This week’s 200th anniversary soiree for the Sunday Times gathered the some of the biggest names in media at the headquarters of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in London’s Piccadilly to celebrate one of the jewels of Rupert Murdoch’s empire.
But talk of famous front pages and scoops among guests at Monday’s night event, which included News Corp boss Robert Thomson and News UK chief Rebekah Brooks, was overshadowed by the news that broke three days earlier: the mogul’s plan to reunify his media empire.
Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch.Photograph: Shutterstock
After a lifetime of deals, Murdoch, now 91, is making perhaps his final play as he seeks to merge News Corp, home to the Times, Sun, Wall Street Journal and Australian, and Fox, broadcaster of Fox News and crown jewel NFL games, as he hands the running of his empire over to eldest son, Lachlan.
While the 51-year-old heir, who shocked his father by abruptly leaving the family business in 2005 to move to Australia and pursue his own interests before being enticed back a decade later, is primed to become chair, there is plenty of chatter over who will get the top job running the day-to-day business.
Thomson had long been mooted as the one to manage the combined group after a merger – he is Rupert’s righthand man and his fellow Australian considers him practically a son. But with Lachlan in the driving seat, that is not to be.
Quick GuideRupert Murdoch timeline: a lifetime of deals
Rupert Murdoch takes control of his father’s Adelaide-based newspaper business after his death, eventually building it into the dominant player in the Australian market.
Moves internationally, beating Robert Maxwell to buy the News of the World, the UK’s highest-selling newspaper, from the Carr family.
Extends influence in British media by buying the Sun and turns it tabloid. By 1977 it overtakes the Daily Mirror as the UK’s highest-selling daily newspaper.
Buys the Times and Sunday Times newspapers, resulting in calls of too much media control.
Enters the world of broadcast, buying the film studio 20th Century Fox and a clutch of local TV stations, which will eventually become the Fox network.
Launches Sky Television, the following year it merges with a rival to form BSkyB, and in 1992 changes the economics of UK sport and broadcasting for ever by taking the Premier League to pay-TV.
A year after closing Today newspaper, which he had acquired from Tiny Rowland in 1987, Murdoch launches Fox News. He had made a failed run at acquiring CNN, which was snapped up by Time Warner. In 2016, Fox News became the US’s most-watched channel on cable TV.
Buys Dow Jones, the owner of the Wall Street Journal, for $5bn, ending the 105-year ownership of the Bancroft family.
Forced to shut News of the World as the 167-year-old title is sacrificed to try to stem the fallout of the phone-hacking scandal. Murdoch is hit with a shaving foam pie by a member of the public while answering questions about the hacking in front of a committee of MPs. The scandal scuppers Murdoch’s first attempt to take full control of Sky, and results in his newspaper and broadcast assets being split into separate companies, News Corp and 21st Century Fox.
Murdoch announces a $71bn deal with Disney to buy most of 21st Century Fox, a move that in effect carves its chief executive, James Murdoch, out of the line of succession. Elder son Lachlan is left as executive heir to the remaining empire, News Corp and the newly formed Fox Corporation.
Comcast outbids a Disney-backed Fox to take control of Sky across Europe for £30bn. Murdoch admits the pay-TV company is the asset he is most sad to relinquish.
A voting technology company lodges a $2.7bn legal action against Fox News, three of its top hosts and former lawyers including Rudy Giuliani, alleging they conspired to spread false claims that the company helped “steal” the US presidential election from Donald Trump.
Murdoch proposes an all-stock merger of News Corp and Fox, having vowed never to reunite the two parts of his empire, nine years after being forced to split them in the wake of the phone hacking scandal. Mark Sweney
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Then there is Brooks, another Rupert favourite who has long held ambitions to rise further. However, she lacks international experience, and has the issue of the phone-hacking scandal on her CV, with new allegations brought recently relating to her tenure as Sun editor. (News UK has always denied any hacking took place at that newspaper, saying it only happened at its sister title, News of the World.)
“Lachlan doesn’t keep a calendar, he’s not going to be running the business day-to-day, the really interesting question is who will be?” says a source. “I think it will be Lachlan’s decision who does, not Rupert, and that makes it interesting. Robert has historically been protected but Rebekah is also powerful – she is the only person all the children talk to – she’s like another sibling and is very close to Lachlan.”
