Rupert Murdoch was lying on the floor of his cabin, unable to move. It was January 2018, and Murdoch and his fourth wife, Jerry Hall, were spending the holidays cruising the Caribbean on his elder son Lachlan’s yacht. Lachlan had personally overseen the design of the 140-foot sloop — named Sarissa after a long and especially dangerous spear used by the armies of ancient Macedonia — ensuring that it would be suitable for family vacations while also remaining competitive in superyacht regattas. The cockpit could be transformed into a swimming pool. The ceiling in the children’s cabin became an illuminated facsimile of the nighttime sky, with separate switches for the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. A detachable board for practicing rock climbing, a passion of Lachlan’s, could be set up on the deck. But it was not the easiest environment for an 86-year-old man to negotiate. Murdoch tripped on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Murdoch had fallen a couple of other times in recent years, once on the stairs while exiting a stage, another time on a carpet in a San Francisco hotel. The family prevented word from getting out on both occasions, but the incidents were concerning. This one seemed far more serious. Murdoch was stretchered off the Sarissa and flown to a hospital in Los Angeles. The doctors quickly spotted broken vertebrae, which required immediate surgery, as well as a spinal hematoma, increasing the risk of paralysis or even death. Hall called his adult children in a panic, urging them to come to California prepared to make peace with their father.
Few private citizens have ever been more central to the state of world affairs than the man lying in that hospital bed, awaiting his children’s arrival. As the head of a sprawling global media empire, he commanded multiple television networks, a global news service, a major publishing house and a Hollywood movie studio. His newspapers and television networks had been instrumental in amplifying the nativist revolt that was reshaping governments not just in the United States but also across the planet. His 24-hour news-and-opinion network, the Fox News Channel, had by then fused with President Trump and his base of hard-core supporters, giving Murdoch an unparalleled degree of influence over the world’s most powerful democracy. In Britain, his London-based tabloid, The Sun, had recently led the historic Brexit crusade to drive the country out of the European Union — and, in the chaos that ensued, helped deliver Theresa May to 10 Downing Street. In Australia, where Murdoch’s power is most undiluted, his outlets had led an effort to repeal the country’s carbon tax — a first for any nation — and pushed out a series of prime ministers whose agenda didn’t comport with his own. And he was in the midst of the biggest deal of his life: Only a few weeks before his fall on Lachlan’s yacht, he shook hands on a London rooftop with Robert A. Iger, the chief executive of the Walt Disney Company, consummating a preliminary agreement to sell his TV and film studio, 21st Century Fox, to Disney for $52.4 billion. But control of this sprawling empire was suddenly up in the air.
The four grown children had differing claims to the throne. The 61-year-old Prudence, the only child of Murdoch’s first marriage, to the Australian model Patricia Booker (whom he divorced in 1965), lived in Sydney and London and kept some distance from the family business. But the three children from Murdoch’s second marriage, to Anna Mann (whom he divorced in 1999), had spent at least parts of their lives jockeying to succeed their father. Elisabeth (50), Lachlan (47) and James (46) all grew up in the business. As children, they sat around the family’s breakfast table on Fifth Avenue, listening to their father’s tutorials on the morning papers: how the articles were selected and laid out, how many ad pages there were. All of them had imagined that his ever-growing company might one day belong to them. As friends of the Murdochs liked to say, Murdoch didn’t raise children; he raised future media moguls.
It had made for fraught family dynamics, with competing ambitions and ever-shifting alliances. Murdoch was largely responsible for this state of affairs: He had long avoided naming one of his children as his successor, deferring an announcement that might create still more friction within his family, not to mention bringing into focus his own mortality. Instead, Murdoch tried to manage the tensions, arranging for group therapy with his children and their spouses with a counselor in London who specialized in working with dynastic families. There was even a therapeutic retreat to the Murdoch ranch in Australia. But these sessions provided just another forum for power games and manipulation.
Over the years, Lachlan and James had traded roles, more than once, as heir apparent and jilted son. It was no secret to those close to the family that Murdoch had always favored Lachlan. (“But I love all of my children,” Murdoch would say when people close to him pointed out his clear preference for Lachlan.) But it was James who spent the first decades of the 21st century helping reposition the company for the digital future — exploiting new markets around the world, expanding online offerings, embracing broadband and streaming technology — while his older brother was mostly off running his own businesses in Australia after a bitter split from their father. When Lachlan finally agreed to return to the United States in 2015, Murdoch gave him and James dueling senior titles: All the company’s divisions would report jointly to them. It was an awkward arrangement, not only because they were both putatively in charge of a single empire. James and Lachlan were very different people, with very different politics, and they were pushing the company toward very different futures: James toward a globalized, multiplatform news-and-entertainment brand that would seem sensible to any attendee of Davos or reader of The Economist; Lachlan toward something that was at once out of the past and increasingly of the moment — an unabashedly nationalist, far-right and hugely profitable political propaganda machine.
