Lachlan Murdoch’s first actions since taking over his father’s empire suggest he is committed to the network’s far-right populism. Whether it keeps him in the job is another question. By Mike Seccombe.

Lachlan Murdoch flaunts his ‘conservative credentials’

Lachlan and Rupert Murdoch in tuxedos.
Lachlan and Rupert Murdoch.
Credit: AP

A week ago, Tony Abbott was a washed-up former prime minister. Now he has become a statement of intent. A statement of Lachlan Murdoch’s intent, that is.

Just a day after Rupert Murdoch stepped down as chairman of News Corp and Fox in favour of his elder son and heir, the announcement came that Abbott was one of two new nominees to the board of the latter.

The other nominee, Margaret “Peggy” Johnson, made a lot of business sense. She has a decades-long background in the tech sector, including senior positions with Qualcomm and Microsoft. Her skills will likely be very useful to Fox’s cable network as it competes with streaming services, which are stripping away its customers.

But what does Tony Abbott have to offer? As Lachlan Murdoch’s biographer, Paddy Manning, points out, Abbott has no apparent relevant business experience and “doesn’t have any knowledge of the US media”.

What he does have, though, is a long history as a culture warrior: a religious right-winger who opposes abortion as “infanticide” and assisted dying laws as “the culture of death”. Whose anachronistic views on gender issues were the subject of Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech. Who opposed same-sex marriage. Who opposes an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. And who has condemned climate science as “absolute crap”.

You can’t accuse Tony Abbott of being “woke” – which is what makes him a valuable asset for Fox under its new leader.

Abbott’s nomination – which must yet be ticked off by shareholders at Fox’s annual meeting in November – should be seen, says Manning, “as an ‘up yours’ ” to those who hoped there might be a change of direction under Lachlan, away from the curated anger, far-right populism, misinformation and outright disinformation on which the network’s success was built.

“Lachlan is trying to underline his conservative credentials,” says Manning. “He needs to convince the MAGA [Make America Great Again] base that he’s genuine about Fox News and he’s not about to deliver Fox lite.” Which is exactly what some people in right-wing media and political circles have been suggesting will happen under Lachlan.

Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, greeted the news of Lachlan’s elevation with a rant on his War Room TV show, repeatedly using the harshest pejorative in the far-right lexicon: “Lachlan is totally woke. They say, ‘Oh, he’s a conservative.’ That’s all nonsense. The wife is woke, he’s woke. I mean, they’re super woke.” Also incompetent, says Bannon. While Rupert Murdoch was “a canny player”, Lachlan and his brother, James, were “just two rich kids. If their names were Lachlan Smith and James Smith, they’d be some mid-level marketing guy somewhere.”

The Murdochs were treacherous, he suggested, having “tried to suck up” to Trump, only to turn on him, “calling him a non-person and to go and to destroy him when he was at his weakest. Right when he left the White House.” That behaviour, said Bannon, “tells you what scumbags they are, and the sons are worse”.

There is some measure of truth in his view. Rupert Murdoch certainly cultivated Trump and did much to advance his agenda. Through much of the last United States administration, the senior Murdoch would phone Trump at least once a week to offer counsel.

In the first two years of Trump’s term, noted Jane Mayer in The New Yorker in 2019, he granted Fox News 44 interviews, compared with 10 for all other networks combined, and none for CNN. Mayer deemed that Fox News had gone beyond being just a right-wing media outlet and become a propaganda unit.

“The White House and Fox interact so seamlessly that it can be hard to determine, during a particular news cycle, which one is following the other’s lead,” she wrote.

It didn’t last, however. The critical moment can be quite precisely identified: election night, November 3, 2020, at 11.20pm (US eastern time), when the Fox election desk called the key swing state of Arizona for Joe Biden – effectively meaning Trump had lost the presidency.

Neither Trump, nor many of his supporters, nor many senior people at Fox were impressed that his favourite network had been first with the bad news. Trump refused to concede defeat and attacked Fox for being disloyal and dishonest, and its viewer numbers plunged while those of its smaller right-wing competitors shot up.

Fox’s election night call might have been right psephologically, but it was wrong commercially. What the network did next might have seemed right commercially, but it was wrong legally. By supporting Trump’s claim that the election was stolen, not only did Fox give airtime to a series of Trump acolytes to push the big lie, many of its star hosts also endorsed their claims that voting machines had been rigged.

As one of the most famous defamation cases of a generation unfolded, between Dominion Voting Systems and Fox – which ended this year in a US$787.5 million settlement for the plaintiff – it became clear just how cynically transactional was the relationship between Trump and the Murdochs, Fox executives and presenters. Depositions from Rupert and Lachlan and various other senior players within Fox, along with emails and other communications between them that were produced in evidence, showed they knew full well that the claims of election fraud made by Trump and his retinue of crazies were false, but they broadcast them anyway. Rupert even admitted in his deposition he could have put a stop to it but chose not to.

They did it because Trump’s voter base, their viewership, long conditioned to believe in falsehoods, simply would not accept the truth. If Fox now told the truth, its viewers would change the channel.

