(Bloomberg) -- Rupert Murdoch, one of the most influential and controversial figures in the media world, is stepping down as chairman of his Fox Corp. and News Corp. empire following a seven-decade career.
Murdoch, 92, served as an unabashedly conservative voice with ownership of newspapers in the US, UK and his native Australia. He created a television conglomerate that includes US cable news juggernaut Fox News. His reach made him a kingmaker in conservative politics and reshaped the media and entertainment landscape worldwide.
“He’s one of a kind,” said Bank of America analyst Jessica Reif Ehrlich. “He thought globally but acted locally. His career was fascinating and turbulent.”
Rupert’s son Lachlan Murdoch, 52, takes over as sole chairman of News Corp. and continue as executive chairman and chief executive officer of Fox, the company said in a statement Thursday. While Lachlan’s position as heir apparent had been telegraphed to the investment community for years, Rupert’s decision cements his eldest son’s control over the businesses.
Lachlan will now have more freedom to chart his own course. At Fox, that means navigating the massive shift in TV viewing from over-the-air networks to streaming, while coping with the ongoing legal fallout from the company’s 2020 election coverage and struggling to keep his family’s news channel relevant as other media outlets seek its conservative audience.
At News Corp., led by CEO Robert Thomson, that means coping with the inexorable decline of newspapers and, more recently, the perceived threat posed by artificial intelligence.
Shares of Fox rose 3.2% to $32.14 at the close in New York. News Corp. climbed 1.3% to $19.92.
The Murdoch media empire prospered throughout an era dominated by print, movie theaters and cable and broadcast television. It has yet to achieve the same prominence in the new world of streaming video and short-form, user-generated content.
High-profile scandals have weighed on the operations — from the notorious phone-hacking investigations that roiled Murdoch’s newspapers in London to the lawsuits accusing Fox News of spreading misinformation around the 2020 US presidential election.
The Murdochs face another legal battle with Smartmatic Corp., a second voting-machine operator that accuses Fox News of damaging its reputation with election-fraud claims. Just this week an attorney for Smartmatic compared Fox’s claims that Rupert and Lachlan didn’t personally sign off on coverage of the company to a “mafia boss directing a lieutenant.”
In a letter to Fox employees, the elder Murdoch said “the time is right for me to take on different roles,” adding that “our companies are in robust health, as am I.” He promised he will still “be involved every day in the contest of ideas.”
“The battle for freedom of speech and, ultimately, the freedom of thought, has never been more intense,” he said.
Murdoch has held sway over public opinion via a worldwide empire that included saucy tabloids, prestigious newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and television properties in the US, Australia and the UK.
Murdoch’s Fox network wrested market share from other prominent broadcasters and changed the world of professional sports by offering record sums for rights to football games and other events. Fox News Channel, a leader in cable TV, became a stage for Republican US politicians including Donald Trump and an incessant critic of Democrats, including presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Recently, Fox News and Murdoch have paid dearly for the network’s embrace of Trump’s claims that an elaborate conspiracy stole the 2020 election from him.
In one of the darkest chapters of Murdoch’s reign, Fox News agreed to pay $787.5 million to settle a defamation suit filed by Dominion Voting Systems Inc. The voting machine company had alleged that the network defamed it by airing bogus claims that it rigged the vote against Trump. Evidence uncovered in the case showed that the media titan and other top Fox executives, as well as superstar hosts like Tucker Carlson, privately derided the conspiracy theory as loony even as they promoted it.
In the letter to employees, Murdoch said, “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.”
Lachlan Murdoch, who has described himself as a libertarian, shares many of his father’s conservative views. In a speech last year in Sydney, the younger Murdoch was critical of government mandates and business closures during the pandemic, and said other media were suppressing coverage of Hunter Biden, the US president’s embattled son.
In calls with investors, Lachlan has defended Fox News’ political leanings.
“Where we’re targeted, to the center-right, is exactly where we should be targeted,” he said on a 2021 earnings call. “We don’t believe America is further right. And we’re obviously not going to pivot left.”
--With assistance from Scott Moritz.
(Updates with Smartmatic case in sixth paragraph.)
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.