James Murdoch, Rebellious
Increasingly uncomfortable with the politics and profit motivations of News Corp, Rupert's younger son chose chickens and sheep over Fox, insisting he doesn't watch 'Succession.'
WASHINGTON — As we sat in my garden for lunch, I told James Murdoch I've been reading a lot of classical plays lately, and a common theme is the rancorous struggle between two brothers over a kingdom.
"But these plays end in cannibalism and civil war, so your family hasn't gone there yet at least," I said brightly.
Over his hood, Mr. Murdoch's brown eyes opened with fear behind his Kingsman glasses.
Dynastic succession issue — the real one and one in "Succession," the Emmy-winning HBO drama inspired by the Murdochs — was definitely on the menu along with fried calamari.
Mr. Murdoch, 47, resigned from the News Corp board this summer with an elliptical announcement stating he quit "due to disputes over some editorial material released by the company's news channels and other business decisions."
Rupert Murdoch's youngest child with his second wife, Anna, is loath to join the dramatic family drama that found its culmination in the 15 months between pressing a contract to sell Disney's 21st Century Fox and ankling the family company he once wanted to run.
But in his brisk analytical way, over lunch and a subsequent phone call, he tried to explain why he "pulled the rip cord," as he put it, after deepening alienation with his father and brother and growing discomfort over Fox News' toxicity and other conservative News Corp properties.
"I came to the conclusion that if you want to venerate a contest of ideas, and we all do and that's important," he told me. "But it shouldn't be in a way that hides agendas. A battle of opinions does not legitimize misinformation. And I think it's often taken advantage of. And I think at great news organisations, the task really should be to add truth and disperse doubt — not to sow doubt, to hide truth, if you will.
“And I just felt increasingly uncomfortable with my position on the board having some disagreements over how certain decisions are being made. So it wasn't even that hard to erase myself and get a cleaner slate.
The younger Mr. Murdoch 's contempt had flashed openly before on a few occasions: He revealed the hatred for Roger Ailes he expressed with his more conventional, older brother Lachlan, 49.
In 2017, President Trump's praise for white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., spurred James Murdoch to give the Anti-Defamation League $1 million. Mr. Murdoch rebuked Mr. Trump in an email to friends from The New York Times and wrote: "I can't believe I have to write this: standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis. The email was in sharp contrast, considering Fox's fetid racism-by-night schedule.
In January, James and his wife, Kathryn, expressed "frustration" about News Corp's peddling of climate change denialism in the face of 46 million acres of apocalyptic Australian wildfires. Fox nighttime anchors picked from The Australian, a Murdoch-owned newspaper in Oz, a false storyline about arson.
Once, James Murdoch thought he could reshape Fox. But in the summer of 2016, he failed to get his father to sign on to replace Roger Ailes—embroiled in Fox News' sexual harassment scandals—with David Rhodes, CBS News' former president.
When the company's chairman Rupert wanted to manage the network himself, writing was on the wall. Rupert and Mr. Trump stepped up their dangerous tango and James finally decided it was time to get out of his Faustian deal.
Over the years, it sometimes looked like James and Kathryn might bring climate change around Rupert Murdoch. But it wasn't, either.
"As a teenager, we've been talking over politics," James told me.
But News Corp couldn't adjust from inside?
"I think you can do too many if you're not an executive, you're on the board, you're very away from a lot of day-to-day decisions, clearly," he said. "And if you feel unhappy with those choices, you must take stock of whether or not you wish to be affiliated, whether you can change that or not. I decided I'd be much more effective outside.
James Murdoch had long enough to get more than his share of the Sun King's rising son headlines. But then, while he was overseeing the operation in London, Rupert's lieutenant and spiritual daughter, Rebekah Brooks, and her former deputy and lover Andy Coulson, got ensnared in the British phone hacking scandal. (Ms. Brooks was acquitted and Mr. Coulson subsequently convicted.)
The slime splashed on the son as a clean-as-a-whistle, smart pants. British authorities failed him for trying to get to the bottom of significant allegations that it had occurred — despite his argument that he had not read a whole email chain that would have clued him in — but also finding no "fair grounds to believe that James Murdoch intentionally perpetrated any misconduct." (She refused.)
