Where is Lachlan Murdoch? Rupert's son takes a back seat

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The Independent Online

As his younger brother James prepares to assume control of the Murdoch media empire in Europe and Asia, and their sister Elisabeth cuts a swathe through the world of independent TV production, where is Lachlan Murdoch?

Just three years ago Lachlan, the elder scion of Rupert Murdoch, was in line to inherit the leadership of the Murdoch dynasty. After an apprenticeship running Mr Murdoch's Australian newspapers and magazines, he had joined his father in New York, and was chief operating officer of News Corporation. But the stresses of life with a young family in New York, and arguments with his father, made him decide to call it quits.

Having signed a two-year "non compete" deal with his father, Lachlan and his wife, Sarah, a former top model, returned to Australia and downsized to a 3m house near the rolling surf at Sydney's Bronte Beach. They seemed to be looking for a better work-life balance and there is not the slightest indication that they regret the decision.

At first it appeared that Lachlan would maintain the frantic pace of wheeling and dealing that marks his family. Within three days of flying home he had set up his own company, Illyria, but he also does charity work earlier this year he visited Papua New Guinea with the retired swimming star, Ian Thorpe, to help in the fight against Aids and is often seen at sporting and social occasions around Sydney. Sarah Murdoch has been more visible, particularly as patron of the Australian Breast Cancer Foundation, to which she devotes considerable energy, as well as caring for the couple's two young sons, and part-time work as a television presenter.

Few seem sure what Illyria does: "Frankly, I have no idea what his business is", John Hartigan, a former colleague and Lachlan's successor as head of News Corporation's Australian operation, told one of the group's own newspapers. Lachlan, meanwhile, will not be drawn on what caused the break with his father.

The most frequently aired stories are either that there was a disagreement about the appointment of Roger Ailes, the pugnacious and right-wing head of Fox News, to head the Fox Corporation, or a disagreement over Murdoch senior's desire to give his youngest daughters by his present wife, the Chinese Wendi Deng, equal treatment with the three children from his second marriage to Anna Torv, Lachlan's mother. He says only that he and Sarah came back because they wished to raise their children in Australia, not the US.

Nor will he talk publicly about his plans. The local media had him taking over all or part of the media empire recently sold to a private equity group by his friend, James Packer, scion of the late Kerry Packer, who, until his death a year ago, was Australias richest man. This has not happened, nor has Lachlan shown any interest in picking up other Australia media assets that have been up for sale.

It is also clear that while Lachlan and Rupert Murdoch have had their differences, the father and son bond remains strong. Lachlan remains on the board of News Corp, and when he got round to throwing a party for the launch of Illyria just over a year ago, Rupert flew in from New York for the occasion, which was also attended by a bevy of long-standing News executives. The senior Murdoch was asked if Lachlan would be returning to a high executive role at News Corporation. He replied: "I think he is very busy with his own projects right now anyway, I'm not going until they carry me out".

And Lachlan does appear busy. Last week he was in Bombay, taking a stake in a joint venture aimed at promoting talent across all forms of media in India. He has also invested in a Los Angeles company which creates low-cost TV commercials online, and a Western Australian DVD rental company. This seems to indicate he has inherited his father's passion for entertainment and sport, rather than The Times and the Wall Street Journal. And so far he appears to have steered clear of China.

Colin Chapman is former Executive Editor of The Australian