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Rupert Murdoch is stepping down as chair of Fox and News Corp, marking the end of an era for the powerful media billionaire.
Lachlan Murdoch, his elder son, will become sole chair of News Corp and continue on as executive chair and chief executive of Fox, from mid-November.
However, Murdoch told employees that he would remain engaged in the company as chair emeritus. He promised to “be involved every day in the contest of ideas”, as he hit out against elites and other media outlets.
The Australian-born mogul, 92, has over the past five decades transformed an Adelaide newspaper that he inherited from his father into a global media empire, which is feared and courted by politicians across the English-speaking world.
“Our companies are in robust health, as am I. Our opportunities far exceed our commercial challenges,” he said on Thursday in an internal memo seen by the Financial Times.
Murdoch, who earlier this year agreed to pay nearly $800mn to halt a trial over Fox’s role in peddling conspiracy theories about the 2020 US election, went on to warn of what he described as a “battle for the freedom of speech”.
“Elites have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarefied class. Most of the media is in cahoots with those elites, peddling political narratives rather than pursuing the truth. In my new role, I can guarantee you that I will be involved every day in the contest of ideas,” he wrote.
Murdoch will leave an indelible impact on the global media industry and hands over an empire that holds sway in the corridors of power on both sides of the Atlantic ahead of forthcoming elections.
His decision to step down will not affect the positions of long time allies Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News UK, and Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp in New York, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Murdoch bought The Sun newspaper in 1969, turning it into one of the UK’s most influential titles, and then launched satellite television company Sky, kicking off the pay-TV market. In the US, he gatecrashed the broadcast TV business with the launch of Fox, which he built into a rightwing political powerhouse.
But in recent years Murdoch broke up his business empire, splitting 21st Century Fox and selling many of his crown jewels to Disney for $71bn. That deal is viewed as a masterstroke for Murdoch, who sold at the top of the market, before the technological disruption that has battered the big Hollywood studios in the past few years.
Fox in the US and News UK titles The Times and The Sun have remained the core of his business empire, although the TV business has been hurt by the fallout of the lawsuit brought by voting machine manufacturer Dominion which cost $787.5mn and the newspaper group is still mired in phone hacking claims.
Thursday’s announcement concentrates power in the hands of Lachlan, Rupert’s chosen successor. But a succession dilemma still hangs over Murdoch’s children, who will control the family trust once Rupert dies.
Murdoch watchers expect more jockeying for power over the trust, which controls about 40 per cent of voting shares of Fox and News Corp. James Murdoch is largely estranged from his older brother Lachlan and has spoken out against Fox News, while the loyalties of sisters Prudence and Elisabeth are uncertain.
Even by Murdoch’s standards, 2023 has been a chaotic year. He tried and failed to reunite the two halves of his media empire, News Corp and Fox, scrapping the merger in January. He then struck a separate deal to sell News Corp’s property listings websites, but that transaction also fell apart. He got divorced, then engaged to be married for a fifth time, and then called off that engagement within weeks.
In April he agreed at the last moment, with opening statements about to begin and embarrassing messages already in the public domain, to pay nearly $800mn to settle the Dominion lawsuit over Fox’s role in spreading conspiracy theories about the US election. Later that month, he abruptly fired Fox’s star host Tucker Carlson, sending shockwaves through media and political circles.
Smartmatic, another voting machine company whose software was used in a single US county during the 2020 election, is still seeking $2.7bn from Fox over its airing of false claims of election rigging in the wake of Donald Trump’s loss. A court hearing in New York on Wednesday, in which lawyers clashed over the production of evidence, suggested the two sides remained far from a resolution.
Additional reporting by Joe Miller in New York