Some Murdoch familiars say that it was only when it was apparent that James had lost the succession battle that he showed more leg in voicing qualms and pushed the $71.3 billion Disney contract — with the effect of ensuring that Lachlan, seen as his father's darling, was left with a hollowed-out empire.
Though each kid walked away with billions in cash and stock, the transaction carried all the conflicting family interests. Lachlan was, by all accounts, aghast to be left with the rump alone — the part James had discarded friends as a "American political initiative." Rupert Murdoch didn't try to make a condition of the contract a top role for James at Disney. He stared critically at James vis the contract, Disney insiders said, not with a father's defensive instinct.
"James was nothing but a gentleman in the process," Disney chairman Bob Iger told me.
James said he pushed the deal because he realized, when the great digital revolution of Tinseltown got underway, that the Murdochs’ array of old-school television properties had to be paired with a business like Disney to have the heft to contend against behemoths like Netflix.
At the time, news reports suggested James had a fantasy about succeeding Mr. Iger, and both talked about a possible role. But, James told me, "I decided shortly after we closed that I didn't want to continue in company. So if you think about it, I mean, your ego is talking to you a bit or someone is writing a story saying, 'Oh, they don't have a succession plan. James Murdoch will do X, Y and Z.' And your ego goes, 'Wow, that's cool.' But then you have to sit back and go, 'I don't define that. That’s some media journalist somewhere making up what they think success or failure is.’
"At my age, with a long career ahead of me, the thought of moving to a position where it's a huge organizational system. You don't even know what future holds. And the other side is absolute self-determination. It was a easy decision. We never even really took talks very far at all about going to Disney when I told them, because they were really trying to find, ‘ OK, what does the structure look like? Et cetera.’ I called Bob and said, ‘Look, you need to design that without me.’”
Friends say James was on a 15-year crash course with his dad. His evolution was greatly affected by his wife, a communications executive. He's, as one friend puts it, "doing even more in his own skin, understanding his better angels and impulses."
But when the last name is Murdoch and the billions on the bank account come from a juggernaut co-opting regimes around the English-speaking globe, perpetuating climate change skepticism, nativism, and Sean Hannity, will you ever start fresh? As a beneficiary of the trust of his family, James still gains from Rupert Murdoch 's assets. Can he're anti-venom?
And is Murdoch 's great succession finally over? Murdoch watchers around media say James is allied with his sister Elisabeth and his half sister, Prudence, even though he is alienated from his father and brother.
When Rupert, 89, eventually leaves the stage and his older kids take over, that could make three votes against one in family trust. Is there still time to de-Foxify Fox News — labeled Elizabeth Warren's "hate-for-profit racket"—and other mainstream News Corp outlets? Would Fox and its kin — downscale, feral creatures conjured by Rupert to help the bottom line — be the huge moneymakers they are if they went straight?
For a long time , people have pointed to James as “the wise brother,” the more strategic one, the more interesting one, the hardest working one, the more enlightened one.
He's nothing like the hopeless sons on "Succession." At Star TV in Asia, he came into his own and then deftly joined the broadband business, positioning Sky TV as more than a satellite television provider. He says he's very proud to help restructure the National Geographic Alliance, which led the endowment to grow to nearly $1bn.
Unlike his father and grandfather — who broke the story of the devastating Gallipoli war and would became an Australian metropolitan newspaper magnate — James wasn't involved in the romance of newspapers. He's always looked around for new technologies.
He pledged Sky's carbon neutral in 2006. (He invited Al Gore to give his climatic slide show at a corporate retreat in Pebble Beach, Calif., a talk that inspired Kathryn Murdoch to become an eco-warrior.) He drove a Prius around London and then switched to an early Tesla roadster model.
A Harvard dropout, James was teased for his techno argot, a contrast to Lachlan 's rock-climbing, red meat, good Aussie boy style. James' look was more relaxed at lunch: a Loro Piana navy top, slim-fit jeans, and white sneakers from Popular Ventures. His hair, flecked with a few gray strands, is longer than since college. "Since March I haven't been to the barber," Murdoch said. "Now it catches leaves, stuff."
