The Truth About Rupert Murdoch's Children

For years, Hollywood has splashed onto screens large and small the epic tales of greedy tycoons with equally avaricious hell-spawn, from the oil-rich Ewings and Carringtons, respectively of "Dallas" and "Dynasty," to the music-producing Lyons of "Empire." But few of the plot twists and story arcs have anything on the real-life and super-loaded clan of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose holdings — estimated at $20.8 billion — placed the family in the 76th spot in the Forbes 2022 list of the richest folks in the world. Much of those earnings include ownership of such companies as The Daily Telegraph, Fox News, HarperCollins, Sky News Australia, The Times, and The Wall Street Journal. What's more, he has six children from three marriages to keep those assets in the family. And that's where the drama, much akin to those prime-time soap plot twists, comes in.

Of the progeny, media wags and insiders often point to three Murdochs — Elisabeth, Lachlan, and James — as making the most noise about succeeding the old man. The sibling rivalries aren't merely trivial family squabbles percolating at the dinner table during Thanksgiving. These fights are intense, many of them involving far more scandalous fare, from politics to wiretaps and from fraud to sexual improprieties. It's little wonder why HBO never argued about any scuttlebutt over its serial drama, "Succession," being loosely based on the tempestuous Murdochs. In short, it's also one messy "Family Feud" that Steve Harvey might not want to host.

Prudence MacLeod doesn't want the empire

It seems like at least one of Rupert Murdoch's kids has balked at throwing additional kindling into the apparent inferno that is the succession drama. That would be Prudence MacLeod, Rupert Murdoch's oldest child and the only one born to the mogul's first wife, Patricia Booker. Genealogically, she would have been ideal to helm the Murdoch dynasty, but as per CNN, running the family company apparently isn't her thing and she has stayed away from the controversy involving her apparently more competitive half-siblings. Still, that indifference to such a lofty prospect didn't detract her from landing jobs at some of her father's businesses, starting with a research post at the London-based tabloid News of the World before landing a board member spot at Times Newspapers, Ltd., a position she still holds as of this writing.

After short-lived nuptials to hedge fund investor Crispin Odey, she married businessman Alasdair MacLeod, who would later accept a News Corp executive job offer from Rupert. He eventually left the company to start Wilmot Cattle Company in New Zealand, which has turned into a lucrative regenerative agricultural venture. Prudence's share of that enterprise isn't known, but she's already presumably worth $2 billion and is guaranteed a piece of the Murdoch estate. Additionally, she and Alasdair have three children who are Rupert's eldest grandkids, a factor that Vanity Fair argues would perhaps give them an upper-hand if a subsequent generational conflict ensues.

Elisabeth Murdoch is a succession longshot

It's been said that Rupert Murdoch's second-oldest child, Elisabeth Murdoch — the tycoon's oldest offspring from his marriage to second wife Anna Maria Torv — may seem like an obvious successor. Like Rupert, the entrepreneur is bold, combative, and whip-smart, but she's still been pitted against brothers Lachlan Murdoch and James Murdoch. "She was driven to prove to her dad that she could more than hold her own with the boys," said a former News Corp executive to New York Magazine. Elisabeth started working at some of Murdoch's Fox enterprises during the 1990s, eventually grabbing a plum position at BSkyB (now Sky UK). Despite some success, she was dismayed over seeing her younger brothers quickly rising up the empire ranks, and left the family business in 2001

Her second husband, executive Matthew Freud, encouraged her to start her own media legacy, Shine Group, which became profitable via producing successful reality shows like the "MasterChef" franchise. As Forbes recapped, News Corp scooped up Shine for $675 million in 2011, with Elisabeth scoring over $200 million of the sale. Elisabeth eventually found herself squeezed out of Shine after it merged with two other companies, but by 2019, she started another production company called Sister. Worth roughly $275 million, Elisabeth might be out of the family business, but maybe not for long, if she still harbors ambitions to win her father's approval.

