Secret meeting where Rupert Murdoch 'passed baton' to son Lachlan

Secret meeting where Rupert Murdoch 'passed baton' to son Lachlan

EXCLUSIVE: Inside top-secret meeting at Lachlan Murdoch’s $150M ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ mansion where ageing media mogul Rupert finally ‘passed the baton’ to his son in a scene straight out of the hit TV series Succession

  • Lachlan Murdoch is the heir apparent to his father Rupert’s global media empire
  • Murdoch has two older sisters, a younger brother and two much younger sisters
  • The family’s dramas have been compared to plot of HBO TV series Succession
  • The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch is a new biography
  • Book explores Murdoch’s upbringing, business dealings and political beliefs 

It was the unprecedented gathering of Fox and News Corporation leaders from around the world where Rupert Murdoch would be upstaged by one of his own children. 

Lachlan Murdoch had summoned the empire’s most senior executives to his Los Angeles mansion Chartwell, the fictional Clampett family’s home in the 1960s TV sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies.

Media mogul Rupert’s eldest son dubbed the meeting ‘MegaTrends 2022’ and it was meant to sharpen the focus of News and Fox bosses on where their operations were heading.

But to some observers it became the moment the ageing Australian-born billionaire relinquished control of the family business to his enigmatic heir apparent.

It was also one of the last times Rupert, now 91, was seen with fourth wife Jerry Hall before the former model, 25 years his junior, filed for divorce. 

Rupert Murdoch reportedly ‘passed the baton’ to eldest son Lachlan at a meeting of Fox and News Corp executives earlier this year. Lachlan is pictured being pursued by photographers outside his father’s London home at the height of News Corp’s phone hacking scandal in 2011

Lachlan Murdoch, pictured with wife Sarah, called a meeting at his Bel Air mansion to sharpen the focus of News and Fox bosses. To some observers it became the moment media mogul Rupert relinquished control of the family business to his enigmatic son and heir apparent

What happened at Chartwell that day is part of the sweeping story journalist Paddy Manning tells in his new book The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch.

Manning has written the first major biography of the 51-year-old who as News Corp co-chairman and Fox executive chairman and CEO is already one of the planet’s most powerful people.

The Successor explores Lachlan’s upbringing, business dealings and political beliefs. Its publisher describes Manning’s work as ‘an epic saga of ruthless power plays and family battles’. 

While Lachlan’s destiny might seem clear he could yet have to contend with sisters Prue, 64 and Elisabeth, 54, and brother James, 49 upon their father’s death.

[Prue’s mother was Patricia Booker. Elisabeth, Lachlan and James’s mother is Anna Torv. Rupert’s much younger children Grace, 20, and Chloe, 19, to third wife Wendi Deng are beneficiaries of the Murdoch trust but do not have voting rights].  

The direction the Murdoch empire would take under Lachlan was laid out to all those guests he greeted at the gates of Chartwell from 7.30am on February 9 this year. 

While Lachlan’s destiny might seem clear he could yet have to contend with sisters Prue, 64 and Elisabeth, 54, and brother James, 49 upon their father’s death. Lachlan is pictured left with father Rupert and brother James after Rupert’s wedding to Jerry Hall in March 2016 

The following is an extract from The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch by Paddy Manning published by Black Inc: 

The scene was worthy of Succession, as some guests joked to one other. A convoy of luxury black minivans collected the Fox and News bigwigs from three nearby hotels before snaking up Bel Air Road and disgorging them at the mansion. 

Given Rupert, now ninety years old was attending, the vigilance against the coronavirus was high: everyone had to be fully vaccinated and tested on the way in.

Lachlan had already distributed a 124-page dossier of clippings, articles and links to podcasts, transcripts and corporate announcements, with a glossary at the back for the less geeky. 

Journalist Paddy Manning has written The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch, the first full biography of the 51-year-old. Rupert Murdoch and second wife Anna are pictured in London in 1973 with children (clockwise from top left) James, Lachlan and Elisabeth

It raised some challenging questions for the century-old empire of influence that Lachlan and his guests controlled, most crucially how a combination of structurally challenged newspaper and cable television businesses would survive ‘Web 3.0’ – the next iteration of the internet – a trustless and permissionless ‘creator economy’ in which content was globally and instantaneously distributed, disintermediated and tokenised, and barriers to entry were obliterated. Blockchain, crypto, the metaverse – all were on the agenda. It was heady stuff.

The timing was fortuitous, as the guests had barely seen one another in person through two long years of COVID. And it was fun: for most guests, it was a first look at Chartwell, which Lachlan had bought for $150 million just before the pandemic struck. 

Lachlan Murdoch bought Chartwell (above) for $150million in 2019. The mansion was used for exterior scenes of the Clampett family home in the 1960s TV sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies 

Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch are pictured at the funeral of his grandmother Dame Elisabeth with sons Kalan and Aiden. Dame Elisabeth, Rupert’s mother, died in 2012 aged 103

Turning into the driveway, leading to the forty-car motor court, guests walked through the eighteenth-century French replica interiors and downstairs to the cinema, which opened out through big double doors onto a huge terrace with sweeping views over the gardens and Los Angeles. 

After coffee and breakfast, everyone came back inside and sat in rows… wherever they liked. Lachlan stepped onto the stage, which was set up with a podium and sofas in front of two big projection screens. 

After welcoming everybody to Chartwell, he gave a short speech before proceedings got underway. Nobody knew what to expect. Apparently, you could have heard a pin drop. Rupert said nothing. This was Lachlan’s show, in Lachlan’s home, following an agenda he had worked out with his chief technology officer.