His San Juan Panama hat — wearing straw hats year round — was attached to his attaché bag.
He set up new business headquarters, Lupa Networks, in downtown Manhattan and Mumbai. It is named for the she-wolf who suckles twin boys in Rome’s origin story. When they grow up, Romulus kills Remus, who goes on to found the city—which James says is his favorite—and becomes his first king. (In "Succession," Brian Cox's character, the show's Rupert, refers to Romulus' younger son, Roman.)
Mr. Murdoch has made investments in the Tribeca Film Festival, Art Basel, Vice Media and a comic book corporation whose publisher previously worked for Marvel. The hope there is to create another Marvel-like world with characters that could cavort through various platforms.
He's particularly excited about investing in start-ups designed to combat fake news and spread misinformation, having found the rise of deep fakes "terrifying" because they "undermine our ability to distinguish what's true and what's not" and it's "just at the beginning so far as I can tell."
"For example, everything from using mass surveillance, telephone networks, 5 G, all that stuff in a country like China," he said.
I wonder if that's some kind of expiation, given all the disinformation News Corp has spun. (Melanian Cyberbullying Shades?)
Mr. Murdoch didn't comment. But later, when I spoke to Kathryn Murdoch about Zoom from their Connecticut farm where they live with their three teens, chickens and sheep, she was more clear about using money made from disinformation to fight disinformation.
"What's important about what we do is that we're in control of ourselves," she said, adding: "I'm in control of what I do, he's in control of what he's doing. We should be left accountable for those things. It's very hard to be held accountable for things other people do or influence. And I think that's untenable.
I asked her if they are happy with their liberation. "It's fun to do our own thing to just get James out of the stress," she said with a wide smile. “It 's good for him.”
She added : “ When a family is very involved in the business, it's a big decision to leave that. I don't know if it ends. It's still, you know, ongoing. ”She gave a wry chuckle.
Sneaking with Jerry
CNBC has dubbed Kathryn and James "a Trump era political power pair" and James says his wife is "a nature force." "She's inspired me to take chances, do things," he added. "She encouraged me to explore things. I'm really lucky.
Their fund, Quadrivium, funded voter turnout, democratic reform, and climate change programs. "I never imagined that we would really see the consequences of climate change and people would always doubt it," Ms. Murdoch said.
In primary, Mr. Murdoch donated to Pete Buttigieg, and the couple gave Joe Biden $1.23 million. So that's who he'll vote in November? "Hell yeah," he replied, nodding.
I noted to Ms. Murdoch that News Corp's impact on the planet is incredible when you think about it, from Brexit to Trump to the Supreme Court we might be going.
"I'm not sure I 'd give that much credit," she said. “Rupert 's talent was really in knowing what the audience needed and I think it much more follows or echoes what 's going on as opposed to leads. That's not to say it's not responsible. It does. But I think sometimes, inside the journalism world, it gets a little more credit than it deserves on that.
I asked if Rupert Murdoch was ever angry at her for dragging James on the climate side and other problems. Was it daunting to argue with him?
“We've had plenty of very good dinners and very good discussions,” she said. "He enjoys arguing. If you're well-prepared and have your facts, it's a really good discussion practice. We still got along even though we disagree. I have friends whose fathers are far more scary. Rupert actually told James to marry me as soon as he possibly could.
Like James, Jerry Hall, the wife of the patriarch since 2016, is very fun. "Rupert's lucky," she said. "She's always want to sneak over and have a drink or smoke with you. 'Tell Rupert I'm smoking.'
Kathryn Murdoch was tempted to watch "Succession," but Mr. Murdoch said he didn't watch it, probably because he didn't have to answer nasty questions about the depiction of sons who wavered between feeling justified and feeling unworthy because they were ashamed of their name.
Asked how he could possibly not watch a buzzy show about his family, he grinned and replied: “ I think you 'd find it very convenient. The other thing is, the dramatization of family affairs is as old as anything. Built in a certain house, back in Shakespeare or back in Homer.
