A Murdoch Family Rift? What Elisabeth & Lachlan’s No-Show Might Have Revealed

A family insider says there’s definitely something going on between James and Elisabeth

Last Updated: July 21, 2011 @ 3:02 PM

On what he called the “most humble day” of his life, Keith Rupert Murdoch may have revealed a hole in the protective cocoon of his family.

As Murdoch squirmed amid the heat of a British Parliamentary hearing on a tabloid phone-hacking scandal that is rocking his media empire, notably absent were his daughter Elisabeth and son Lachlan, who with their brother James (who was present Tuesday) are to inherit the keys to the abruptly-embattled media kingdom.

More than a day after the hearings, it’s still unclear as to why Elisabeth and Lachlan were elsewhere and not present for such a momentous occasion — one during which Rupert Murdoch took pains to reaffirm his dynastic aspirations.

Also read: A Rupert Murdoch Peer: 'He's Dead Money'

News Corp. declined to comment on their whereabouts. 

Recently, James, Murdoch’s heir-apparent, and Elisabeth, a past favorite, haven't been seeing eye to eye, an individual close to the family, who has an uncommonly keen grasp of its inner workings, told TheWrap. (It wasn’t made clear as to why brother and sister aren’t on the same page beyond the fact that they have vastly different personalities.)

The Murdochs, encompassing scions sired through Rupert’s three marriages, long have borne the potential to become a modern version of a Shakespearean tragedy. And within the family, TheWrap has learned, there’s a poignant mindfulness of this potential at this seminal moment.

But just which tragedy is it?

After Murdoch’s six-decade rise to the throne of the true king of all media, a tabloid scandal in a cranny of the business is rattling his empire’s foundation. This has fueled, like never before, a universal, if grudging, cognizance within the family and beyond of the inevitability of the storied empire-builder’s departure.

Also read: Did Murdoch Survive a Close Shave at the Hacking Hearings?

In fact, according to the family insider, clan members themselves perceive their situation in Shakespearean terms. But it's not the "obvious 'King Lear,'" the insider cryptically pointed out to TheWrap.

Of course, there are plenty of other compelling explanations beyond family tension for Elisabeth and Lachlan's absence Tuesday — illness, other urgent family or business matters, or perhaps, even an ill-advised PR strategy recommended by Murdoch’s crisis spinmeisters at Edelman Inc.

In his most humanizing moment before Parliament, Murdoch the progenitor was emphatically clear on the legacy that he hopes will most define him.

“I was brought up by a father who was not rich but who was a great journalist, and just before he died, he bought a small paper specifically so it would have a chance to do good,” Murdoch told Parliament. “He exposed the scandal of Gallipoli, which I remain proud of. I would love to see my sons and daughters follow him if they are interested.”

James’ interest is manifest in so much that he is heir-apparent — or perhaps was. Since he became News Corp.’s top executive for Europe and Asia in 2007, James has been uber boss of News International, corporate umbrella of the scandal-ridden — and now-shuttered — News of The World.

Although most of the hacking had ended by the time he was appointed, James has overseen the bumbling response to it, throwing his future into question.

Some on Wall Street are advancing the idea that Chase Carey, News Corp.’s No. 2 and a longtime Murdoch loyalist, should assume the role of interim CEO and succeed his boss. 

Meanwhile, Lachlan, the heir apparent before he quit News Corp. in frustration in 2005, is on the company’s board. Elisabeth, 42, is scheduled to join her brothers and father on the board in October, after having sold her independent production company, Shine Group, to News Corp. in April for $670 million.

Murdoch fathered the three in his second marriage.

Daughter Prudence, whom Murdoch and his first wife gave birth to in 1958, isn’t involved in the company, though her husband is a senior executive. Grace and Chloe, two daughters from Murdoch’s 13-year union with current wife Wendi, are minors.

Murdoch’s ever-growing brood has been a visible and central part of the mogul’s narrative, at least since 38-year-old James was 15. In the rival Sydney Morning Herald, the younger Murdoch was famously pictured napping at a press conference while on an intern assignment for his family’s Sydney Daily Mirror.

In a sense, Murdoch himself has abetted the plot twist in this Shakespearean tragedy waiting to happen. As he did Tuesday in Parliament, Murdoch has repeatedly declared his dynastic aspirations through the years.

At the same time, however, he has played musical chairs on his presumed choice of lead heir-apparent among James, Elisabeth and Lachlan. 

As a longtime media reporter, I first tumbled onto the intriguing plot line in the summer of 1999, a particularly fraught period for the Murdochs. By sheer coincidence, I was profiling a top News Corp. executive, and had been accorded extensive access.

During my month-long assignment, Rupert Murdoch, then 68, divorced Anna — mother of Elisabeth, Lachlan and James — after 32 years of marriage. Seventeen days later, he wed 32-year-old Wendi, a jarring turn of events that again sparked the recurring speculation about family discord.

At the time, Murdoch considered Lachlan the heir-apparent. “I don’t like contemplating my death,” Murdoch, chairman and CEO, told me. But while the choice of his successor would be a board decision, he said, “maybe my older son would become chairman.”

Murdoch foresaw his then-second-in-command, Peter Chernin, serving as interim CEO until Lachlan was deemed sufficiently groomed.

For his part, Lachlan, who called his parents’ divorce “a real shock,” downplayed the idea of being the chosen one and blamed his father’s rivals for spreading rumors of sibling rivalry.

With plenty of work for all at News Corp., Lachlan told me back then, he, Elisabeth and James "don't have a lot of time to plot how to stab each other in the back."

Indeed, Elisabeth then had a major a major role in the family business, helping run BSkyB, the target of the proposed $12-billion News Corp. deal that went down in flames amid the current scandal.

Meanwhile, James was running News Corp.’s fledgling internet division in New York. He was confident that family the consensus was that Chernin would be the interregnum corporate leader were his father to be removed from the scene anytime soon.

“In my mind, Lachlan, Liz and I are on board with that,” James told me in 1999.

That was then

He then added, “What happens 10 and 15 years from now, who knows."