Lachlan Murdoch is considered a frontrunner

Lachlan Murdoch, the middle son from Rupert Murdoch's marriage to Anna Maria Torv, was touted by his father as the one likely to take over the Murdoch operation; as per New York Magazine, Rupert once described him as "the first among equals." As the outlet noted in a separate feature, Lachlan started in the trenches cleaning printing presses at Sydney's Daily Mirror, launching his three-year ascent to his powerful deputy chief operations officer post at News Corp. But in 2005, he quit after butting heads with Fox News head Roger Ailes. Per The Economic Times, Lachlan announced in a prepared statement, "It is now time for me to apply those lessons to the next phase of my career." He relocated to Australia and started an investment company.

The venture proved lucrative enough to get his father's attention, resulting in Lachlan to accept an offer to share co-chair duties at News Corp and 20th Century Fox in 2014. "Lachlan is a strategic and talented executive with a rich knowledge of our businesses," said Rupert at the time, per The Guardian. The following year, Lachlan chaired 20th Century Fox until Disney tempted Rupert to sell the studio in 2019 for an astounding $71 billion. When his brother James Murdoch (a chief succession rival for several years) eventually left the family empire out of frustration in 2020, Lachlan officially became Rupert's top heir as well as chairman and CEO of Fox Corporation.

James Murdoch is out of the race for now

If Lachlan Murdoch is Rupert Murdoch's golden boy, James Murdoch is clearly the rebel, a freewheeling liberal in a litter of staunch conservatives and at political odds with the family. The youngest sibling from Rupert's marriage to Anna Maria Torv, James avoided the family dynasty by running hip-hop label Rawkus Records, which was successful enough for his father to take over. As Vanity Fair recounts, James soon found himself immersed in the Murdoch dynasty, restructuring Sky Asia into a more profitable company, leading to a chair position at News Corp. After Lachlan left the empire in 2005, James assumed a number of high-ranking positions, but the phone hacking scandals at Murdoch-owned News Of the World forced James to resign from BSkyB.

James saw an opportunity to become CEO of 20th Century Fox in 2015 after a corporate restructuring split it from Fox Corporation. Lachlan had returned to News Corp and became co-chair with Rupert at 20th Century Fox, outranking James. When Disney bought the studio, James was out as CEO. He also lost his Sky portfolio when Comcast purchased the company. By 2020, James had little more than a News Corp board position until he suddenly quit. Per NPR, he said in a statement, "My resignation is due to disagreements over certain editorial content published by the Company's news outlets and certain other strategic decisions." James has since launched several independent ventures, including media investment company Lupa Systems.

Grace Murdoch and Chloe Murdoch are his youngest

Grace Murdoch and Chloe Murdoch, daughters of Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng, aren't likely to be in the running to succeed their father. For starters, there's the animosity of the rest of the Murdoch clan towards Deng, whom Rupert romanced for two years and married in 1999 more than two weeks after his divorce from Anna Maria Torv was finalized. One stipulation in the divorce emphasized that only Anna's children would inherit nearly 40% of News Corp voting shares, putting them on the inside track to run the empire. Still, that hasn't stopped pops from doting on the two, ensuring they — like their other siblings — rake in billions from the 21st Century Fox sale to Disney, per Bloomberg. They also have an undisclosed amount of non-voting shares in the family trust account.

In short, Grace and Chloe won't exactly be hurting, having enjoyed a luxurious jet-setting life during the 14 years Rupert was married to Deng. Even after the divorce, triggered by rumors of Deng's supposed philandering, Rupert ensured the two were well cared for, including post-secondary education at Brearley in New York. Both fluently Mandarin (courtesy their mother's Chinese roots), Grace currently attends Yale, while Chloe is enrolled at Stanford. While shielded from the succession bloodbaths involving Rupert's other progeny, both have become high-society fodder for tabloids like Guest of A Guest, which called them "the youngest, arguably coolest Murdoch children." 

The Murdoch money drama has been going on for years

Regarding the competitive nature that highlights the fighting spirit of the Murdoch siblings, James Murdoch once admitted to The Irish Times, "We've been arguing about politics since I was a teenager." But for years, the family has made bigger noise over something else: money, and the shares of the Murdoch estate in particular. The issue apparently started as far back as 2005, when Murdoch was still married to Wendi Deng and their two children, Grace Murdoch and Chloe Murdoch, were still toddlers. At the time, Murdoch siblings Elisabeth, Lachlan, and James stood to inherit their father's share of News Corp, while eldest daughter Prudence MacLeod would receive a different, undisclosed package. 

