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The Boy Who Wouldn't Be King

To Lachlan, his designation as heir apparent seemed “almost a poisoned chalice.” Imagine the expectations. “Every meeting he has every day of his life, it’s the same problem,” says one observer. “They go, ‘Oh, I’m not sure he’s his father.’ It’s an impossible slide rule to be held up against, particularly when you’re learning and growing.”

Which, at the beginning, was part of Lachlan’s job. “Rupert asked me lots of times about where he should go next, what else should he learn,” says one senior News Corp. exec. “The true title would have been chairman-in-training. That would have made more sense.”

There was another difficulty from Lachlan’s viewpoint. COO Chernin and deputy COO Lachlan didn’t always get along, though Chernin claimed not to notice it. Lachlan had expected to spend half his time in Los Angeles, where Chernin is based. He purchased a house there. Lachlan’s view was that Chernin wasn’t really forthcoming. “Nobody at the film company or the network or production wanted to teach him,” says one exec. Chernin felt he gave him every appropriate opportunity, as a Los Angeles colleague heard, but that Lachlan “didn’t seize the day.”

Either way, the initial rupture was never fixed. If Rupert knew, he was, for once, happy to not intervene. Perhaps Lachlan, who rarely found fault with his dad, discovered in Chernin a convenient target. He was too Hollywood, a type Lachlan (like his dad) disliked instinctively. Plus, Chernin, at least to Lachlan’s fans, offered an unsavory skill set. “He’s known inside the company as very political, which I don’t think is a positive thing,” Lachlan told one exec. Lachlan disliked corporate intrigue—“I never sort of wanted to play the politics at all,” was the way he once put it.

Chernin, of course, didn’t openly shun the favored son. “He’s too clever for that,” says a News Corp. executive. Lachlan wasn’t a whinger. He quickly worked out that it would be best for him to work from New York. “I’d rather go there and build my businesses independently,” he told another executive.

Lachlan had been put in charge of an amalgam of businesses that, at the start, he knew little about, a trick Rupert liked to play on executives. Fortunately, most of his businesses were fairly well run. The one exception was the New York Post, Rupert’s last American paper, and one of the company’s smallest businesses.

When Lachlan decided to hold off on a new police reality-TV program Roger Ailes had dreamed up, Ailes made a fuss. “Why I can’t I do the show?” he whined to Rupert. “Do the show,” Rupert said. “Don’t listen to Lachlan.”

Lachlan, with his newspaper background, threw himself into the Post with a passion that drew wide admiration. Still, as a place to make your mark, the Post was a risky choice. News Corp. was an entertainment conglomerate, no longer a newspaper company. Plus, the Post had losses that have approached a million dollars a week. “No other public company would keep it open,” asserted a competitor.

“It was a job no one else particularly wanted,” Lachlan confided. (If Rupert goes, few believe that News Corp. will hold on to the Post.)

Still, Lachlan, like Rupert, loved newspapers and was determined to alter the Post’s money-losing ways. He slashed the newsstand price to 25 cents, launched two $1 million ad campaigns, built new $250 million presses. It was a great brand, just stale, Lachlan believed. If Lachlan could seem unassuming, he was hardly meek. “He can certainly fire people,” says a News Corp. exec. At the Post, he presided over a housecleaning. He brought in a new editor, Col Allan, a talented Australian who championed eye-catching headlines—axis of weasel is one of his favorites—and had a ready sense of fun, as well as belligerence. The Post’s circulation climbed sharply, pulling to within 60,000 copies of the Daily News, shrinking a gap of 260,000. Lachlan had predicted the paper would be profitable by 2004. Advertisers, though, resisted. Lachlan’s other reports—HarperCollins, the TV stations—had solid earnings in a soft advertising climate. The Post, however, loses an estimated $40 million a year.

While Lachlan worked to fill Rupert’s shoes, a wrenching family struggle unfolded that would pit Lachlan against his dad and, perhaps, complicate his mission. In a sense, it began because Anna, Rupert’s wife of three decades, was weary. Anna, a “formidable” personality, say friends, had met Rupert when she was a beautiful 18-year-old junior journalist for one of his Australian papers who one day interviewed the boss. A few years later, Rupert divorced his first wife and they were married. Anna had been an adoring mother and a devoted wife. Indeed, theirs was, by most accounts, a solid marriage. In New York, Anna carved out her own career, turning herself into a pop novelist—and even wrote one about a newspaper publisher.

Anna professed to not understand what drove Rupert, but she was sure of one thing: She wanted him to slow down, eventually to quit altogether. She mounted a campaign, arranging for a California artist to create a ten-panel mural for the lobby of the new building at Rupert’s Twentieth Century Fox, patterned on Rupert’s right index finger. “It was Anna’s clear hope that such symbols would allow her husband to walk away, his place in history secure,” wrote one of Murdoch’s most astute biographers, Australian journalist Neil Chenoweth.