Lachlan married model Sarah O’Hare in 1999 and they have three children. The rock solid couple is pictured in November 1998 shortly after announcing their engagement

COVID had made both companies stronger, Lachlan said, adding that while in the past both Fox and News had tried to respond to an externally changing environment, ‘we are now strong enough to shape that environment’. That was the point of the strategy day: to make sure the leaders of both businesses had a clear understanding of the forces unfolding in the media industry, so that together the two companies could shape what the future would bring.

Everything about that day at Chartwell was different. 

Firstly, Rupert had not brought the Fox and News leadership teams together since they had demerged a decade earlier, in the wake of the phone hacking crisis. The ageing mogul had always pitted his top executives against each other, giving them separate profit and loss statements and letting their businesses compete. 

Lachlan crewed on American business magnate Larry Ellison’s yacht Sayonara in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race when six sailors died. He described the experience as harrowing

Lachlan was more concerned to find synergies between TV, print, radio and other assets, and to foster cooperation among them. It was a theme that had run through his career, right back to the 1998 speech at Sun Valley, Idaho, when he had called for an unofficial system to share information across the Murdoch empire, horizontally as it were. 

There were all kinds of pre- and post-meetings between the News and Fox leadership, and the presence of both under one roof invited speculation that a merger of the two companies – ruled out by Lachlan at the investor day three years earlier – was again under consideration.

Secondly, the meeting was about strategy, not about operations or short-term tactics. The last time News Corp’s senior executives had all met together, at Rupert’s Carmel ranch, was three years ago; at that meeting, there had been much preening about which division had the fastest-loading websites. 

The Successor is ‘an epic saga of ruthless power plays and family battles’. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch are pictured outside News Corp’s headquarters in Sydney’s Surry Hills in 2004

The day at Chartwell was much more farsighted. In Lachlan’s view, media companies had panicked at the advent of Web 1.0, and only belatedly realised that Web 2.0 meant Google, Facebook and the rest were going to soak up the advertising dollars. 

This time around, with Web 3.0, Lachlan was determined that both Fox and News would be active, working together and even alongside other media companies to confront yet another potentially existential threat. 

If Web 1.0 undermined revenue from consumers, and Web 2.0 took the advertising revenue, Web 3.0 could undermine the very relationship between a broadcaster such as Fox, or a publisher such as News, and their most critical resource: employees. 

Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch are pictured deep in conversation before a morning session at the Allen & Co Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho in July 2018

Legacy media businesses were ripe for disruption in the creator economy, warned the pre-read, which would enable individual creatives to build a business around themselves. Once again, this harked back to Lachlan’s first big speech at Sun Valley, when he had said he hoped News would become the greatest creative company in the world.

Thirdly, the meeting was all about business. It was not an editorial meeting. Unlike the company gatherings under Rupert, there were no politicians, secretaries of state or military brass to gladhand over a drink. 

Editors, journalists or on-air talent were not invited. No Fox commentators Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity to throw their weight around; no newspaper columnists Miranda Devine or Gerry Baker to lob sceptical questions. And because there were no gossipy journalists there, not a word leaked to the media. According to one attendee: 

Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch are pictured aboard their  $30million yacht Istros on Sydney Harbour earlier this year. Lachlan bought the boat for Sarah’s 50th birthday

Journalists are going to get time to meet with politicians,’ said one participant, ‘but meeting with politicians is not going to help you run your business better. This is for the leadership of these two companies, and it’s going to be about our business.

‘That’s Lachlan’s point: he’s setting the bar high and saying “I need high calibre executives”. Being able to make chit-chat with politicians is fantastic if you’re a journalist, and that’s a really important part of our business. But I need strategic people who know what the future is and who are going to help shape that.’

After Lachlan stepped down from the stage, it was the invited speakers’ turn. There were sessions on the metaverse, gaming, non-fungible tokens, and the awesome, enduring power of live sports content. 

The gathering at Lachlan’s mansion Chartwell was one of the last times his father Rupert was seen with fourth wife Jerry Hall (both pictured). She filed for divorce in July this year

Shopify founder Tobi Lütke, who’d recently joined the board of crypto exchange Coinbase, talked through the implications of Web 3.0 for Fox and News… although with his own share price tanking, there were a few septics. 

Silicon Valley-based investor Ben Horowitz talked about the changing role of venture capital, which could provide the kind of high-risk, patient funding that had fuelled many of the technological innovations of the previous two decades. 

The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch by Paddy Manning is out now in Australia and is published by Black Inc

That caught some attention, especially among those in the room who knew Lachlan’s history of off-again, on-again efforts to take part or all of News Corp private. Was privatisation back on the agenda?

By the time the session broke for morning tea, the guests were remarking to each other on the most noteworthy aspect of the whole thing: ‘Lachlan’s in charge.’ The invited speakers were there because they had a relationship with Lachlan, not his father. 

Rupert was saying nothing – or if he did, it was to ask questions about Web 3.0 that showed he wasn’t up to speed, and he made no speech, either at the meeting or at the dinner and drinks that followed, to which Jerry Hall turned up – one of the last occasions at which they would be seen together before their divorce shocked the world. 

The whole mood was different: instead of blokey and jokey, beery and matey, the vibe was serious. There was a lot of talk about Russia’s expected invasion of Ukraine, which would occur only two weeks later. 

One attendee reckoned the whole day at Chartwell was about an explicit transfer of power, from father to son: ‘It was just a massive turning point. The baton had very obviously been passed and the rest of us, as a group, we all went, “Okay, we missed the point that the baton got passed, but it’s been passed.”‘

The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch by Paddy Manning is out now in Australia (Black Inc.) through Booktopia and in all good bookshops. The book will be published in US and UK on November 15. 

The Successor explores Lachlan’s upbringing, business dealings and political beliefs. Its publisher describes Manning’s work as ‘an epic saga of ruthless power plays and family battles’

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