James Murdoch Quits Family Media Empire News Corp After 'Disagreements'

Jul 31, 2020
Originally published on July 31, 2020 9:00 pm

James Murdoch resigned Friday from the board of directors of News Corp., the publishing arm of his family's media empire, in a very public sign of dissent that typically plays out behind closed doors.

The rupture capped a period of intensifying criticism of the coverage and views offered by the news empire created by his father Rupert Murdoch. Those include News Corp.'s publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post and a sister Murdoch company, the Fox News Channel.

Such criticism has come from outside observers, current news staffers for the Journal and Fox, and James himself.

On Friday, he released a terse letter to the board signaling a broad philosophical clash with his father and older brother though he did not divulge details.

"My resignation is due to disagreements over certain editorial content published by the Company's news outlets and certain other strategic decisions," the younger Murdoch said.

News Corp. also owns major newspapers in the U.K. and Australia as well as the book publisher HarperCollins.

James earlier served as a top News Corp. executive in the U.S., the U.K. and Asia; he more recently rose to be co-CEO of the broadcasting arm of the family's holdings, now called Fox Corp., which owns Fox News. (Both corporations are publicly traded but effectively controlled by Rupert Murdoch and his children.)

The elder Murdoch, Rupert, had set his sons against one another in a pitched battle over his succession — the inspiration for the cult hit HBO series, Succession. Lachlan, the older son, is a bit warmer, a bit less cerebral, and, like Rupert a lot more conservative than James. He prevailed. James left Fox Corp. after most of the family's entertainment holdings were sold to the Walt Disney Co.

James holds more liberal views on politics and climate change than either his father or his elder brother, Lachlan, who leads the company. James and his wife Kathryn have given generously to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and other Democrats. They have also contributed significant sums to environmental initiatives.

For years, James Murdoch has chafed at the more conservative views that find a home in the Journal's opinion pages, the Post and on the shows and news coverage offered by Fox News, also controlled by the Murdochs.

More recently, leading Fox personalities and the Journal editorial pages have been accused of harboring racist rhetoric during widespread public debate over racial justice. They have also been accused of discrediting credible scientific research and public health officials during a public health emergencies. Some of that criticism has emanated from the Journal's own newsroom.

The paper reassigned the column of a former editor-in-chief, Gerard Baker, from the news pages to the opinion side after journalists there faulted a column involving race and said he was violating the newsroom's policies for social media.

Similarly, a News Corp. employee in Australia was among those who accused the company of a "misinformation campaign" because its news outlets did not link devastating wildfires there to climate change. James and Kathryn Murdoch weighed in then, too, through a spokesperson. "They are particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial among the news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary," the spokesperson told the Daily Beast.

On Friday evening, Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch issued their own statement: "We're grateful to James for his many years of service to the company. We wish him the very best in his future endeavors."

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James Murdoch is severing ties with NewsCorp, the publishing half of his family's media empire. Rupert Murdoch's younger son stepped down from the company board today, citing disagreements over, quote, "certain editorial content" and, quote, "other strategic decisions." NewsCorp's titles include The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post and the publisher HarperCollins as well as media in the U.K. and Australia. To talk about this latest development, we're joined now by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hey, David.


CHANG: So do we even know what sorts of disagreements James Murdoch was referring to there?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, he sure didn't specify them, but it's not impossible to discern. James is more liberal than his father Rupert Murdoch - the founder, really, of this empire - and his brother Lachlan Murdoch, who - his older brother, who won a power struggle to lead the companies and to succeed their father even as Rupert's still hovering above it. You've seen these disputes come up within NewsCorp properties early this year during the wildfires this past winter in Australia. There was a lot of criticism of the coverage of the role climate change has played in the vast fires that Australia experienced.

CHANG: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: James felt the need to kind of push back from that. More recently, the Wall Street Journal opinion board has come under severe fire from external critics and some of its own journalists for its characterization of climate change more recently, characterization of health issues and responses to the pandemic and for characterization of Black Lives Matter protesters, in some ways allowing people to present them perhaps as less than patriotic and really giving the president a lot of defense - a number of moments, I think you could argue, in recent weeks and months that have contributed to James' effort to distance. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch just minutes ago put out a response shared with us that said, essentially, we wish James well in his new endeavors and appreciate his works. It is almost...


FOLKENFLIK: ...The kind of response you might give to a very junior employee.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, what role exactly has James Murdoch been playing at NewsCorp?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Rupert Murdoch enjoyed playing his sons against each other, almost ignoring the possibility that his daughter Elisabeth might take over someday. But James Murdoch, for a time, was a top executive over TV issues in Asia. He performed a similar role in the U.K. over Sky Broadcasting. He was the chairman of NewsCorp when there was a huge scandal that exploded over the tapping of phones - mobile phones that was done on behalf of their tabloids there. But as a TV executive in Europe, he succeeded and was well-regarded. And he also played a significant role here in the U.S. at corporate headquarters until he lost this power struggle to his brother.

CHANG: Well, beyond what seems to be a pretty bitter family feud going on here, what would you say is the broader significance of James Murdoch's departure?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's really hard not to read into this a larger condemnation of the Murdoch approach. And you've got to take Fox News into account here even though it's not technically part of NewsCorp. No outlet has done more to undermine questions of climate change science, to portray Black Lives Matter protesters unpatriotic, to question the patriotism of Democratic lawmakers. James Murdoch and his wife have contributed to environmental causes. They've contributed to Democratic causes, to the Biden campaign and other Democrats. And I think James Murdoch no longer wants to be associated with this approach...


FOLKENFLIK: ...As the general election nears.

CHANG: That is NPR's David Folkenflik. Thank you, David.


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