The Successor review: life of Lachlan Murdoch pulls punches all too often

Readers of Paddy Manning’s book should keep in mind the words of Media Matters: Fox News is ‘an unchained pro-Trump propaganda outlet that promotes white nationalism’

The Murdochs are in many ways the most important media story of the last 50 years. On three continents their shoddy journalism, blind political ambition, outright racism and unlimited greed have done more damage to democracy than the actions of all their rivals put together.

The family’s internal competitions and political alliances are the subjects of dozens of books and documentaries, as well as the inspiration for Succession, the HBO hit now filming its fourth season.

The Australian journalist Paddy Manning’s new book focuses on Lachlan Murdoch, the family’s current leader who will be fully in charge if his 91-year old father, Rupert, ever completely retires.

This 359-page volume is a gigantic clip shop, giving us the greatest hits of everyone from Roger Ailes’s biographer, Gabe Sherman, to the Vanity Fair media writer Sarah Ellison and the investigative reporter Nick Davies, who broke so many of the details of the Murdoch newspapers’ illegal hacking of voicemails in the pages of this paper.

The author’s main problem is that he has no judgment about what’s important to include and what ought to be left out. As a result he gives us equally dense accounts of Lachlan Murdoch’s early, disastrous media investments, the family’s efforts to create a new rugby competition in Australia and the sexual harassment scandal that finally ended the career of Ailes at Fox News.

Manning also has no idea about which parts of this story are most important. An early section describes Rupert Murdoch’s brush with insolvency after he over-extended himself in the 1980s. But Manning never mentions the main reason: Murdoch’s vast overpayment of $3bn for Walter Annenberg’s TV Guide and his other Triangle properties in 1988, a purchase which turned out to be about as sensible as Elon Musk’s $44bn purchase of Twitter. Annenberg said he called Warren Buffet for advice about whether to take Murdoch’s bid, and Buffet replied: “Run to the bank!”

None of the details of the TV Guide deal appear in these pages. Serious students of the Murdoch saga won’t learn anything new. But there are plenty of eye-popping numbers to remind most of us that the rich are not at all like you and me.

The Successor opens with Lachlan relaxing with his wife on a new $30m yacht – a present for Sarah’s 50th birthday – which turns out to be a placeholder for a $175m yacht under construction in a Dutch shipyard. The couple paid “a stunning $37m for a boatshed and jetty at Point Piper, a few minutes’ drive form their $100m Bellevue Hill Mansion”.

In 2007, the Murdoch family trust filed notice that each of Rupert Murdoch’s six children was getting $100m of News Corp stock, plus $50m in cash. Which sounds like a lot until you find out that after Disney paid $71bn for various Fox assets, each Murdoch child received “roughly $2bn” in Disney stock.

Manning’s inability to make sensible judgments about any of this is suggested by his decision to quote the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren’s spot-on description of Fox News as a “hate-for-profit racket” – and then offer, in his very next sentence, his judgment that Lachlan was “a laid-back Australian and all-round smooth operator: spectacularly rich, impeccably mannered, handsome, open minded, adventurous, savvy, fun”.

Similarly, after describing a Sydney mansion bought for $23m in 2009 and renovated for $11.7m, with room for two custom-built Porsche Panamera sedans at $300,000 each, just a few pages later Manning credulously quotes the Murdoch lackey Col Allan on Lachlan’s “deep appreciation of that part of America that’s ignored by the coastal liberal elites. I think it is true that Australia and its egalitarianism has had a profound and very positive effect on Lachlan’s nature and his cultural views”.

Egalitarianism?

The cost of Rupert Murdoch’s naked nepotism included a $139m settlement News Corp paid in 2013 after the Massachusetts Laborers’ Pension & Annuity Funds alleged that his children on the News Corp board “should be liable for its refusal to investigate and to stop known misconduct at the company”. It was “the largest derivative settlement in the history of Delaware’s court of chancery”.

•••

The book veers beyond implausibility when it describes the relationship between Lachlan and Tucker Carlson, who has become one of the Murdochs’ biggest cash cows by pushing racism, xenophobia and wild conspiracy theories. According to Manning the two men, “close in age”, share “a kind of philosophical bent”.

After far-right protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 shouted “Jews will not replace us”, Kathryn Hufschmid, married to Lachlan’s brother James, insisted they issue a statement declaring “standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis”. According to the New York Times, Kathryn said to her husband: “If we’re not going to say something about fucking Nazis marching in Virginia, when are we going to say something?” Lachlan never followed his brother’s lead.

Carlson refused to condemn the neo-Nazi protesters and did “a bizarre segment on slavery in which he listed good people who had owned slaves, including Plato, the Aztecs and Thomas Jefferson”.

To his credit, Manning quotes the judgment of the activist group Media Matters, that Fox News had become “an unchained pro-Trump propaganda outlet that promotes white nationalism” just “as Lachlan Murdoch’s control over the network steadily increased … he is happy to profit from the forces he continues to unleash”.

But then, incredibly, the author describes Lachlan as devoted to “a vibrant marketplace of ideas, serving to raise the standard of public debate”, which “must offer a diversity of news and opinion … His closest advisers say a belief in free speech, in all its diversity, is Lachlan’s ‘north star’”.

Why would anyone trust an author who can’t distinguish between racism for profit and celebration of free speech?

  • The Successor: The High-Stakes Life of Lachlan Murdoch is published in the US by Sutherland House Books

Contributor

Charles Kaiser

The GuardianTramp

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