At age 92, media mogul Rupert Murdoch is stepping down as chairman of Fox Corporation and News Corp but will stay on in the role of chairman emeritus, presumably to help guide his eldest son Lachlan as the new head of the firm.
In many ways, the news was inevitable. The company is clearly planning its succession and how it manages Rupert’s decline. It has one eye on the market and one on ensuring the company maintains its direction.
But why now, and where to from here for the company? And what will Rupert Murdoch be remembered for?
Rupert’s departure was always going to come in one of two ways: either Rupert dropping off the perch or him leaving on this own terms. He has opted for the latter.
This means the company has chosen to manage the transition in a market-favourable way.
The transition to Lachlan looks, for the moment, to be well and truly secure. This gives him the chance under the leadership of Rupert to guide the company in the direction he – or Rupert – wants.
Rupert says he is in robust health but he was keen to hang on as long as possible. So, perhaps today’s news suggests his health is declining. We can only speculate but the man is, after all, 92.
Would the recent lawsuits have played a role?
Fox has been subject to several very expensive lawsuits in recent years, which caused a lot of turmoil internally. At the cost of US$787.5 million, Fox settled a defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems over baseless claims made about its voting machines in the 2020 US presidential election. A different voting technology company, Smartmatic, is also suing.
But I doubt this played a huge role in Rupert stepping down because, in the end, a billion in lawsuits is nothing to a company that a few years ago made $70 billion by selling just some of its assets to Disney.
This is the price the company pays for its take-no-prisoners approach. It is proud of its uncompromising editorial stance, which is designed to pander to its right-wing audience. And there is no indication Lachlan will take it in a different direction.
What next for Lachlan, with Rupert as chairman emeritus?
In a sense, Rupert is not really stepping down. His new papal-like title of chairman emeritus recognises he will struggle to let go. But the new role is also about calming the market and saying, “Don’t worry, I haven’t gone away; I am still here and I have my hand on Lachlan’s shoulder.”
The best indication of Lachlan’s future stewardship of News Corp is his recent behaviour. He was at the helm of Fox News during Donald Trump’s presidential years and the immediate aftermath, when Fox News did enormous damage in its reporting on the 2020 election result. He was at the helm when Fox was making those baseless claims about Dominion Voting Systems. He had ample opportunity to guide the company in a different direction, but he didn’t.
So I think we can expect News Corp will continue to be the zealous right-wing media company it currently is.
How might this affect the 2024 US election?
News Corp has finally seen what millions of US voters saw at the 2020 election, which was that Trump was ultimately destructive as a leader. Now, outlets like Fox News are umming and ahhing about whether to back him. Some at Fox are clearly reluctant to let go of their adoration of Trump while others are disappointed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis isn’t emerging as a viable challenger.
If Trump continues to be the most popular Republican candidate, Fox will probably fall into line and support him, albeit with less enthusiasm than last time.
There is a sense of confusion within Fox about whom to back and where to stand, which reflects the chaos in US politics more broadly.
So what’s Rupert’s legacy?
It comes down to a ledger. Has this man done more harm or good in his life in the media?
On the good side, he has been a champion of newspapers. He has employed thousands of journalists and his outlets have often practised good public-interest journalism.
But I am afraid I believe the good is outweighed by all the harm done on Rupert’s watch.
His news media empire is fundamentally antisocial in the way it operates. I believe it’s caused so much harm to so many people along the way, and that cannot go unacknowledged. From the UK phone hacking scandal and beat ups to climate denial and the demonisation of minorities, News Corp can be counted on to dumb down complexity, make issues binary and turn one side against the other.
He has damaged democracy and civil discourse and journalism itself. The behaviour of News Corp has on occasions been reprehensible, for which I think Rupert must take the blame.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.