Lachlan, who insiders say was against the decision to downsize the empire by selling 21st Century Fox’s global entertainment assets to Disney for $71bn (£63bn) five years ago, is seeking to rebuild scale in an era of global tech and media giants.
Rupert Murdoch with his sons Lachlan (left) and James.Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
“Lachlan was furious,” says one former senior executive. “I think it was the nail in the coffin when [his brother] James supported it too. James and Lachlan, no matter what anyone says, did get along. After that they stopped speaking, I believe that is still the case now. A scaled-down News Corp is the opposite of what he wants.”
The sale of 21st Century Fox also carved out the younger James, once seen as heir apparent, out of the line of succession and ended any possibility of a future potential dynastic struggle.
The 49-year-old resigned from the board of News Corp two years ago citing “disagreements” over editorial content, understood to include coverage casting doubt on climate change, severing his last formal link to the empire created by his father.
Areunified News Corp and Fox, valued at $9.7bn and $16bn respectively, would create a more muscular $26bn business.
This would put it on a par with the market capitalisation of the freshly minted Warner Bros Discovery ($30bn), albeit still a relative minnow compared with beasts such as Disney ($180bn) and Comcast ($134bn), which bought Murdoch’s Sky for £30bn four years ago.
Special boards at each company are now evaluating the merits of a merger, and the relative value of each company to the other in the proposed all-stock deal, but banks and shareholders seem to have already made up their mind.
Investors in Fox and News Corp both believe they are undervalued – shares in each are down 30% over the last year – something analysts suggest a tie-up probably will not solve.
There is also the cautionary tale of the similar recombination of CBS and Viacom after 13 years of separation. The business, now called Paramount, is valued at $12.5bn – less than half the value of the separate businesses before the deal.
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“On a standalone basis, this transaction raises more questions than answers as we struggle to see the strategic rationale for combining these two companies,” said Jessica Reif Ehrlich, an analyst at Bank of America, summing up the wider market reaction.
Some investors in the News Corp camp are concerned about the “toxicity” of the rightwing Fox News, and the practical matter of the two multibillion-dollar lawsuits it faces over allegations it promoted the spread of theories that the US election in 2020 was rigged.
Meanwhile, some Fox investors balk at tying the hugely profitable business to a primarily publishing operation, regardless of the leaps and bounds it has made striking commercially lucrative ad deals with Silicon Valley giants such as Google.
Analysts at MoffettNathanson put Fox on track for record profits of $3.3bn next year, while News Corp made $1.6bn in profits in the year to the end of June, a 31% increase.
To get a deal through will require a majority of non-Murdoch family shareholders.
“There will be some investors in the margin that will have a problem with Fox News in their portfolio,” says a second source. “And the Wall Street Journal [staff] loathes Fox News, they see it as toxic, silly and think it would harm their brand. But in the end it won’t be overly consequential because Fox News is so damn profitable.”
However, with the Murdochs’ family trust controlling 39% of the voting shares in News Corp and 42% in Fox Corporation there are pretty good odds they will get their way if the plan gets as far as being put to a shareholder vote.
“I think this has been in the works for two years,” said the former senior executive. “I give it a 75% chance it will happen, 25% that it will be blocked. It’s all about Lachlan. Rupert is in his 90s, this is his last deal, it’s succession planning.”
When the Rupert era ends the power behind the family trust will be equally split between his four eldest children – Lachlan, James, Elisabeth and Prudence – while his two youngest daughters, Grace and Chloe, are financial beneficiaries.
Whether such a setup could see a situation emerge akin to HBO’s hit drama Succession, which features members of a powerful family vying for control of a sprawling media conglomerate that has drawn endless comparisons with the real-life Murdochs, remains to be seen.
But for now, for Rupert, merging the two businesses he was forced to split against his will almost a decade ago after the phone-hacking scandal is about securing a family legacy after seven decades of deal-making.
“At a certain level of money it is control that matters the most,” says Claire Enders, founder of Enders Analysis and a longtime Murdoch-watcher. “What this transition is about is future control and restoration of the original structure of News Corp and a long-term umbrella for the newspaper assets.”