Only one of Murdoch’s adult children would win the ultimate prize of running the world’s most powerful media empire, but all four of them would ultimately have an equal say in the direction of its future: Murdoch had structured both of his companies, 21st Century Fox and News Corp, so that the Murdoch Family Trust held a controlling interest in them. He held four of the trust’s eight votes, while each of his adult children had only one. He could never be outvoted. But he had also stipulated that once he was gone, his votes would disappear and all the decision-making power would revert to the children. This meant that his death could set off a power struggle that would dwarf anything the family had seen while he was alive and very possibly reorder the political landscape across the English-speaking world.
As the children hurried to their father’s bedside in Los Angeles, it seemed as if that moment had finally arrived.
2. ‘I’VE NEVER ASKED A PRIME MINISTER FOR ANYTHING’
Media power has historically accrued slowly, over the course of generations, which is one reason it tends to be concentrated in dynastic families. The Graham family owned The Washington Post for 80 years before selling it to Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos. William R. Hearst III still presides over the Hearst Corporation, whose roots can be traced to his great-grandfather, the mining-baron-turned-United-States-senator George Hearst. The New York Times has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family for more than a century. The Murdoch empire is a relatively young one by comparison, but it would be hard to argue that there is a more powerful media family on earth.
The right-wing populist wave that looked like a fleeting cultural phenomenon a few years ago has turned into the defining political movement of the times, disrupting the world order of the last half-century. The Murdoch empire did not cause this wave. But more than any single media company, it enabled it, promoted it and profited from it. Across the English-speaking world, the family’s outlets have helped elevate marginal demagogues, mainstream ethnonationalism and politicize the very notion of truth. The results have been striking. It may not have been the family’s mission to destabilize democracies around the world, but that has been its most consequential legacy.
Over the last six months, we have spoken to more than 150 people across three continents about the Murdochs and their empire — some who know the family intimately, some who have helped them achieve their aims, some who have fought against them with varying degrees of success. (Most of these people insisted on anonymity to share intimate details about the family and its business so as not to risk retribution.) The media tend to pay a lot of attention to the media: Fox News is covered almost as closely as the White House and often in the same story. The Murdochs themselves are an enduring object of cultural fascination: “Ink,” a play about Rupert’s rise, is opening soon on Broadway. The second season of HBO’s “Succession,” whose fictional media family, the Roys, bears a striking resemblance to the Murdochs, airs this summer. But what we as reporters had not fully appreciated until now is the extent to which these two stories — one of an illiberal, right-wing reaction sweeping the globe, the other of a dynastic media family — are really one. To see Fox News as an arm of the Trump White House risks missing the larger picture. It may be more accurate to say that the White House — just like the prime ministers’ offices in Britain and Australia — is just one tool among many that this family uses to exert influence over world events.
What do the Murdochs want? Family dynamics are complex, too, and media dynasties are animated by different factors — workaday business imperatives, the desire to pass on wealth, an old-fashioned sense of civic duty. But the Murdochs’ global operations suggest a different dynastic orientation, one centered on empire building in the original sense of the term: territorial conquest. Murdoch began with a small regional paper in Australia, inherited from his father. He quickly expanded the business into a national and then an international force, in part by ruthlessly using his platform to help elect his preferred candidates and then ruthlessly using those candidates to help extend his reach. Murdoch’s news empire is a monument to decades’ worth of transactional relationships with elected officials. Murdoch has said that he “never asked a prime minister for anything.” But press barons don’t have to ask when their media outlets can broadcast their desires. Politicians know what Murdoch wants, and they know what he can deliver: the base, their voters — power.
The Murdoch approach to empire building has reached its apotheosis in the Trump era. Murdoch had long dreamed of having a close relationship with an American president. On the surface, he and Trump have very little in common: One is a global citizen with homes around the world, a voracious reader with at least some sense of self-awareness. (Murdoch was photographed last year on the beach reading “Utopia for Realists,” by Rutger Bregman, the Dutch historian who later told Tucker Carlson in an interview that Carlson was a “millionaire funded by billionaires.”) The other is a proudly crass American who vacations at his own country clubs, dines on fast food and watches a lot of TV. But they are each a son of an aspiring empire builder, and their respective dynasties shared the same core value — growth through territorial conquest — and employed the same methods to achieve it, leveraging political relationships to gain power and influence. In Trump’s case, these relationships helped him secure zoning exemptions, tax abatements and global licensing deals; in Murdoch’s case, they allowed him to influence and evade antimonopoly and foreign-ownership rules.
