Rupert Murdoch promotes eldest son Lachlan Murdoch in succession

Rupert's eldest boy is now News Corp heir apparent, James is promoted, despite the hacking scandal, but where is Elisabeth?

Nine years after walking out of News Corp, Lachlan Murdoch is back in pole position as heir to his father Rupert's global media empire.

It was announced yesterday that the eldest son of the world's most famous media mogul would be returning to the fold as non-executive chairman of both News Corp and 21st Century Fox, the two pillars of the business. He will share the roles with his father.

The timing of the reshuffle caused surprise even among seasoned observers of the family politics of the Murdoch dynasty. Because not only is Lachlan's star back in the ascendant once again but his younger brother, James, 41, was also in line for a show of paternal approval. The former chief executive of BSkyB and chairman of News Group Newspapers, was appointed co-chief operating officer of both 21st Century Fox and News Corp.

It is only two years since James quit his career in Britain amid uproar over his handling of the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, which is the subject of current criminal proceedings at the Old Bailey where his former close colleague, Rebekah Brooks, is among those fighting charges in the dock.

There was conjecture that James's chances of running the family business had been irrevocably damaged by his torrid time at the British newspaper stable which publishes The Sun and The Times, but his father expressed delight at his performance in the broadcasting environment which he has always preferred.

"James has done an outstanding job driving our global television businesses and our shareholders, customers and colleagues will benefit greatly from his many talents," he said.

But it is Lachlan, 42, who is once again the heir apparent. As long ago as 1997, Rupert appeared to anoint him as his successor when he gave an interview for a book.

"Currently it is their consensus that Lachlan will take over," he said. "He will be the first among equals, but they will all have to prove themselves."

Elisabeth and James Murdoch at Cheltenham Festival in 2010 (Getty) Elisabeth and James Murdoch at Cheltenham Festival in 2010 (Getty)  

Whether the Murdoch children ever really reached the "consensus" that their father claimed to have witnessed is doubtful. They have inherited Rupert's competitive instincts and the rivalry between the two boys is particularly fierce.

As teenagers they would challenge each other to pull-up contests from the rafters of the family holiday home in Aspen, Colorado. Their mother told one visitor that the red stains on the wooden beams were an indication of the fierceness of the competition. The boys would continue until their hands bled, with James invariably the winner.

In the adult world of business he has usually been swinging from a lower bar than his sibling. Lachlan built his career in News Corp's Australian business while James cut his teeth working on the then ailing Asian satellite television business, Star.

Their father weighed their respective talents again in 2002.

"Lachlan, he has great leadership abilities, he has shown it in Australia. James has got great business abilities. He has done a fantastic job down there [in Asia]."

At that time, News Corp's press interests – so close to Rupert's heart – were of greater importance to the global business. James, his father noted, "has not really had the love or closeness of newspapers that Lachlan has. He has not had that same experience yet, but there is plenty of time".

Clearly the eldest boy was still out in front. But in words borne out by yesterday's announcement, Rupert added: "I think they are very close and they will get on extremely well.

"It [leadership of the business] will be more shared than it seems at the moment."

So much has happened to the Murdoch clan since.

His early analysis of the merits of his boys made no mention of his daughter, Elisabeth, who at 45 is the eldest of his children with Scottish journalist and second wife Anna Mann. Elisabeth had shunned the family business to set up her own television production company, Shine, in 2001. She quickly became a media power player in her own right.

Rupert's personal circumstances were also changing. Having divorced Anna in 1999, he married Wendi Deng, a junior executive at his Star TV channel. In the early part of the new century, the septuagenarian media businessman became a father again, to Grace and then to Chloe.

His world must have been shaken when, in 2009, a 33-year-old Lachlan decided that his future rested outside the family empire. The eldest son had been promoted to deputy chief operating officer of News Corp and was publisher of the New York Post.

"I would like especially to thank my father for all he has taught me in business and in life," he said as he announced that he was taking his family back to Australia. "It is now time for me to apply those lessons to the next phase of my career."

Although he crucially retained a position on the News Corp board, Lachlan appeared to have taken himself out of the line of succession. James, who excelled as chief executive of the BSkyB satellite television business, moved to centre stage. The month after Lachlan's departure, he delivered a rumbustious speech to the Edinburgh Television Festival, prompting seasoned attendees to recall his father's address to the same forum 20 years earlier.

But as the young Murdoch was making his presence felt, new evidence was emerging of the phone-hacking scandal which would destabilise News International, where he had arrived from BSkyB in 2007. After it was revealed that the News of the World had intercepted the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl, it was James who sat alongside his father in giving evidence about the scandal to a parliamentary committee on what Rupert claimed was "the most humble day of my life".

At that critical moment in Murdoch history in July 2011, Lachlan – who had been running the Australian Network Ten TV business – resurfaced at Rupert's shoulder in a show of support. Then Lis Murdoch, who had months earlier come home to the family business by selling Shine to News Corp for £415m, laid into James through the media, culminating with her own Edinburgh TV Festival lecture in 2012. Suddenly she, too, was in the frame to succeed her father.

Throughout the saga, Rupert's trusted lieutenant, Chase Carey, the News Corp chief operating officer, has remained at his side as the alternative to the family succession. Mr Carey is reported to have said he would not work with James.

Then Rupert's home life changed again. Last year he filed for divorce from Wendi, with rumours in recent weeks that she had had an affair with Tony Blair, emphatically denied by Mr Blair.

The media baron, who was 83 this month, appears to have refocused his thoughts on his older children. "Lachlan is a strategic and talented executive with a rich knowledge of our businesses," Rupert said.

He claimed that "James and Chase will continue to make a great team" and that, under the leadership of this happy quartet, the empire would go on to "continued growth for years to come".

Despite the words of a proud father, history suggests that the bloody pull-up contests are not finished yet.

Sibling rivals: The Murdochs

Elisabeth, 45

The eldest of Rupert's children from his second marriage, she worked for her father's business before starting her own TV company, Shine. She sold it to News Corp for £415m in 2011.

Lachlan, 42

Started in the Murdoch empire at 18, rising to chief operating officer, only to quit in 2009 for his own media career in Australia. Now non-executive co-chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox.

James, 41

Former chief executive of both BSkyB and News International, he moved to New York after the phone-hacking scandal. Elevated to co-chief operating officer at News Corp and 21st Century Fox.

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