Elisabeth Murdoch: The first in line?
She says she doesn't want to take over News Corp, but her Edinburgh lecture revealed her as a very credible candidate
There was a ring of irony in the words of Elisabeth Murdoch on Thursday evening when she earnestly told delegates at the Edinburgh International Television Festival of her concerns over "self-serving relationships between the great institutional pillars of our society, be they police, politics, media or banking".
The words sounded rich from the hostess of a birthday party with a guest list that read like a Who's Who of Britain's ruling elite. Especially as Ms Murdoch's comments – given as part of a prestigious annual lecture – were directly related to the relationships exposed in the phone-hacking scandal which has dogged her father's News Corp media empire, for which she now works.
Her 40th birthday bash at the 22-bedroom Burford Priory home in the Cotswolds, where she lives with her husband, the influential public relations man Matthew Freud, was attended by David Cameron, George Osborne, Tony Blair and David Miliband. Also present was the former chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, and Mr Cameron's former Downing Street communications chief, Andy Coulson, both of whom are facing charges in relation to phone hacking – which they deny. Elisabeth's father Rupert and her brother James, both of whom have been questioned in Parliament over their handling of the hacking affair, also came to this heady gathering in 2008.
Such is their reputation as a power couple that when Ms Murdoch and Mr Freud convened another party at Burford in the summer of last year, cabinet ministers mixed with members of the Labour front bench and Ms Brooks and James Murdoch were again present as a jazz band played. Ms Murdoch was at the heart of the "Chipping Norton set", described by one guest as "the social wing of the Murdoch media empire", but within hours of that summer party news emerged of News International's alleged hacking of the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Almost overnight, the Chipping Norton set lost its cachet.
This week in Edinburgh, Ms Murdoch, 44, was working hard to distance herself from the despicable goings on at News International while building her own reputation as a global power player in the television and film industry. She was addressing an appreciative audience, for she is as popular with television executives as she apparently is with senior politicians, because of her fine networking skills and her considerable success since founding her Shine independent television business more than a decade ago.
Today Shine is one of the international flag-bearers for British TV, with a portfolio of production houses that includes the makers of hit shows such as MasterChef, Spooks and One Born Every Minute. In her lecture, Ms Murdoch reminisced wistfully of her early days in "a very small office" in a "tatty" part of west London. She spoke of her lofty ambition for the company as a force for creating a better world. "I set out to build Shine because I believe that television has the power to enliven and enrich people's lives – no matter where or who they are."
Ms Murdoch's relatives were apparently unhappy at her decision to abandon the family business in order to pursue this "act of wilful madness". But though the depiction of a Murdoch black sheep may have suited her narrative in Edinburgh, as she attempted to speak up for the independent television sector, it is somewhat at odds with the reality.
Rupert had been "sceptical" when Elisabeth, at the age of 26 and newly married to first husband Elkin Kwesi Pianim (with whom she had the first two of her four children), decided to quit her job with her father's FX channel in America. But dad still underwrote the deal by which she bought a pair of small Californian TV networks. When she gave those up, it was to move to Britain to work for her father once again, at his then fledgling Sky operation under the brash Antipodean Sam Chisholm. For a time, Ms Murdoch, educated at the elite Vassar College north of New York, roughed it by working alongside Scottish call centre workers and Yorkshire satellite installation teams. "I have to admit now that I could barely understand a single word of what anyone said unless I asked them to slow down," she said.
All these experiences, she maintains, helped to develop her sense of vocation. "The most important thing I learned over the course of my many varied jobs was that my true passion lay in the power of television to form human connections – this was my purpose."
She could have returned to America but, impressed with the creative talent in a British television sector that produced favourite shows such as Pop Idol, Queer as Folk and The Office, she decided to set up shop in London. Her instinct for popular television is borne out by the track record of Shine Group companies – including Shine TV, Kudos, Dragonfly, Princess Productions and the US-based Reveille – in generating internationally successful formats.
But when the time came to cash in on Shine Group (which has the logo of a golden egg), Ms Murdoch sold the business to her most dedicated financial supporter – her father. News Corp paid a hefty £415m for the group in April last year.
Keen to bond with colleagues in the independent sector, which she still feels part of, she claims this was not just an act of familial loyalty. "After various considerations, it became clear to me that News Corp was the best strategic home for us."
For the time being at least, Ms Murdoch's focus continues to be on Shine and she has declined to take her seat on the News Corp board. But the strength of her feeling for the larger family business is clear from the fact that she lobbied for James to stand back from his senior role and for Rebekah Brooks to resign. In Edinburgh, she talked emotionally about her father's achievements. "My dad had the vision, the will and the sense of purpose to challenge the old world order on behalf of 'the people'," she said. Many will struggle to identify these egalitarian ideals in the world's most all-powerful media mogul, or indeed with a woman who holds garden parties for prime ministers and secretaries of state.
But if Ms Murdoch does wish to take over from her 81-year-old father – who has indicated that he would like one of his children to succeed him – then she needs to make the case that she is a better candidate than her brothers James and Lachlan. Her male siblings have always been the ones mentioned as potential heirs and Ms Murdoch made several pointed references in Scotland to the lack of opportunities given to talented women in the television industry.
The fact that she was the first female to be invited to give the MacTaggart lecture in 17 years was largely due to her surname, she acknowledged. ("By God, you do love a Murdoch.") Love might not be the most apposite word. When James gave the lecture in 2009 his aggressive posturing towards the BBC won him few friends. Ms Murdoch subtly distanced herself from her brother by rejecting his notion that profit was the guarantor of independence. "Profit must be our servant, not our master," she said.
The comments came ahead of an important News Corp shareholder meeting in the autumn when the company's leadership structure will again come under scrutiny. Unlike her brother, Ms Murdoch was on a charm offensive. Reaching out to the women executives and the independent sector, the former New York schoolgirl, born in Sydney, described how she welled up at the successes of "our athletes" from Team GB and praised the British TV sector to which she has undoubtedly made a notable contribution.
She may have been hoping News Corp executives and shareholders were absorbing the message of someone who could one day become a softer face of the company's future. Or, after the demise of the Chipping Norton set, the ever-sociable Elisabeth Murdoch may have simply been seeking new friends.
A life in brief
Born: Elisabeth Murdoch, 22 August 1968, Sydney, Australia.
Family: Second daughter of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Married Matthew Freud, the PR executive, in 2001; they have two children.
Education: Attended the private all-girls Brearley school in New York, before enrolling at Vassar College.
Career: After a four-year stint at BSkyB, she resigned in 2001 to set up independent production company Shine Limited, which was acquired by News Corp for £415m in 2011.
She says: "I really harbour no ambition for the top job."
They say: "Like any potential grand master, she is playing the long, steady game in her ascent of the News Corp empire." Katherine Rushton, The Daily Telegraph
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