Profile: Lachlan Murdoch; Heir to the Sun and Sky

A year out of college and Rupert's son is on the road to global power, says Robert Milliken
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ACCORDING to a (probably apocryphal) story doing the rounds in the newspaper business, Rupert Murdoch recently asked his eldest son, Lachlan, what he wanted for his birthday - the Times or the New York Post. Lachlan is said to have replied: "Don't worry, Dad, I just want a cowboy outfit." To learn his father's business, Lachlan, 23, has settled for the Courier-Mail of Brisbane, tucked away in a far-flung outpost of Rupert Murdoch's global empire.

That is where he might have stayed in relative obscurity had his father last month not launched a spectacular raid on the rugby league teams of Australia, England and New Zealand. His aim was to form a "super league" of teams who would be screened exclusively on his satellite television networks in Europe and Asia. British MPs from Northern constituencies were furious that, as one put it, a leading sport could be "bought lock, stock and barrel by a media conglomerate".

Rupert decided that young Lachlan should lead the super league raid, alongside Ken Cowley, chief executive of Murdoch operations in Australia. It brought the Murdochs into direct conflict with a rival dynasty. Kerry Packer holds the television rights to the established league game in Australia. The Murdochs threatened to snatch away one of the highlights of Packer's Channel Nine, which has become the leading commercial network in Australia. Packer put his 28-year-old son, James, in charge of the defensive operation. It was a gladiatorial contest. At the end of each day, James and his father conducted a council of war at their family compound in Sydney's exclusive harbour-side district of Bellevue Hill. At the Murdoch corporate headquarters across town, Lachlan and Ken Cowley negotiated with players late into the night, offering them hundreds of thousands of dollars each to move across. Then Lachlan would wait up until the small hours to ring his father in Los Angeles and report progress.

Is Lachlan, then, being groomed as successor, to take News Corporation, the world's most sprawling media empire, into the next generation? Rupert Murdoch is 64 and unlikely ever to retire. But he must be acutely conscious that his own father, Sir Keith, died suddenly at 67. His strategy is to keep News Corporation and his estimated personal wealth of £1.7bn in his children's hands after he dies. He is already buying out other family members, his three sisters and their children.

The Queensland appointment is surely significant. When Sir Keith died in 1952, his will declared that the Courier-Mail, which he had bought 19 years earlier, should serve as the springboard for his son to spend "a useful, altruistic and full life in newspaper and broadcasting activities". As it happened, the trustees of Sir Keith's estate sold the paper to pay death duties and his son did not get his hands on it for another 35 years, when he made a deal that gave him control of 70 per cent of Australia's metropolitan newspapers. Queensland Newspapers, where Lachlan is general manager, is no backwater: it holds half the Murdoch family shares in News Corporation. The Courier-Mail is the most profitable of Murdoch's Australian newspapers, and will become more so when Lachlan has completed a Wapping- style transformation of operations. If the young man is to prove his worth, he could not have been placed in a more pivotal position to do so.

There are other straws in the wind. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert's octogenarian mother, says: "Lachlan is idealistic, thoughtful and has strong self-discipline. He's a great hope for the family." And last week, as News Corporation announced a big quarterly profit increase, Lachlan was on a corporate raid in New Zealand, this time with John Cowley, brother of Ken.

If a young man wants global power, advised David Mellor, the former Heritage Minister, in a recent television programme, he should go into the media, not politics, and become a young Rupert Murdoch. Accident of birth has put Lachlan Murdoch in exactly that position. No medieval prince could ever have looked forward to an inheritance of such power and fame.

LACHLAN Keith Murdoch was born in September 1971 in Britain, soon after his father had exploded on to Fleet Street by taking over the News of the World and the Sun. His elder sister, Elisabeth, had been born in Australia before their parents moved to Britain, and a brother, James, came two years after Lachlan. The children led peripatetic lives as their father relentlessly prowled the globe for media properties.

By the time Lachlan was ready for his secondary education, the family had moved to New York where he went to Trinity School, one of the city's most prestigious institutions, and then to Princeton University, from which he graduated early last year with a degree in philosophy. In effect, like his brother and sister, he grew up as an American.

But there were frequent visits to Australia and to family gatherings, most of which still revolve around Dame Elisabeth. During one school break, Lachlan was sent from New York to work as a jackaroo, or farm-hand, on Boonoke, a family property in outback New South Wales. "Even at that age," recalls Bob Sefton, the manager, "Lachie was like his dad. He was always asking questions. He wanted to know how everything worked. We paid him a jackaroo's wage of A$150 (£75) a week, which he was saving towards buying a motorbike back in the States. Every night he'd want to know the latest exchange rate, and was dismayed to find it was falling."

Crash courses followed in newspaper production, first as a reporter at Murdoch's San Antonio Express-News, then at the newspapers in Wapping, east London. During one spell of work experience, a Times man was asked to take care of him. He took him to the pub. Within ten minutes, the news desk called: "For God's sake, whatever you do, don't get him pissed." They need not have worried. "The lad drank orange juice," recalls the former Times man.

He has clearly inherited his father's famous charm. Almost anybody who has met him speaks highly of his courtesy and the trouble he takes to get on with people. Women are struck by his good looks, which he appears to have inherited from his mother, herself a former journalist. And the parallels with Rupert keep cropping up. "He has very much his father's brain," said one journalist. "All he talked about was figures."

He is certainly no playboy - behind many of the anecdotes, there are hints that this is a reserved, even slightly dull, young man. There are no signs of the left-wing views that his father adopted at the same age, if only briefly. Nor are there any hints of sensation about his private life. While James Packer has made it into the gossip columns because of his affair with Jennifer Flavin, Sylvester Stallone's former girlfriend, Lachlan Murdoch has recently announced his engagement to Kate Harbin, an American who works as a consultant with McKinsey & Co in New York. In his only interview so far, in the Bulletin, a Packer-owned magazine, he said: "I think that because of my father - or my relationship with him - the thing I have to do is to be extra cautious and to prove myself. I have to prove I'm serious." He no longer indulges his two favourite pursuits - rock climbing and riding his Kawasaki motorcycle.

IF Lachlan Murdoch is indeed the heir to his father's empire, the concentration on newspaper training might seem a curious one. The inheritance is, after all, mainly electronic. But an affection for newspapers seems to run in the family. Echoing his father again, Lachlan insists: "The foundation of the business is in newspapers and it will continue to be in newspapers for a long time to come ... I think there are a lot of people who wish they were reading newspapers but don't have time for it. Newspapers have to address that problem."

So can anything stand in his way? One possibility is his sister, Elisabeth, who owns with her husband two Californian stations affiliated to Rupert Murdoch's American television network, Fox. She is bright and ambitious. (Their brother, James, still at Harvard, is apparently not so keen on moving into the business.)

There is another, more fundamental obstacle. Can Murdoch's forever expanding empire, the creation of one man, survive under anyone else? The Murdoch family's interest in News Corporation has slipped to 31 per cent in recent years; Murdoch does not want it to fall further. Peter Cox, a Sydney media analyst, points out that, because Rupert Murdoch has so boldly used borrowing to expand, News Corporation remains heavily dependent on bankers' confidence. He doubts that investors would allow the succession to pass automatically to someone so young. "Rupert has to hang on for another 15 years and hope to God that his son works out." Otherwise, shareholders would want someone else to step in, probably an American. "There is still," adds Cox, "only one Rupert Murdoch in the world."