Rupert Murdoch’s life is built on doing the unexpected

Last week,three news stories broke that are set to prove consequential for nonagenarian media billionaire Rupert Murdoch and his News and Fox media empire.

First,The New York Times reported that Murdoch,91,the owner ofThe Wall Street Journal,theHerald Sun,The Daily Telegraph,The Sun and Fox News was planning to divorce the Texan international model Jerry Hall,65. There has been no comment from either party,but no denial.

Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall are reportedly going their separate ways.

Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall are reportedly going their separate ways.Bloomberg

Second,there was a step-up in the legal action against Fox News’ 2020 US presidential election coverage. The network’s slavish airing of Donald Trump’s doomed false narrative about a stolen election has prompted lawsuits from electronic voting companies. A superior court judge ruled Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch’s Fox Corporation could be sued because the pair “may have acted with ‘actual malice’” in directing the network to air false conspiracy theories about the election result being rigged.

And third,Rupert Murdoch turned up in London and threw a party.

The event had nothing to do with the unconfirmed divorce. Rather,it was News UK’s summer party,an annual fete of Britain’s rich and powerful and the company’s main social occasion of the year.

Despite News UK selling off Sky News,and its tabloidThe Sun ceding its title as Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper to middle-market rival theDaily Mail,the guest list for Monday’s party proved Murdoch’s company retains its power and influence.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson left a fundraiser early to attend the Murdoch bash.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson left a fundraiser early to attend the Murdoch bash.AP

Prime Minister Boris Johnson actually left a Conservative Partyfundraiser early to attend the company’s bash alongside the Serpentine Gallery,on the shore of the lake in the middle of London’s grand Kensington Gardens.

Key members of his cabinet were also there. But one person absent,according to London’sDaily Telegraph,was Hall herself,which fuelled talk of a split.The New York Times story ran two days later.

Theories about the impending divorce,after the couple married in the journalists’ church St Bride’s off London’s Fleet Street six years ago,range from the couple tiring of each other after an excessive period spent in lockdown,to talk of Murdoch’s unhappiness over his wife’s drinking,which friends said was not to excess.

Over the weekend,Murdoch watchers were anticipating a clear indication about the state of the marriage at a family wedding. Charlotte Freud,whom society magazineTatler once dubbed “possibly the most outrageous of Murdoch’s 13 grandchildren”,was due to marry DJ and rapper Luke Dylan at a big family affair.

Charlotte Freud is known as the most outrageous of the Murdoch grandchildren.

Charlotte Freud is known as the most outrageous of the Murdoch grandchildren.Instagram

Freud - the tycoon’s granddaughter and daughter of Elisabeth Murdoch and her ex-husband Matthew Freud,himself great-grandson of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud - once stepped out in a satirical “Trust Rupert Murdoch” Sloppy Joe sweater.

Her father’s estrangement from her grandfather appears over,but Hall,the former long-term partner of rock star Mick Jagger,was not expected to attend. Small news items in the company’s Australian tabloids on Saturday confirmed the divorce.

Until now,signs of a family schism centred around James,Murdoch’s second son from his marriage to journalist Anna Torv. Father and son’s estrangement was noticeable during his father’sdelayed 90th birthday party last September at Holmwood,Murdoch and Hall’s £11 million ($19.5 million),11-bedroom Georgian mansion in the Chilterns,west of London.

Rupert Murdoch and then wife Anna Murdoch with their children Lachlan,James and Elisabeth in New York City in 1989.

Rupert Murdoch and then wife Anna Murdoch with their children Lachlan,James and Elisabeth in New York City in 1989.Supplied

The birthday bash for about 150 including entertainer Barry Humphries watched a lengthy video tribute,put together by Elisabeth,which starred eldest son Lachlan,Boris Johnson and former Australian prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. It was said to include the theme tune toSuccession,a thinly disguised drama about a dysfunctional media dynasty. But James was absent from the party and the video.

Apart from his family,Murdoch had a pressing business reason to be in London. His new expensive talkTV news channel,starring former tabloid editor Piers Morgan,is underperforming in the ratings,frequently beaten by GB News,the rival channel run byAngelos Frangopoulos,the Australian who once headed up Sky News Australia.

Both channels are bleeding cash,but Morgan’s poor ratings in particular have been taken by some as evidence that the “age of rage” has passed.

This is a big problem for Murdoch,as his global offering has been built on providing readers and viewers ofThe Sun andNew York Post,Fox News and Sky News Australia with a steady stream of outrage.

Now the US defamation lawsuit filed by voting machine company Dominion could lift the lid on this strategy. It asserts that the Murdochs must have played a direct role in approving Fox’s coverage of attacks on their voting systems as part of its coverage of Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen.

Donald Trump has been a favourite with Fox News presenters.

Donald Trump has been a favourite with Fox News presenters.Fox News

Last week a judge dragged the Murdochs into the case after he ruled that Dominion’s pleaded facts supported the claim that Fox Corporation was “directly liable” for what Fox News put to air. The suit seeks $US1.6 billion ($2.3 billion) in damages and is moving to the discovery phase,seeking out internal memos and documents within Fox that could ensnare the family.

Meanwhile,five years after Murdoch pulled off a $US71 billion deal by selling his film and entertainment company 21st Century Fox to Disney,Lachlan,the chief executive of Fox Corp,has been attempting to forge a growth path for the news and television company.

Lachlan Murdoch has been responding to criticism that Fox News is polarising the US electorate by pushing Fox Corp into developing more sports betting and lifestyle content. The new areas would “give us our growth going forward”,he told US news site Axios.

Meanwhile,in Australia,the betting strategy came unstuck,temporarily,when the Murdochs’ proposal to pay about $220 million to pick up digital player PointsBet fell over. The company is expected to try again.

Foxtel’s pay-TV subscriber numbers are down,but subscribers are up for dramastreaming service Binge and Kayo Sports.

At the May election,readers and viewers seemed to ignore attacks by the company’s outlets on Labor and “teal” independents,just as Fox News’ support for Trump failed to prevent his election loss. In Britain,the company’s support for the Conservative Party is weaker,given the travails of the Johnson government.

The Murdoch family has made an estimated $US17 billion profiting from news headlines,and its head has never found it difficult to generate them. Now the tycoon looks to be heading into the future with his fourth marriage behind him,with a business and personal life shaped by his continuing habit of doing the unexpected.

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Stephen Brook is deputy editor of The Sunday Age. Previously he was a CBD columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. He is a former media diarist and features editor of The Australian. He spent six years in London working for The Guardian.

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