“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” So wrote Oscar Wilde in “The Decay of Lying” in 1891. Wilde said art affects the way we look at the world, pointing out that we came to appreciate fog because of painters like Turner who turned fog into beauty.
The art/life question surfaced again last week over Rupert Murdoch’s sudden announcement of his retirement, astounding those who believed he would never retire. The 92-year-old news mogul said he was handing over his empire – chairmanships of News Corporation and Fox Corp – to Lachlan, the eldest son of his four adult children. However, Rupert insisted he had no plans to fade into obscurity and would remain chairman emeritus.
Most commentators doubt the elderly Rupert’s apparent step-down. Politico senior opinion writer Jack Shafer had only one word for the notion Rupert would resign control: preposterous. Nor is Shafer the only one who saw Rupert’s hand-over as an echo of “Succession,” the popular HBO series that told the story (art imitating life) of the fictional Roy family that controlled the world’s biggest media and entertainment company. Logan Roy, the aging patriarch, repeatedly dangled succession in front of his power-hunger children. Who would win out?
Seeds of the similar real-life drama were sown 50 years ago when 22-year-old Rupert inherited an Australian newspaper, developing it into a chain. In 1969, he moved to the UK and began taking over British newspapers — breaking unions, upending journalistic traditions, and influencing policy for ill-starred ideas like Brexit and the Iraq War invasion. Thanks to his newspapers’ falsehoods, Fox viewers still believe in Weapons of Mass Destruction.
In 1981, Rupert moved to America, became a naturalized American citizen and steadily expanded, acquiring Twentieth Century Fox, the Fox News Channel, stealing the NFL from CBS and buying the Wall Street Journal. His empire grew to control 800 companies in 50 countries. In his single-minded drive to attain ever more wealth and power, Murdoch consolidated, selling off Fox Corp’s entertainment and arts divisions earning a vast $71 billion.
This is the empire that 52-year-old Laughlin nominally inherits. His leadership is a most worrisome prospect for those who care about social democracy. The elder Murdoch son not only shares Rupert’s drive for wealth but is even more entrenched in his father’s right-wing views. Observers believe that Lachlan will fail to rein in Fox News’ commentators and let Trump use the network to broadcast his lies and propaganda.
Lachlan’s seeming inheritance is not without challenges. Earlier this year, Fox News avoided a trial and paid Dominion Voting Systems $787 million to settle a defamation suit over airing of claims about the 2020 election that it knew to be false. Dominion’s lawsuit was only first in line; yet to be litigated are claims from Smartmatic USA and others.
In addition there are some big changes ahead for media corporations including declines in the cable news and print news businesses. How Lachlan, judged less competent than his dad, will meet those challenges is unknowable. Beyond that is the inevitable: Rupert, even if he remains an eminence grise, will eventually bid a permanent goodbye just as Logan Roy did in the fourth and final season of “Succession.”
When Rupert passes, Lachlan’s legacy could well be disputed by Murdoch’s more liberal heirs — Prue, Elisabeth, and James – each of whom has a single vote in the Murdoch family trust. James resigned from the Fox News board in July, 2020 over disagreement with certain editorial content. He and his wife Kathryn supported Joe Biden that year and donated $100 million to like-minded political groups. Should two of Rupert’s heirs (say James and Elisabeth) connect, they could persuade Prue, who is less politically-minded, to join them in determining the succession and the future of the Murdoch empire.
As with most wealthy legacies (even fictional ones) there are various imagined outcomes. Some observers say the ultimate resolution may involve selling some components of Murdoch’s empire. Or — should the heirs opt for an empire-sized sale — who is a possible buyer? Those peddling imaginary scenarios ask (ala “Succession”): Could it be someone like Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos? Or even the X-man, Elon Musk?