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The Boy Who Wouldn't Be King

It was against this backdrop that Lachlan’s relationship with his dad began to fray. Lachlan separated the two issues, that of business and that of trust; still, it seemed possible that feelings about one spilled into the other. Increasingly of late, Lachlan felt almost emasculated in business. Partly, it was in the nature of the prince’s post. Lachlan took offense at being taken for chairman-in-training. He was one of the world’s top media executives, with, by now, eleven years of distinguished service. “I think a lot of people could learn from me,” he’d tell one News Corp. exec.

Still, in the top echelons of News Corp., Lachlan felt chipped away at. The rupture with Chernin, his boss, hadn’t been repaired, or even officially noted. And Lachlan seemed to find himself on different sides of a string of business-strategy issues from Chernin. Moving the company from Australia was just one. “Lachlan isn’t as good a debater as Chernin, not even close, and Chernin has better command of the business,” says one News Corp. exec. “Lachlan had his points. He wasn’t wrong. These in the end are legitimate business questions, but each one Lachlan lost.”

Then there was Roger Ailes. “Roger’s the single biggest ego I’ve ever met,” said one former News Corp. executive. He was also a gifted bureaucratic operator as well as Rupert’s designated programming whiz. “You go to a programming meeting with Rupert and Ailes and you just don’t know if Rupert’s had a religious experience,” explained one insider. And lately, Ailes had ideas about what should run on Lachlan’s stations.

Some viewed Ailes as the kingdom’s Machiavelli. “Lachlan and I have a good relationship,” Ailes boasts. “He’s a nice, smart kid.” It was true, sort of. Lachlan took the view that Ailes couldn’t help himself. He importuned Rupert, he circumvented Lachlan, all was forgiven. “A leopard can’t change his spots,” Lachlan thought, and he didn’t hold it against him.

And then there was Rupert, with his supermarket-size ego, of which vast News Corp. could seem but an extension. One exec described the organization chart this way: Rupert on top, and under him a single straight line with everyone else. Rupert picks up the phone and calls anyone. He calls people below you, soliciting opinions on your business.

Maybe Lachlan was “thin-skinned,” as some said. No doubt the boss’s interference registered differently with a son, an infringement not just on his corporate prerogatives but on, as he’d put it, his identity. For Lachlan, it was a real dilemma. He adored his dad, even if he couldn’t quite come up for air with him in the vicinity.

Lately, Lachlan could feel his happiness sinking. He had a big title. Still, he wondered about the extent of his real power. As he told one insider, “A lot of peripheral players who are not necessarily responsible for your business have opinions on it and are talking about it. It’s just a lot more complicated.”

With Lachlan, the implied reference point is always Australia. There he’d been a leader—independent, respected, heeded, in an environment free of politics. “Do you think I could run the company from Australia?” Lachlan asked a friend not long ago.

Of course, another question, seldom asked, was whether Lachlan wanted to run the company at all.

With Rupert, it was never any single deal that took your breath away; it was what they added up to: his globe-girding ambition. Rupert wants to take over. Everyone assumed that Lachlan too wanted to run the world. Who wouldn’t? But what were Lachlan’s ambitions? When he thought about it, Lachlan realized that he hadn’t gone to News Corp. to gain power, prestige, and wealth. “That’s not why you decide to do go on the path you’re on,” Lachlan confided to an associate. “It’s not why you should ever lead a life, I believe.” Did Prince Charles really prefer to farm? “You got to go back to why you’re doing it in the first place,” Lachlan thought. “It’s because you wanted to show leadership and build businesses and run businesses and . . . run them in the way you want to run them.” You want to be your own man, perhaps in proximity to Dad, but not under his thumb. Now, as Lachlan put it, “you don’t have the leeway to run businesses in the way you want to.” Lachlan sometimes seemed less an aspiring media mogul than a New Age business seeker, one for whom building a business served as a ladder, not to wealth or influence, his birthrights, but to self-fulfillment. It was business as bildungsroman, in which constructing a company leads not to empire but to self-confidence, self-esteem, and happiness.