Lachlan Murdoch; not there yet

The Power Index

It's a puzzle why Rupert Murdoch remains so keen for his eldest son to take over the family business, because Lachlan has never really looked like he would make a great fist of it.

But, considering his lack of brilliance, the 40-year old enjoys remarkable power and influence. And, thanks to his money and connections, he remains a mogul in waiting.

The Sun King's son was recently asked by Rupert to take over the family's Australian newspapers, although we doubt this would have been allowed under Australia's latest cross-media rules, unless the young man got rid of some of his other commitments.

Lachlan is currently managing director of Channel Ten, and a nine per cent shareholder in the commercial TV network, (thanks to his old mate, James Packer). He also owns 50 per cent of the Nova/Classic Rock radio group DMG Australia, which he bought for $110 million in 2009, and nearly 10 per cent of regional TV player, Prime. On top of these, he remains a director of News Ltd, despite having quit the race to be Rupert's heir in 2005.

There's no doubt he also has a big say in what Australia's media looks like. It was Lachlan who dumped Channel Ten's struggling news show, 6.30 with George Negus, along with the early news bulletin, and cut 60 jobs from the network. And it was Lachlan who hired right-wing warrior Andrew Bolt for Sunday mornings, to the delight of fellow shareholder and mining billionaire, Gina Rinehart.

It was Lachlan, too, who hired ex-TVNZ host Paul Henry to front Ten's new breakfast show—planned for 2012—phoning him to offer a salary of NZ$1 million a year. Henry famously resigned in October 2010 after referring repeatedly to Delhi's Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit as "dick shit" and "dip shit" on his show, in between bursts of high-pitched laughter.

Murdoch minor has now been at Channel Ten for more than a year, and running the show since February. In that time, the share price has fallen from $1.45 to below 90c, profits have slumped by 90 per cent, and ratings have flat-lined (with a sharp decline in the second half of this year).

Meanwhile, the apprentice has hardly shown his father's sure touch. First, he and the board sacked experienced CEO Nick Falloon in favour of Grant Blackley. Then, two months later, they sent Blackley packing. Next, Lachlan wooed Channel Seven wunderkind, James Warburton, to "join the Ten family", only to be blocked by the Supreme Court, who said Ten's new boss couldn't start until January 2012, because his contract handcuffed him to his old employer.

The Warburton fiasco has meant he is still doing the MD's job himself, and giving a "lacklustre performance", according to Crikey's TV correspondent, Glenn Dyer.

It's also why James Packer has quit Ten's board. He was so pissed off by Lachlan's move in poaching Seven's sales director—because it upset his new best friend Kerry Stokes—that he quit in protest.

While running Channel Ten, Lachlan has found time to commute to London and New York to give his father advice on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. We're not sure how valuable his counsel has been, but it certainly hasn't stopped the train crash.

However, it's not just the mini mogul's recent form that fails to convince. Lachlan's failure to keep an eye on the ball at One.Tel, where News Ltd lost around $400 million when the company collapsed in May 2000, is famous, as is his failure to remember anything about it when questioned.

At Jodee Rich's trial in 2009, Lachlan and his buddy James Packer notched up nearly 3000 instances of "I don't recall" between them. And at the liquidator's inquiry in 2001, when memories were fresh, he was no better. The impression he gave was that he had little or no idea what was going on at the company and had rarely if ever asked questions. Put simply, he looked like a chump.

Lachlan is supposed to have fared much better with Super League, where he did much of the recruiting of clubs and players. But the exercise ended up costing News Ltd $560 million, according to the Australian Financial Review, and forced the company to surrender extremely valuable shares in Fox Sports and Foxtel to the Packers. So that wasn't a great result either.

More recently, he tried to team up with James Packer to privatise Consolidated Media Holdings at $4.80 a share, with the global financial crisis well into its stride. He was fortunate enough to miss out, because the company's share price has halved since then.

Last but not least, Lachlan's private company Illyria bought 50 per cent of radio network DMG in November 2009 after "an exhaustive search for the right transaction". Murdoch told the media at the time it was set for "exemplary growth", but 15 months later, AdNews reported its ad revenues and audience had declined, despite growth in the market.

On the plus side, Lachlan is widely regarded as a really nice guy. "He is beyond polite", says a News Ltd insider who has known him since he was in his 20s. "He remembers people he worked with 15 years ago and the names of their wives, and he'll take time to talk to them."

He is also said to be the only one of the Murdoch children who "knows newspapers".

Yet some question how deep that knowledge runs. Although he was the publisher at Queensland Newspapers in his 20s, Lachlan never worked on the floor at the Courier Mail, never subbed, never did police rounds, never sold ads, and never got the training his father had.

On the other hand, he may still know more than News Ltd's new CEO Kim Williams, and some people inside the Holt Street bunker believe he will be asked to look over the boss's shoulder on Rupert's behalf. They also suggest Lachlan played a role in getting Kim the job.

Certainly, there was no love lost between Lachlan and John Hartigan, who was dumped by Rupert on his recent visit to the colony. "They're as off as you can be," says our News Ltd insider. "They were close in the 1990s but they definitely had a falling out."

We're told Lachlan kept using his Holt St office on Level 5's mahogany row long after he quit as an executive in 2005, and Harto eventually told him to move on.

We couldn't put that version of events to Lachlan, who declined to talk to The Power Index. But we know from long experience that blood flows thicker than water in the Murdoch empire. And in the famous words of The Sun editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, to the UK media inquiry, it certainly "sounds right", so we put it in.

This article first appeared on The Power Index on December 7. Republished with permission.

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