Why Murdoch stepping down may be a long goodbye
22nd September 2023
As Rupert Murdoch hands over his Fox and News Corp businesses to his son, director Chris Hopper explains why it may be some time before we have a clear view of his legacy in the UK media landscape
Rupert Murdoch has stepped down as chair of Fox and News Corp, handing the reins to his eldest son, Lachlan.
In reality, given he has promised to remain involved “every day” and offer his “thoughts, ideas, and advice”, it doesn’t sound like he’ll be chilling on a beach, passively watching how Lachlan runs things.
Nevertheless, this is a seismic moment in the world of global media and there has already been a rush to assess Murdoch’s legacy, often in quite binary ‘good or bad’ terms. The problem is that for a 92-year-old who began his media career in earnest over 70 years ago following the death of his father, there is so much to weigh up it’s impossible to arrive at a clear-cut answer.
Twenty years ago, I remember writing a university essay on Murdoch’s influence on global media and politics. Back then critics would accuse him of meddling in general elections, either directly in his meetings with senior politicians or via editorial lines in his newspapers, but he still sometimes looked like a panto villain. Appearing on The Simpsons, he even introduced himself ironically as “Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire tyrant”.
Afterwards, things got more serious. His tabloid papers in the UK hacked the phones of celebrities, leading to criminal charges against some journalists and the closure of the News of the World. In the US, Fox paid out almost $800m after broadcasting baseless claims of election fraud that supposedly robbed Donald Trump of the 2020 presidential election.
Against that, you have his achievements. In the UK he has relentlessly invested in his print assets, also including the Times and Sunday Times. Look at the recent Russell Brand investigation to see the value there. The launch of Sky News, now owned by Comcast, improved TV news in the UK by providing competition to the BBC and ITN.
The more pertinent question, of course, is what now?
In the short term, don’t expect too much. Lachlan may not be a huge Anglophile like his dad, but it’s hard to imagine him telling Rupert he’s putting the UK papers on the block. And with a UK general election looming next year, the Times and the Sun are still likely to have firm views on who they’d prefer in power.
But in the post-Rupert world, things could change. Andrew Neil, who edited the Sunday Times in the 1980s and launched Sky, predicts Lachlan will sell the UK titles. You might reasonably ask who would want to buy newspapers in a digital world but as George Osborne pointed out recently on the BBC’s The Media Show: “They’re quite rare assets and when they come up they do command usually a [high] value.”
For all his faults, Murdoch rarely stopped investing in his media brands, particularly here in the UK. Whoever picks up the assets, if and when they’re sold, it might force a reappraisal of the legacy of the ‘billionaire tyrant’.