Murdoch has carefully built an image during his six decades in media as a pragmatist who will support liberal governments when it suits him. Yet his various news outlets have inexorably pushed the flow of history to the right across the Anglosphere, whether they were advocating for the United States and its allies to go to war in Iraq in 2003, undermining global efforts to combat climate change or vilifying people of color at home or from abroad as dangerous threats to a white majority.
Even as his empire grew — traversing oceans, countries and media — Murdoch saw to it that it would always remain a family business. Underpinning it was a worldview that the government was the enemy of an independent media and a business model that depended nonetheless on government intervention to advance his interests and undermine those of his competitors. The Murdoch dynasty draws no lines among politics, money and power; they all work together seamlessly in service of the overarching goal of imperial expansion.
It would be impossible for an empire as sprawling as Murdoch’s to be completely culturally and ideologically consistent. He is a businessman who wants to satisfy his customers. His assets also include entertainment companies, sports networks and moderatebroadsheets. Murdoch embodies these same contradictions. He’s an immigrant stoking nationalism, a billionaire championing populism and a father who never saw any reason to keep his family separate from his business, and in fact had deliberately merged the two.
Most dynasties break apart eventually, as decision-making power is dispersed across individuals and generations with different attitudes about their family business and the world in general. No one knows this better than Murdoch, who in 2007 took over Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, by exploiting divisions within the Bancroft family, which had run the paper for more than a century. Murdoch thought he had protected himself from a similar fate by keeping a controlling interest in his empire; no one could take it away from him.
The challenge would be holding it together.
3. ‘A PRESS DICTATORSHIP’
To understand how the Murdoch empire works, it is essential to return to its origins. On the day in 1931 that Rupert Murdoch was born, his father, Keith Murdoch, was in the midst of his first campaign to elect a prime minister from his newsroom in Australia. As a young newspaperman, Keith gained fame by evading military censors to report on the slaughter of his countrymen during the British-led Gallipoli campaign of World War I. He leveraged that fame to become a powerful executive at the Melbourne Herald and Weekly Times news company, a position that he in turn leveraged to punish his enemies and reward his allies: The candidate he was supporting for prime minister, Joseph Lyons, earlier helped Keith overcome regulatory restrictions to start a radio station for his company in Adelaide, according to the historian Tom Roberts’s 2015 biography of Murdoch’s father, “Before Rupert.” Lyons won, and as Keith saw it, Australia’s new leader served at his pleasure: “I put him there,” he reportedly said when the two later squabbled. “And I’ll put him out.”
As Keith was creating one of the country’s first national news chains, a regional Australian newspaper editorialized about the danger of his ambitions, warning, Roberts wrote, that he was creating “a press dictatorship for all Australia with Murdoch-inspired leaders and Murdoch-trained reporters.” Bound up with Keith’s business interests were ideological inclinations not just about how power should work but also about who should be allowed to exercise it: He was a member of the Eugenics Society of Victoria and in an editorial once wrote that the great question facing Britain was “will she, if needs be, fight — for a White Australia?”
Keith never built a true media empire. He did own two regional newspapers, one of which had to be sold to pay off his death duties when he died suddenly in 1952. That left only the 75,000-circulation News of Adelaide for his 21-year-old son, who was finishing his degree at Oxford. But Rupert Murdoch had already received something much more valuable from his father: an extended tutorial in how to use media holdings to extract favors from politicians.
His first order of business was to establish a proper Murdoch-owned empire in Australia. After buying a couple of additional local papers, he founded the country’s first national general-interest newspaper, The Australian, which gave him a powerful platform to help elect governments that eased national regulations designed to limit the size of media companies. He would eventually take control of nearly two-thirds of the national newspaper market. With the construction of his Australian media empire underway, Murdoch moved on to Britain and Fleet Street, using his newest acquisitions, The News of the World and The Sun, to successfully promote Margaret Thatcher’s candidacy for prime minister. Once elected, her government declined to refer his acquisition of The Times of London to antimonopoly regulators, giving him the country’s leading establishment broadsheet to go with his mass-circulation tabloids.