Fox board member Anne Dias aptly described what this decision unleashed in her email of January 11 – five days after thousands of Trump supporters invaded the Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from formalising Biden’s victory. “Considering how important Fox News has been as a megaphone for Donald Trump, directly or indirectly, I believe the time has come for Fox News, or for you, Lachlan to take a stance,” she wrote. “It is an existential moment for the nation, for the nation and for Fox News as a brand.”

Lachlan forwarded it to his father, who instructed him to reply that Fox was “pivoting as fast as possible”, but that leading the viewers is “not as easy as it might seem”.

Indeed it is not. As of late July this year, according to a CNN poll, 69 per cent of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters still believed Biden’s win was not legitimate. The numbers have been pretty consistent over multiple polls since the 2020 election. Trump holds a commanding lead over all rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. And Fox continues to be the highest-rating US cable news channel, with almost as many prime-time viewers as the next two, MSNBC and CNN, combined.

As for Dias, who expressed her moral qualms to Lachlan, she will leave the Fox board in November, making way for Tony Abbott.

The message here seems to be that Fox not only won’t change its business model, based on fomenting populist resentments, but can’t.

As Rupert Murdoch biographer Neil Chenoweth put it in a piece in The Australian Financial Review last week, even as the elder Murdoch was finally ready, “at the end of a life’s work forging a global empire built on [his] drive, imagination and ability to control”, to cede power to his son, “he finds Fox News, the biggest beast he ever created, is uncontrollable”. Not that Lachlan shows any intention of even trying.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he subscribes personally to all the views pushed by Fox, or by the army of right-wing commentators that infests the broader Murdoch empire, including its Australian newspapers, or by its local Fox clone, Sky News. The younger Murdoch is not very forthcoming about his position on many issues.

“I don’t know for a fact whether Lachlan is pro- or anti-abortion, for example,” says Manning.

In researching his book, he was fed the line that Lachlan “would still describe his politics as socially liberal and economically conservative, the same way he always has”.

“But I don’t think that washes anymore,” Manning says, citing the example of Lachlan’s views on climate change.

“A Rudd cabinet minister went to see him in the lead-up to the 2013 election and was shocked by the extent of Lachlan’s climate denial,” Manning says.

The consensus seems to be that Lachlan is at least as conservative as his father. He’s certainly thinner-skinned, as evidenced by the defamation action he brought against the website Crikey last year over an opinion piece that attributed blame for the January 6 riots. Rupert famously never sued for defamation. And Lachlan dropped his action two days after the settlement with Dominion.

One person who knows the younger Murdoch well is Chris Mitchell, these days a columnist with The Australian, and the paper’s editor-in-chief from 2002 to 2015. In his 2016 memoir, Mitchell wrote that “Lachlan’s conservatism is more vigorous than that of any Australian politician … and usually to the right of his father’s ideas.”

Lachlan has drifted over the years, says Manning. “When he started out in his 20s, he was an anti-Hanson, pro-republic, broad-minded. He was a tattooed rock-climbing sailor. And now he donates to [Republican Senate leader] Mitch McConnell and puts Tony Abbott on the board.

“Judge him by his actions.”

Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist, who interviewed both Lachlan and Rupert’s other son, James, for extensive profiles in 1998 and ’99, weighed in with a comment piece on the Murdoch succession in the Nine newspapers this week. Her view is that Rupert has chosen the wrong heir to run the empire.

“I came away from my experiences with both sons believing that one was a privileged mediocrity, the other a person of intellectual heft and complexity,” Brooks wrote.

That’s not to say James is a leftie – Brooks found him to be “unapologetically right wing” – but he does at least acknowledge certain realities, such as climate change. James led News Corp to implement carbon-neutral policies long before it was fashionable in corporate circles.

In January 2020, at the height of Australia’s Black Summer, James and his wife, Kathryn, issued a joint statement decrying the news empire’s “ongoing denial” of the climate crisis, and its Australian outlets’ efforts to sow doubt about the link between climate change and the bushfires.

The indications are that the two Murdoch sons have moved over the years to very different positions politically. And this bodes instability. As if it won’t be hard enough for Lachlan to run the business with his 92-year-old dad, the “chairman emeritus”, looking over his shoulder, it will likely get much harder when the father dies. Then Rupert’s four eldest children will equally control the Murdoch family trust. Speculation is that Lachlan could find himself no longer in command.

Reportedly Rupert’s two older daughters, Prudence and Elisabeth, are inclined to sell Fox, while James, in the condescending words of Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff, would try to turn it into “a force for good”.

Would Fox still turn a buck if it stopped pandering to the prejudices of the political right? Would any of the Murdoch media? And if they vacated the field, what then?

Surely someone else would fill the space, for Rupert Murdoch has proved the business model. Maybe someone more extreme, who thinks even Lachlan Murdoch is “super woke”.

Paddy Manning’s podcast on the rise and rise of Rupert Murdoch – Rupert: The last mogul – is coming in November.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Getting away with Murdoch".

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