The Australian-American media dynasty holds Sir Keith Arthur Murdoch (1885–1952) as its progenitor. Keith’s birth in Melbourne came a year after his father, a Free Church of Scotland Presbyterian Minister, emigrated with his family to Melbourne. Rev. Patrick John Murdoch (1850–1940) not only became an influential force in the Presbyterian Church in Australia, his prodigious networking laid the ground in politics and the newspaper world for his son’s career. The family’s close-knit ties and Calvinistic discipline would also prove crucial.
Despite his father’s hope that he would attend university and enter the church, Keith was determined to become a journalist. Inspiration came from his uncle, the academic and essayist Sir Walter Logie Murdoch (1874–1970). Connections with the Syme family smoothed Keith’s entry to the newspaper world as ‘a penny-a-liner’. Resilient and determined, Keith advanced to the role of federal political reporter.
Keith’s fortunes accelerated during World War I. His notorious ‘Gallipoli letter’ in 1915 served as an entrée to political power in London and brought him to the attention of the press baron Lord Northcliffe, who became his mentor. The Murdoch family cite the mythologised importance of this letter as exemplifying the family’s support of press freedom, obscuring Keith’s darker actions as Prime Minister William Hughes’ spin doctor and propagandist for the conscription cause during the rest of the war.
In 1921, Keith returned to Melbourne as editor of the Herald. For the next three decades, he drove the development of the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT), implementing a monopolising, countrywide chain model of newspapers and associated commercial radio stations. Clashes with the ABC over government-funded versus commercial broadcasting models, claims of interference in the political process and the favouring of business interests would all echo down the decades for his descendants.
A workaholic, and devoted to his career, Keith remained a bachelor until he married 19-yearold (Dame) Elisabeth Greene (1909–2012) in 1928. Elisabeth bore Keith four children: Helen (later Handbury, 1929–2004), (Keith) Rupert (1931– ), Anne (later Kantor, 1936– ) and (Elisabeth) Janet (later Calvert-Jones, 1939– ). Towards the end of his life, Keith, who had been knighted in 1933, sought to build up an independent power base of media interests to hand on to Rupert. His will, written when Rupert was 16, declared the desire for his son to ‘have the great opportunity of spending a useful altruistic and full life in newspaper and broadcasting activities and of ultimately occupying a position of high responsibility in that field’.
Rupert was still at the University of Oxford when Keith died in 1952. The estate’s debt meant the inheritance was largely reduced to News Limited and its Adelaide publication, the News. Rupert returned to Australia, having first gained Fleet Street experience with Lord Beaverbrook’s Express titles. With the support of his mother and sisters, he began a meteoric rise. He expanded News Limited aggressively, acquiring suburban and provincial newspapers throughout Australia, while moving into television. In 1964, he achieved an ideal held by his father: launching the country’s first national daily, the Australian. From 1968, however, Rupert’s attention increasingly turned overseas, with acquisitions first in Britain and from 1973 in the United States.
In 1985 he became an American citizen to enable him to expand his American operations and develop the Fox Network. Sentimental family ties and business opportunity coincided a year later back in Australia, however. With his mother at his side, Rupert announced the successful takeover of the HWT. The subsidiary has remained closest to the family’s heart, chaired initially by Janet Calvert-Jones and, since 2013, by her daughter, Keith’s granddaughter, Penny Fowler.
Rupert’s first marriage to Patricia Booker brought him a daughter, Prudence (1958– ). His second marriage, in 1967, to Anna Maria Torv, an Estonian-Scottish journalist who worked for his titles, proved more enduring, with three children: Elisabeth (1968– ); Lachlan Keith (1971– ) and James Rupert (1972– ). Rupert’s divorce from Anna in 1999 laid bare a dynastic struggle. Anna agreed to the terms on the condition that the four existing children would be the sole beneficiaries of the Murdoch family trust and its significant holding of voting shares in News Corporation. Rupert’s controversial third marriage (1999–2013) to Wendi Deng resulted in two more daughters, Grace Helen (2001– ) and Hope (2003– ). In 2006, Rupert revealed that his two youngest daughters would receive equal shares in the family trust but would have no voting rights. All six children were given US $150 million in cash and stock.
Though Prudence has never actively worked in the business, her husband, Alasdair MacLeod, was with News Corporation for 20 years and served as managing director of a News Limited subsidiary, the Community Newspapers Group, and then Nationwide News until his sudden resignation in 2010. Their three children are the oldest of Rupert’s grandchildren, so significantly placed in terms of the dynasty’s next generation.
Elisabeth gained early experience with News Limited before working in News Corporation’s television interests in America and the United Kingdom. After a fractious time with BSkyB, she struck out on her own, founding production company Shine in 2001. Elisabeth sold the company to News Corporation in 2011 but declined an invitation to join the corporation’s board.
Lachlan cut his commercial teeth at Queensland Newspapers Ltd. Groomed by Rupert as heir apparent, he rose through News Limited to become deputy chief operating officer of News Corporation but, frustrated by challenges to his authority, resigned in 2005. He had led the doomed purchase of One.Tel, though time would view News Limited’s 2000 investment in the website realestate.com.au more kindly.
Insistent that he would not return to News Corporation, Lachlan based himself in Sydney, developing media interests through his Illyria investment vehicle. In 2007 he joined forces with his friend and fellow media dynasty heir James Packer in failed bids to take over Consolidated Media Holdings. The pair also joined forces to invest in the struggling Ten Network, which Lachlan would later chair. Lachlan’s purchase of the Daily Mail Group’s Nova radio network has proved more prudent and profitable.
James, initially regarded as the rebellious black sheep of the family, returned to the fold with international roles at Star TV in Asia and then BSkyB and News International in London. Following Lachlan’s resignation, his primacy in the succession appeared assured. From 2011, however, the fallout over phone hacking undermined his prospects.
Branches of the family have directed their share of News Corporation wealth to philanthropy—such as the environmental initiatives of Eve Kantor, daughter of Anne. Matt Handbury, son of Helen, also successfully developed Murdoch Books, after purchasing the subsidiary from News Limited in 1991.
Having served as the family matriarch for over eight decades, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch died in 2012, leaving 77 living descendants and a legacy of dedicated support for the arts and other causes. Keith’s memory is kept alive through the News Awards’ highest honour, the Sir Keith Murdoch Award for Excellence in Journalism.
The 2013 rebranding of News Limited as News Corp Australia, following the global division of newspaper and entertainment interests, saw Murdoch family heritage re-emphasised: the font of the rebranded logo combines both Rupert and Keith’s handwriting.
In 2014, those questioning the Murdochs’ ability to maintain control of two multi-billion dollar global corporations as effectively family businesses were confounded. With Lachlan’s return to active involvement as non-executive co-chairman of News Corporation and 21st Century Fox, and James’ appointment as cochief operating officer of 21st Century Fox, Rupert’s family succession plan seems—for the moment at least—assured.
REFs: T.D.C. Roberts, ‘Before Rupert: Keith Murdoch, Media Power and the Genesis of a Dynasty’ (PhD thesis, 2013); M. Wolff, The Man Who Owns the News (2008).
TOM D.C. ROBERTS