But Murdoch wanted to spread his stake to include his two youngest children, which greatly upset the original beneficiaries. "There is no dispute. All my children will be treated equally," Rupert said, per The Independent. However noble that might sound, Murdoch's second wife, Anna Maria Torv, claimed it was part of the mogul's way of setting his potential successors up and pitting them against each other until one winner remains standing. That's par for the course according to one executive who's worked at length with the patriarch. "Rupert does what he wants and he gets involved in absolutely anything that he wants to," he said to NBC News. "Anyone who is sensitive about the extent to which they control their businesses should not work at News Corp."

James Murdoch and the phone hacking mess

For years, allegations ran rampant that reporters at Rupert Murdoch-owned UK publications were hacking the phones of celebrities, royalty, politicians, famous athletes and even ordinary folks. But in 2011, when police launched an investigation into the illegal practice involving best-selling Murdoch property News of the World, shockwaves surrounding those media dalliances went worldwide, especially after stories concerning reporters hacking into the phone of teen murder victim Milly Dowler. James Murdoch, who oversaw News of the World at the time, claimed ignorance of the activity when he and his father Rupert testified before Parliament. 

The response wasn't surprising, as one senior worker claimed to New York Magazine, "He was never seen in the newsroom." While some of his staff were being arrested and his paper was getting sued, he reportedly spent days hunkered in his office. The reaction hardly impressed his elder sister Elisabeth Murdoch — previously spurned by Rupert — who angrily told her father that James needed to take a leave of absence. The Wrap alleged that Elisabeth promoted herself as her brother's replacement. Rupert didn't have to act; the News Corp board turfed James shortly after he shut down News of the World.

Per The Guardian, Lachlan flew to England from Australia to show support for his father, who was reeling from the scandal. That prodigal son moment vindicated Lachlan Murdoch as the obvious heir, while Elisabeth gained nothing from that showdown with her father. As for James, he was clearly on the way out.

Lachlan Murdoch versus Roger Ailes

Rupert Murdoch's tendency to be brutal in business turned out to be one lesson that most of his kids learned, even if going the ruthless route ran the risk of tearing the family apart. Such was the case with Lachlan Murdoch, who clashed with Fox News CEO Roger Ailes over the editorial direction of the cable channel, a dispute quickly solved when Rupert sided with Ailes. Miffed when he realized his father didn't have his back, Lachlan left the empire to build his own operations. Fast-forward 10 years and with the wound between father and son apparently healed, Lachlan returned to the Murdoch fold to become CEO of New Corp, which oversees Fox News. It probably wasn't comforting to Ailes, who found out that he would no longer report to Rupert Murdoch, but would instead have to communicate with the very son who tried to take him on a decade earlier.

That uneasy relationship became a lot more complicated in 2016 when Fox News personality Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment suit against Ailes. After seven other women, including Fox News star Megyn Kelly, claimed that Ailes also made inappropriate advances against them, the embattled boss was forced to resign, collecting $40 million in severance in the process. Lachlan was tasked with firing Ailes, who reportedly called the Murdoch brothers "boneheads" and "dilettante," per the Daily Mail.

Rupert Murdoch's yacht injury upsets the kids

The levers being pulled behind the scenes regarding who would succeed Rupert Murdoch largely had to do with how the offspring would deal with extreme business situations, from corporate takeovers to company scandals, as well as health scares. As Vanity Fair reported in 2018, Rupert suffered an accident on board his son Lachlan Murdoch's luxury yacht in the Caribbean. One night, Murdoch slipped and fell on his way to the bathroom, breaking a vertebra. He was rushed to the hospital to receive immediate treatment to avoid a spinal hematoma, which could have paralyzed or even killed the media mogul. 

