Wednesday 23 August 2017

Meet the Murdochs: the firestorm consuming the Murdoch empire continues

As the firestorm consuming the Murdoch empire continues, the Australian media magnate and his family brazen it out. Who exactly are they and how did they become one of the most powerful families in the world? The reviled and feared Rupert came from newspaper stock and fathered six children, who range from a Melbourne housewife to two small daughters in Manhattan, by his third wife, the formidable Wendi Deng, nearly 40 years his junior. Emily Hourican looks at the Murdoch dynasty and dissects his relationship with Rebekah Brooks who, according to Elizabeth Murdoch this week, 'f**ked the company'

Emily Hourican

Meet the Murdochs, a 21st- Century dynasty more powerful than any absolute monarchs of old, with an empire that stretches across the world and influence that reaches deep into millions of homes. At its heart is Rupert Murdoch, 80-year-old second generation success story, a man who inherited a newspaper and went on to found a supersize industry.

Surrounding him is a close-knit inner circle, intense and loyal, yet also aware that change is coming. These are Prudence, his eldest daughter, by his first marriage to Patricia Booker; Elisabeth, Lachlan and James, the grown-up children of his second wife, Anna Maria Torv; Wendi Deng, his third wife, with his two small daughters by her waiting in the wings, not yet players, but with their interests being jealously guarded by their mother, whose influence over Rupert is considerable.

The prize is not just money, although Murdoch personally is worth more than £4bn, but control of News Corporation, the second most powerful media conglomerate in the world (behind Walt Disney), with 51,000 employees and revenue of nearly $33bn. And succession is far from clear-cut, because, unusually for someone in his position, Murdoch has three strong contenders among his children, and at various times he has seemed to favour one or other as his heir.

The family has had its share of dysfunction and short-lived fallings-out, but ultimately Elisabeth, Lachlan and James -- less so Prudence, who has stayed outside the business dealings -- have all proved themselves capable, and eager, to emerge as strong leaders. Despite the odd tantrum, they are a fond lot, all phoning each other daily, often several times, and professing their affection with hugs and many "love yous".

It's the kind of carry-on that Wendi, raised in the usual, undemonstrative Chinese way, has had a hard time adapting to -- although probably not nearly as hard a time as they have had in accepting her as their step-mother. There are certainly rifts below the surface, and a pattern of alliances that will ultimately determine the lives and jobs of many, but when Murdoch flew into London last Monday, to try to contain some of the fall-out of the dire News of the World scandal, accompanied by James, he will certainly have planned to meet up with Elisabeth, married to PR man Matthew Freud, to try to regroup with some valuable family time.

Wendi, now 42, was just 31 when she first met Murdoch, and is more than 10 years younger than his eldest daughter. She was close on 40 years younger than Murdoch, who until then had seemed an averagely happy married man, committed if not entirely devoted to, his wife, Anna, to whom he had been married for 31 years, and who seemed to change her clothes almost hourly.

Murdoch-watchers -- of whom there are legions -- assumed her to be integral to his business success and that Murdoch, a man so regular in his patterns that he had the same thing for lunch every day -- grilled chicken, vegetables and a Diet Coke -- was settled into an established groove. However, behind the closed doors of their Beverly Hills mansion, Murdoch and Anna had long stopped speaking to each other. In fact, one former News Corp executive reckoned they hadn't exchanged a word in seven or eight months by the time he met Wendi.

No wonder he was so ready to be dazzled by a smart, vivacious, young woman, who showed herself both well-informed and charmingly interested in his business affairs. Whether Wendi is the calculating adventuress of her more unflattering descriptions, or the more guileless spirit of her own projection, the fact is that Murdoch is deeply smitten by her, and was apparently deeply hurt by a savage Wall Street Journal profile of her life before she met him.

In general, Murdoch is a man who loves gossip, loves publicity -- even where it's controversial, he embraces the benefits -- but on Wendi's behalf, he was upset and indignant. It's a match that has echoes of Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel -- his background of privilege and comfort contrasting with the limited opportunities of hers; limitations overcome by dint of relentless ambition; an ultimately unlikely alliance but one based on genuine love and affection.

That profile of Wendi has since disappeared from the Wall Street Journal (which Murdoch now owns), but can still be found on other sites. In essence, it gives a picture of an ambitious young Chinese girl, ready to use every means to advance herself and escape the circumstances of her birth.

