts), Lachlan discovered an entirely different dynamic than in Australia. Gone was the independence afforded by the international date line—Lachlan now had the office next to his dad’s. Then there was the new corporate setting. If he’d found Australia open and honest, the new office was rife with astute political gamers, salesmen, often of themselves, which was how Lachlan sometimes viewed Chernin, his nominal boss. What’s more, some of these seemed eager to find fault with a boyish pretender who was, as one exec cheerfully stated, “breathing down my neck.”