While fourth wife Jerry Hall was reportedly fearful for Rupert's life, the rest of the children were also concerned. Not only for their father's well-being, but whether succession would finally play out in real time. New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg, who produced a Murdoch documentary series for CNN, said that at the time, Lachlan Murdoch and James Murdoch were jockeying for position, each with differing objectives for the holdings once the last person standing was determined. "And there's also this long history of fighting for this job," said Rutenberg to NPR. "In this moment, everything is just in sort of suspended animation while the family sort of sees how they're going to game this out." As it turned out, Rupert was sidelined for a few weeks, and managed to do most of his work from home while recovering.

The Murdochs are no strangers to scandals

To be a Murdoch means you need to be brash, bold, and brutal. Evidently, those prerequisites also include how to endure a major scandal that threatens to wreck the entire family. In the case of Prudence MacLeod, she's pretty much flown under the radar. Elisabeth Murdoch has long been shut out of the action to make waves in that department, while James Murdoch discovered his handling of the News of the World phone hacking affair marked the beginning of the end of his years with the empire (for the time being, at least). And Lachlan Murdoch, who received kudos over firing News Corp head Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, has also been the subject of some scandalous headlines.  

It's a lengthy list, but the biggest ones include a meeting in Australia back in 1998 when Lachlan was still at News Corp. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he allegedly tried to bribe an Australian senator to oppose government legislation to bring digital TV into the country's market, a move that would have threatened the market advantage News Corp had in the country. More recently, Fox News, with Lachlan at the helm, was hit with a major defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems alleging that the news channel reported the company helped to fix the 2020 U.S. Election. Per The Guardian, the presiding judge in the case stated, "These allegations support a reasonable inference that Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch either knew Dominion had not manipulated the election or at least recklessly disregarded the truth when they allegedly caused Fox News to propagate its claims about Dominion."

Jerry Hall blamed children for divorce

Rupert Murdoch seems to be an expert on marriages, especially since he's gone through four of them himself. The last one ended in July 2022 when Murdoch filed for divorce from model and actor Jerry Hall after six years of marriage. Reportedly shocked and heartbroken over the split, Hall blamed Murdoch's children over the marital falling-out. While Hall, who has four children from a previous lengthy relationship with singer Mick Jagger, hadn't directly commented on the breakup, the Daily Mail cited anonymous sources who claim that Murdoch's children might have been suspicious when she took extra measures to protect her then-husband during the pandemic. "She used to joke that she was the Covid police, she wanted to keep him safe, I'm told," said one source, adding that her "gatekeeping" role was viewed by Murdoch's offspring as a way of cutting off contact with their father.

So far, none of the Murdoch offspring had commented on the divorce. But earlier in 2022, the family gathered to oversee what Hall would inherit should she become widowed. Some siblings apparently suggested Hall not receive assets other than what was inked in a prenup between the two. But one child, Lachlan, apparently didn't hesitate to coach Rupert throughout the breakup. The Daily Beast reported that his eldest son not only advised him to divorce Hall, but got involved in a number of legal and public relations maneuvers to lessen the impact the split would have on the family.

How much of the Murdoch pie is left?

At this point, the fight to succeed Big Daddy Rupert is all but won by Lachlan Murdoch, although as has been demonstrated, it only takes a scandal here and a takeover there to move the goalposts once again. Granted, James Murdoch is out of the family business, but considering that Lachlan did the same thing years ago creates speculation that he might still look for an opportunity to jump back in. The same goes for their elder sister Elisabeth Murdoch who was frequently passed over for promotions within the empire's ranks

There's another issue: The Murdoch fortune is dwindling, dropping from $23.5 billion to $20.8 billion between 2021 and 2022, per Forbes. The onset of the coronavirus in 2020 was particularly brutal on the empire, which lost a billion dollars in the last three months alone, prompting Rupert to not only turn down his salary one month, but reject his annual bonus. Despite a short-lived recovery in 2021, which saw the conglomerate record a $445 million profit, Murdoch's net worth continued to drop throughout 2022. Reasons for the steady decline range from fallout associated with the scandals affecting Fox News and the now-defunct News of the World to declining TV revenues, especially in the U.S. One thing is certain: Amid the family squabbling, the Murdoch crows continue to descend on a plate that grows smaller every year.