From a fairly well-off Chinese family, her father was a factory director, and Wendi was the third girl. She was clever and a champion volleyball player, and by 16 had enrolled at medical school in Guangzhou, a southern Chinese city. She escaped from obscurity thanks to the interventions of a Los Angeles couple, the Cherrys, whom she met via their interpreter when they too were based in Guangzhou, where Jake Cherry, then 50, was helping the Chinese to build a factory. Joyce, his wife, began tutoring Wendi, a teenager at the time, in English and, after her return to the States -- Jake stayed behind in China to finish his project -- and at Jake's suggestion, she sponsored Wendi's bid for a student visa.

Wendi came to live with the Cherrys in 1988, but Joyce soon discovered flirty pictures of her taken by Jake and asked her to leave, which she did. Jake followed; he was, by his own admission, infatuated. He married Wendi in February 1990, by which time he was 53 and she was 21. However, within just four months she had started seeing someone else, closer to her in age, telling Cherry he was "a father concept to her, and it would never be anything else", as Jake later recalled, adding: "I loved that girl." The marriage officially lasted two years and seven months (she got a green card after two years), but Jake says they only lived together for about five months.

Whatever about the moralities of Wendi's romantic relationships, she is certainly smart, graduating from Yale in 1996, then going to work at News Corp's Star TV in Hong Kong, where she was, though very junior, an active and engaged team player.

With fluent English and Chinese, as well as an insider understanding of tricky Chinese culture and customs, she was a valuable employee, helping to build distribution of Star TV's music channel in China. In personality, she is an interesting mix of Chinese and Western values, too, at once vivacious and reserved. She can seem cold and silent, but is also capable of being charming and great fun.

In 1998, she was deputed to act as Murdoch's interpreter in Shanghai and Beijing, and by that summer, staff at Star TV were full of gossip about the romance between the pair, who were seen holding hands at dinner. Murdoch announced his separation from Anna promptly, and was very public about the seriousness of his intentions towards Wendi. His divorce from Anna came through in June 1999, and he married Wendi 17 days later.

Since then, Wendi has shelved her career officially, although she still has huge influence over News Corp's most important growth market, Asia. She works closely with stepson James, identifying potential Chinese investments for News Corp and giving the company a recognisable face.

She meets top-level politicians, including the then President Jiang Zemin, whose son is a close ally of hers, and business people, and is said to be a master at initiating smooth relations between Westerners and Chinese. And she has also put in the hours redecorating the couple's apartment, and, indeed, making over Murdoch himself, who has undergone the kind of change in appearance that often comes when a man marries a much younger wife.

Never known for her self-censorship, Wendi described it thus: "I quit work to work at home. To care for Rupert, slaving, don't get paid. Construction, chef and cooking and housecleaning." She is known to read all his emails -- he can't work a BlackBerry -- and take a close interest in all business decisions.

The end of Murdoch's second marriage was fraught and full of recriminations. His mother Dame Elisabeth, a formidable matriarch, refused to meet Wendi; Prudence was horrified at his involvement with such a young woman, while his three children by Anna were deeply torn, with their first loyalties going to their mother. In the end, they all showed up for the wedding, aboard the Morning Glory, Murdoch's 155-foot yacht, but largely sullenly and under duress.

Once Wendi's daughters Grace and Chloe were born, the situation became even more complicated. The terms of Murdoch's divorce settlement with Anna expressly alienated them from the family trust, but Wendi, naturally, was having none of that, insisting that he fix it so that her girls benefit equally. At the moment, Grace and Chloe have been admitted to the trust financially, but not politically; they -- or rather Wendi as regent -- have no voting power. But no one who knows Wendi -- or who was present after Murdoch made the announcement live on air at News Corp that he had changed the trust -- expects the situation to remain static.

Her opponents, though smiling, are so far implacable. Elisabeth is maybe the most interesting of the Murdoch children so far. Having first worked within News Corp, for Sky TV, she left to establish her own TV production company, Shine. Initially boosted by a deal with Sky, it has since gone on to prove itself time and again, becoming the biggest independent production company in the UK, with shows such as MasterChef and The Biggest Loser to its credit. Along with Matthew Freud, her second husband, Elisabeth is the compass point around which an entire section of London's media and political worlds orbit.