"I think the truth, my truth anyway, is that I never felt that relaxed drawing any comparisons, so I don't feel like living in a desperate circle of acceptance or something from the charismatic mega-fauna. Not at all. I'm myself entirely. I believe I had an agent from the beginning when I quit school and started alone, starting up a small hip-hop record label with some partners, going to Hong Kong with Kathryn a couple years back."
Five years back he went to Sky. “I feel like every few years I set out for something different and it's not this drama that other people want to make about it, ” he added. "But I don't know about the show."
After too long in the executive room, Mr. Murdoch seems very excited to be in a smaller store. Last year, he said, just for the hell, he dreamed about becoming an architect, going back to school.
"The outside world," he continued, "looks at you, saying, 'Well, these are the riders. This person is up and down, and that's success, and that's failure.' I think that's a lot more to come from yourself. I'm immensely thankful to be a totally free agent.
When he looks back at the searing hacking scandal, to that painful moment sitting in front of a parliamentary committee in London with his father, who called it “ the most humble day of my life , ” how does he feel? Was James furious left carrying the bag for hacking, this was the ultimate end of his father's tabloid culture?
"Going through something that intense, you certainly learn a lot of different lessons," he said, adding: "There was a lot of stuff going on in the media before I was there, by the way."
I wondered what Fox and Mr. Trump made of playing coronavirus, even after the president was hospitalized.
"Look, you're worried and I think we're in the middle of a public health crisis," Mr. Murdoch said. "Climate is also a public health crisis," he continued: "Whatever political spin on it, I think it's pretty bad when it comes to delivering crucial public health information."
He continued that Mr. Trump's likening of Covid-19 to flu was "his message from Day 1" and is "craziness." He claims "companies have a duty to their clients and their neighborhoods" and "that duty can not be undermined by winning political points, that's for sure."
Did he capture the moment of bananas on Fox after the president's loony Evita balcony star turn as Sean Hannity compared D.J.T. to F.D.R.?
Mr. Murdoch, who usually doesn't watch Fox, said he didn't see that show and doesn't like to criticize specific Fox personalities, but added dryly, "I think comparing that kind of personal behavior to F.D.R., it's a bit, you know? I noted his father's very dim view of Mr. Trump — in 2015, he tweeted, "When will Donald Trump stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?
"— before Rupert 's pragmatic president came. "I'm just worried that the government we have seems to me marked by callousness and a level of brutality that I think is very dangerous and then infects the people," he said, referring to the Trump administration.
"It's no accident that this country's rate of hate crimes has increased for the first time in a long time over the last three years." With Mr. Trump and Fox, who's the rabbit, who's the tail?
“It looks to me, anyway, like it’s going to be a complicated thing to comprehend because it probably goes back and forth,’’ he added.
"I don't think you'll get a pristine, coherent phenomenon analysis." I wondered whether Ivanka and Jared Kushner were friends.
Ivanka was, at one time, a trustee for Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng's two daughters. “She and Jared are also close with Wendi, ” he said , adding: “ I don't know them well.
I wasn't in New York, remember. I came back from abroad after over 10 years and I didn't know a lot of things. I skipped the entire story of 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians.' (The Times Magazine article contained details that James and Lachlan sought to dissuade Pops, as they call it, from marrying Ms. Deng; James was worried that she was a Chinese commodity based on intelligence obtained from senior foreign officials; she denied that.)
Mr. Murdoch's friends describe him as "happy as a clam," "giddy" and even more secure now that he's shook off King Lear's machinations he 's lived with in his childhood, as his father put the siblings against each other over a golden crown.
Matthew Vaughn, an English producer and writer who made both "Kingsman" movies, claims that James will now launch his own empire.
"James' next chapter will be a positive one, because it will surprise so many people," Mr. Vaughn said.
"He'll be freed from Murdoch 's blessing and curse." I asked Mr. Murdoch to create his own "Game of Thrones" and carry his own children — a daughter and two sons — to help manage it.
"There's no kingdom," he responded, laughing rudely.
"No future dynasty."