[1/26/17] On a cold winter morning last month, James Murdoch took to the stage at a digital media conference in a skyscraper overlooking Central Park and sat down on a beige sofa. The room was packed — members of the Murdoch family tend to draw a crowd. Dressed in the media CEO uniform of jeans, suit jacket and open-necked white shirt, he deftly parried questions about the political leanings of the Fox News Channel. Asked if the network was, as its slogan claims, “fair and balanced” — a question that elicited some giggles from the audience — Murdoch pointed to the difference between its news reporting and its opinion shows, where conservative warriors such as Bill O’Reilly command big primetime audiences.
If Rupert Murdoch’s second son was nervous about the multibillion-pound deal he had been secretly putting together — a deal that would reignite a political storm dating back to the 2011 tabloid phone-hacking scandal — he certainly didn’t show it. Less than 48 hours later the news was out: 21st Century Fox, the entertainment company run by James and jointly chaired by his elder brother, Lachlan, and their father, announced an £11.7bn proposal to buy the 61 per cent of Sky that it didn’t already own. Critics ranging from former Labour leader Ed Miliband to Hacked Off, the press reform pressure group, immediately spoke out against it, citing the behaviour of Murdoch-owned tabloids during the phone-hacking scandal. The Guardian ran an editorial with the headline: “The fox is in the henhouse again”, and more than 100,000 people signed a petition urging the government to refer the proposed takeover to Ofcom, the UK media regulator. “Rupert Murdoch . . . already has too much influence over our news,” the petition stated. “This new power grab would give him even more.” This is the second time the Murdochs have tried to buy all of Sky, having withdrawn their first bid almost six years ago in the face of public outrage around the hacking scandal. It is unclear if they will succeed this time around, although executives inside Fox are privately confident. What is more certain is that a gradual transfer of power from Rupert Murdoch to his sons, a process that began when he gave them big new jobs in the summer of 2015, is picking up pace.
When Fox confirmed a week after the Business Insider conference that it had made a formal offer to Sky about a takeover, it was James and Lachlan who laid out the company’s plans on a call with investors: Rupert, the press baron who founded British Sky Broadcasting in 1989, was absent. When the former Fox News presenter Gretchen Carlson sued the channel’s chairman Roger Ailes for sexual harassment last summer, it was James and Lachlan who swiftly authorised an independent investigation by an outside law firm into the allegations — something that led to Ailes being forced out of the network he had founded 20 years earlier. Rupert, returning from a holiday with his new wife Jerry Hall, joined the discussions later. This is not to say that the 85-year-old Rupert has detached himself from the empire he spent more than half a century assembling. In some respects, he has more direct involvement now than he has had in years. He has been running Fox News since Ailes’s departure (a permanent successor has yet to be found) and was also closely involved in coverage of the Brexit campaign at The Sun, Britain’s best-selling daily newspaper. Still, 18 months after he began the orderly transfer of power to his sons (there was no official role for Elisabeth, his daughter) James and Lachlan, 44 and 45, are making their mark.
The brothers oversee an enviable collection of businesses — a movie studio, cable channels and a publishing house worth a combined $62bn. But that does not mean they have nothing to worry about. Their newspapers have been walloped by an industry-wide collapse in print advertising, while Fox’s television networks are grappling with the “cord-cutting” phenomenon — the cancellation of pricey cable subscriptions by a generation that prefers binge-watching on demand. For owners of channels such as Fox that means fewer viewers and pressure on advertising. The competition is also beefing up. Time Warner, one of Fox’s main rivals and the owner of HBO, CNN and Warner Bros, has agreed a blockbuster $85.4bn sale to AT&T, which will create a giant that dwarfs Fox. If it is cleared by regulators, the combined company will be able to deliver Time Warner movies and TV programming direct to more than 160 million AT&T customers around the US — something Fox is currently unable to do. Add these challenges to the scrutiny and opposition that their Sky deal will generate and the younger Murdochs find themselves in a challenging environment. Their father overcame considerable obstacles to become the world’s most influential media mogul, battling political establishments on both sides of the Atlantic and making risky bets along the way, buying The Sun, launching Sky and Fox News, to name but three. The question now facing James and Lachlan is this: do they have what it takes to fill his shoes?