Murdoch Family Drama


Rupert Murdoch and son James appear before British Parliamentary committee (photo: BBC)

In the Parliamentary committee hearing Tuesday, Rupert Murdoch recalled how his father gave him his start in the newspaper business.

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"He just before he died bought a little small paper specifically in his will saying he was giving me the chance to do good," Murdoch said.

Over more than half a century Murdoch grew that single Australian paper into a global media empire. In the last few years he's been getting his children ready to take over.

Murdoch has six children, but it's the three from his second marriage that are most closely tied with News Corp.

The oldest is Elisabeth. She joined News Corp to work in its TV business in the UK. She eventually went her own way and launched a successful independent production company.

The middle child is Lachlan. Again, he used to work for News Corp, but resigned to return to Australia. He, too, works in TV.

And then there's the youngest, James Murdoch, the one who was sitting next to his father at Tuesday's hearing.

"At various times, any one of the three has been deemed Rupert's heir apparent," said media reporter Johnnie Roberts, formerly of Newsweek. "All three have worked in the company. All three are on the board now, but James is the only one with an operating role now."

James is the head of News International, the News Corp division which held responsibility for the News of the World, the tabloid at the center of the phone hacking scandal.

Given Elisabeth and Lachlan's decisions to strike out on their own, James was seen as the 'heir apparent'. But the scandal is changing things.

"No other Murdoch offspring has confronted that kind of challenge in crisis before," said Roberts.

And few long-time Murdoch watchers expect James Murdoch to survive in his current role.

Now would that be good news for Lachlan, who could return from Australia unblemished by the scandal? Or for Elisabeth? A couple months back, her TV company was bought by News Corp for almost $650 million.

Back in fold, some are again calling her the heir apparent, and an heir apparent who would strike a different tone to her brother James.

James is considered more hard-edged, Elisabeth more pragmatic.

Indeed reports from the last few weeks suggest that it was Elisabeth's voice that proved most influential in the eventual resignations of senior News Corp officials.

In any case the children aren't running the show yet.

Tuesday, James Murdoch seemed at times to be protecting his father from the questions coming at him. But it's still Rupert Murdoch's company.

"There is Murdoch and all others," said Jack Shafer, who writes about media for Slate.

And, he said, maybe Rupert Murdoch simply hasn't made up his mind yet about the line of succession.

"He is fickle, he changes his mind. If you go back 10, 15 years ago Elisabeth was thought to be the heir apparent. For a while it was Lachlan and he didn't get along with the rest of the company and Dad didn't support him. This, you know, heir apparent business has been very fluid for a long time," he said.

Observers agree that what you won't see is Rupert Murdoch's children going against their father. But it might be a different matter when it comes to News Corp's shareholders and its board of directors.

For now, support for the Murdochs is still there. That could change if Rupert and James's performance in London Tuesday is deemed unsatisfactory.

Or if more damaging revelations about News Corp emerge.