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Cover of book: The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch

Paddy Manning
The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch

In late September this year, an American court released a trove of messages sent to the Tesla billionaire Elon Musk. They revealed a private Musk remarkably like the public one: an unmoored narcissist revelling in attention from celebrities and sycophantic would-be investors.

In his book The Successor, Paddy Manning does something similar, showing that beneath Lachlan Murdoch’s surface lies… more surface. Manning’s title invokes, of course, the hugely popular HBO series Succession, initially conceived as a feature about the Murdoch clan.

In the real-life race to replace Rupert, Lachlan featured initially as the underdog. The family considered him less academically gifted than his younger brother, James, and Lachlan initially distinguished himself more with his rock climbing – friends say he could have turned pro – than his business acumen. Nevertheless, he dutifully followed his father’s trade and even joined the printers’ union after a holiday stint at Sydney’s Daily Mirror.

Manning recounts how, at a meeting with young journalists, a new reporter asked Lachlan, then the deputy chief executive of News Ltd, his thoughts on republicanism. In response, Lachlan described monarchies as problematic because they relied on people inheriting wealth and power. “Isn’t that what you’ve done?” asked the cadet.

This anecdote highlights the relatively moderate social views Lachlan espoused throughout the 1990s, a period in which he praised Jeff Kennett’s condemnation of Pauline Hanson’s racism and argued that other Liberals had not stood sufficiently against One Nation.

Yet even in those failson days, he inhabited a bubble of wealth and privilege: buying a yacht with Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman, marrying the model Sarah O’Hare and palling around with James Packer, who encouraged his disastrous investment in One.Tel. Typically, the party he threw on New Year’s Eve in 1999 featured Baz Luhrmann, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and Leonardo DiCaprio among A-listers galore.

Lachlan’s sister Elizabeth left the Murdoch empire in 2000, feeling herself sidelined by her father. Lachlan resigned in 2005, partly for the same reason – and partly, Manning says, because of his father’s romantic life. The elder Murdoch had separated from Anna, Lachlan’s mother, and then shocked his family with an immediate relationship with Wendi Deng, a junior executive at Star TV. That union lasted until Rupert discovered Deng’s alleged affair with former Murdoch favourite and one-time British prime minister Tony Blair.

Unexpectedly, Lachlan’s temporary alienation from his family proved a strategic blessing, leaving James to take the heat from the phone hacking scandal at the company’s British stable. Back in Sydney, Lachlan established his own company, Illyria, and scored big with an investment in the Nova radio network. He then returned to the family fold, more or less on his own terms.

By Rupert’s 83rd birthday, Lachlan and James were giving joint interviews in which they explained, through rictus grins, how much they enjoyed working together. Lachlan’s ultimate triumph only became apparent with the sale to Disney of 21st Century Fox, a deal that ended James’s role as chief executive. In Manning’s telling, the brothers’ shifting fortunes also pertained to the increasing convergence between Fox News and Trumpism, since James shared his father’s disapproval of Trump’s crass antics, while an emboldened Lachlan apparently saw Trumpian polarisation as a business opportunity on which to capitalise – by, for instance, hiring former Trump aide Hope Hicks as chief communications officer.

By 2020, James was condemning Fox News for climate denialism. After resigning from News Corp, he and his wife began donating to anti-Trump and environmental causes. The once-liberal Lachlan, on the other hand, personally texted support to rising Fox star Tucker Carlson after an on-air anti-immigrant rant.

Manning quotes an unnamed Wall Street analyst who suggests that when Rupert dies the other Murdoch siblings may unite against Lachlan, a scenario that one suspects represents wishful thinking more than anything else.

The Successor does not provide much insight into the interiority of the Murdochs. Rather, it leaves the reader wondering if these deeply strange people possess an inner life at all. For instance, after splitting from Deng, Rupert wooed Jerry Hall – even though the Murdoch tabloids had developed their grotesque hacking techniques by targeting her split from Mick Jagger. Hall married Rupert in 2016 and divorced him in 2022, disgruntled, Manning says, over her cut from the Disney deal. The whole affair sounds less like a romantic relationship than a failed corporate merger.

In 2019, Lachlan bought a $150 million mansion in Bel Air with 11 bedrooms, 18 bathrooms, a tennis court, a motor court for 40 cars, a capacious wine cellar and much more. The London-born, New York-raised, Sydney-based billionaire then enlarged his holdings by buying the $14 million property next door – even as he ran a network that fulminated 24/7 against globalist elites. How did he resolve that contradiction? He didn’t.

While the adult Lachlan definitely leaned to the right, watchdog group Media Matters for America suggests that, unlike his father, he possessed no special passion for either news or politics, except insofar as they brought him money. Fox’s Tucker Carlson has now cited the great replacement theory – the conspiracy that inspired the Christchurch killer – no fewer than 400 times. There’s no evidence that Lachlan personally likes white nationalism – but he likes the luxury yachts that Carlson’s bile funds.

From afar, Lachlan Murdoch presents like an empty and venal man. The Successor suggests that, up close, he’s exactly the same.

Black Inc, 336pp, $34.99

Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch, Paddy Manning".

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