Blonde and soigne, with a slightly elfin face and effortless, relaxed glamour, Elisabeth is known to be straight-talking, funny, intelligent and hard-working, as well as very driven to prove herself outside the family firm. She and Matthew, despite full-time jobs and two children between them, as well as another two each by previous marriages, are busy hosts, throwing lavish parties in Notting Hill and Oxfordshire, where various heavyweights -- Peter Mandelson, David Cameron, Tony Blair, Rebekah Brooks and husband Charlie, rub shoulders with celebrities such as Bono and Chris Evans. There is no inner circle with better access and influence than theirs.

Elisabeth went to Vassar College, and had an averagely reckless youth, getting suspended from school for drinking, dating boys and rowing with her mother, who is carefully gracious, strict and conventional, keen to have the perfect show family as much as the perfect show house. Elisabeth was close to her father, in as much as that was possible, given his lengthy periods of absence, and he has clearly always been proud of her independent spirit.

In her senior year at Vassar, she fell in love with Elkin Kwesi Pianim, the son of a Ghanaian political prisoner, and, when it became clear that this was no short-lived infatuation, Murdoch gave him a job at Fox and the couple married. They had two children and moved to London, where Elisabeth worked with Freud on the re-brand of Sky and, to the huge delight of London media circles, the two began an affair. He was married at the time to Caroline Hutton, who later married Earl Spencer, and left her for Elisabeth, devastating Caroline in the process. "I was a neurotic mess, a basket case," she later said of that time, although the couple have since managed to establish a good relationship, if mainly for the sake of their children.

Elisabeth became pregnant almost immediately, and she and Matthew married about a year later. By that stage, she had rowed with her father over his refusal to give her the top job at Sky -- "[Elisabeth] has some things to work out," he told a reporter around that time. "She has to decide how many kids she is going to have, where she wants to live" -- but also his decision to leave her mother for Wendi. And so she branched out on her own, leaving the family firm, to considerable success.

Her relationship with her brothers James and Lachlan is said to be affectionate and teasing. Although James is part of her set and they meet frequently, he is in no way the kind of social lynchpin Elisabeth is and it seems to be Lachlan she is closer to.

James is the former rebel of the family, turned right-hand man. As a youth, he was considered the brightest of the bunch, and was always the one most likely to contradict or disregard his father. He bleached his hair blond, pierced his eyebrow -- seriously outrageous by the conservative standards of the family -- and toyed with the notion of becoming an archaeologist, before dropping out of Harvard and going full-time into Rawkus Records, a hip-hop label he started in college, which signed a young Eminem in the early days.

But then his rebellion ran aground, and eventually he sold the label to "Pops" and went to work for him in the music and tech division. From there, and despite many -- practically incessant -- boardroom disagreements with his father, he has been steadily promoted to his current position as chairman of News International. These days, he cuts a slightly chilling figure, with his close-cropped hair, steel-rimmed spectacles and barely suppressed nervous irritation. Watching him in action in London last week, he was clearly a man with his back against the wall, slightly baffled as to how he came to be there.

Lachlan was the original next-in-line, the eldest son, which has some magic for Rupert, and was born gifted with considerable good looks and charm, but his affable, easy-going nature, though making him a sought-after companion within the family, is maybe unsuited to cutting it in the empire. In 2005, he left News Corp, to pursue interests in Australia, where he and his wife, model Sarah O'Hare, who has appeared in Friends and hosted Australia's Next Top Model, are darlings of the social diaries. Unlike Elisabeth, whose socialising is almost strategic, Lachlan and Sarah seem content to remain decorative.

Any other 80-year-old billionaire flying into the storm that awaited Rupert Murdoch in London last week would undoubtedly be planning a speedy exit from the scene of the disaster -- a big retirement party followed by some years' yacht-hopping, but such is Murdoch's white-knuckle commitment to his notions of a family dynasty, that the News of the World scandal could end by delaying his departure into obscurity.

Rupert wants News Corp to go to one of his children. This has been his life's mission. But his children look suddenly unequal to the task.

Shareholders are edgy, and Murdoch, who thought the matter settled, may now have to start the selection process all over again. In the meantime, the family will do what the Murdochs have always done -- bury their differences and present a united front. They will retreat into their unimaginably privileged world, secure, impenetrable in their wealth and position, and they will come out fighting.

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