‘Lachlan Murdoch is a Hamlet figure’: Michael Wolff unpicks the real-life succession drama – The Guardian US

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The author has returned to the Murdoch empire for his latest book, after a bestselling trilogy on Trump. He discusses power, politics, the media and why a person can be a moron and a genius
Immediately before Michael Wolff published The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire, the emperor himself, driver of its expansion and its bitter divisions, stepped aside. Last week, Rupert Murdoch announced he was anointing his eldest son, Lachlan, as his successor, which per Wolff’s narrative will have been a bitter blow to everyone, including Lachlan.
Wolff’s latest book joins an oeuvre that is remarkable for its access: in 2008, he wrote a biography of Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, for which the mogul gave him 50 hours of interviews. Never mind that it’s the longest Murdoch has ever spoken to a journalist, it’s probably the longest he’s ever spoken to a friend. “We really got along. He’s inexhaustible on the subject of the media, and I, too, am inexhaustible on that subject. We had a very good time,” says Wolff. So long as they were doing business or gossip, that is. “He’s very hard to talk to personally; he can’t reflect on his own past and his own experience. He can talk about his family; he was weirdly transparent about his children. But about himself, what he might be feeling, no.”
Ten years later, Wolff, who is now 70, produced what will probably be his defining work, the trilogy about Donald Trump’s White House: Fire and Fury, Siege and Landslide. The books distilled qualities evident since Wolff’s first piece in the New York Times Magazine ran in 1974: an exquisite eye for detail and mischief, expert pacing and a peculiar ability to get people to talk to him, even if they know – as by now they must – that he’s going to stitch them up like kippers. “I’m always surprised,” he says. “I have no real explanation except that people like to talk about themselves. I think of myself as a writer, not a journalist, and what does that mean? It means I’m not there to challenge anybody, I’m there to see what the experience is, and to try to put that on paper. I try to fade into the background.”
Anyway, back to Lachlan, who takes over the company “theoretically”, Wolff tells me, over video call from an austere-looking room in Manhattan. He’s “a Hamlet figure. Does he want this job? I think many people who have worked with him and his siblings would say, in an ideal world, probably not.”
Could Murdoch have stepped aside because of Wolff’s warts-and-all exposé? Does that sound like the kind of thing he would do? “From my point of view, I would say it’s not a coincidence,” Wolff says, picking his words judiciously, like a seasoned, picky traveller at a hotel buffet. “Obviously I speak to people inside the empire on a constant basis, and the feeling is that the book was a bus headed right at them. It’s a fairly vivid description of the problems of a 92-year-old running a public company, and he runs two significant public companies.” These are, of course, the Fox Corporation and News Corp, which, in fact, represent the rump of Murdoch’s empire, after the $71bn (£58bn) sale of 21st Century Fox – the film and television arms of the corporation – to Disney in 2019. But nevertheless that rump continues to change the shape of politics in the US and elsewhere. “The book created the environment where he was going to have to do more explaining than he wanted to do.”
Just how many warts are there in Wolff’s book, though? The story it describes is, at root, quite sad: Murdoch wanted a rolling news channel and created Fox News in 1996, putting it under the control of the late Roger Ailes, for a number of reasons of which managing, controlling, manipulating and tamping down Murdoch’s warring sons were not the least. Murdoch was never even that into TV news, apparently, preferring print, but what he’d made ultimately delivered a new politics, culminating in Trump, whom Murdoch loathed.
But Disney bought all the important bits of the business, leaving Murdoch with the thing he hated: Fox News (give or take what’s still a considerable newspaper empire; Wolff is not that interested in print, at least for the purposes of this book). So now Murdoch can’t get rid of Fox, because it’s all he has, and he can’t even change it, because it’s just making too much money.
You’d call it Mephistophelean, except Murdoch didn’t sell his soul, he sold something he actually cared about – his news credentials. My sympathy for him would be greater if the devil only had plans for the Murdochs, but these new politics affect us all. If I had one criticism of Wolff’s overarching analysis, it’s that if you consider the UK for five seconds, it falls apart: Murdoch was never riding the tiger of Fox News here, he was tending the Sun and, for many years, the News of the World, his babies, and he still managed the slow-motion transformation of our politics, to a toxic sink where immigrants are to blame for everything and a blond sociopath could sweep into power on buffoonery. But I guess we just have to get used to our new place in the world, where nobody considers us for five seconds. And if I’m complaining, imagine what Australians have to say about their media’s virtual omission from the Murdoch story – they’ve been dealing with this family for a century.
“There’s another theory inside the company,” Wolff says, about the abdication: “This is a Murdoch ruse. He doesn’t want to testify in the Smartmatic case.” Fox Corporation is being sued for $2.7bn for spreading the conspiracy theory that voting machines were rigged in the 2020 election; a similar case brought by Dominion resulted in an astronomical payout by Fox. Wolff reveals in the book that Murdoch thought the suit would cost $50m. By the time the firm walked away this April, it had cost $787.5m.
Obviously it’s hard to even consider the Murdochs now but through the lens of Succession. Which one’s meant to be Kendall again, and did he win? “The superstructure of Succession takes a lot from the Murdoch story,” Wolff says. “But the Murdochs really don’t figure into any of the characters in an exact way. In no way. They aren’t those people. Murdoch, in the flesh, is incredibly conflict averse. Never engages. Very courtly. Very polite. In person, not in the least bit bullying or demanding or even functionally a know-it-all.” (According to The Fall, James Murdoch is “a prick”. I liked the brevity.)
Wolff doesn’t fawn in front of big money and even expresses sympathy for the Murdoch heirs, who each got $2bn from the Disney deal. “When you have $2bn, that money owns you. You have to go to work for it. It essentially creates a full-time job which you very well may not want but you would be stuck with.” But he does surrender to its logic. “Theoretically,” Wolff says, “Rupert Murdoch didn’t have to go along with this. He could have said, ‘No, I’m closing Fox down. Or I’m going to let James run it.’ But temperamentally, after 70 years in this business, I think that it was beyond expectations for him to give up this incredibly powerful profit machine. Fox News has made more money than any other news business ever. And I’m sure he goes to bed at night thinking, ‘That’s something I’ve accomplished.’”
Between that and Wolff’s fascination with the players at Fox News, first Ailes – with whom he had an affectionate lunching friendship – then Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, as well as sundry female anchors with fun-sounding drink and nymphomania problems, he emerges with an engaging but vexingly neutral narrative. “I’m not particularly interested in politics,” he says. “I think that the real issues are about people’s personal motivations. I think even if that’s in a political setting, which Fox is clearly, in fact what’s pushing these characters forward is not politics, it’s something else, it’s something a lot more basic.”
So, ratings, yes? “What’s the overarching motivation of people on television? It’s to stay on television. People who have been on television can’t live with not being on television. Their lives diminish. They become incredibly bitter and angry.” Yes, but do I really care whether or not Carlson is patting his jowls every night and staring down screen mortality? Or is it more important that he actively created the environment for overturning Roe v Wade, because that’s the bit of his life that intersects others’?
When you’re talking to Wolff, you have to turn down the bit of your brain that raises objections like that, just as he turns down that bit of his own brain.
He was telling me about Ailes, the architect of Fox, always vehemently opposed by both James and Lachlan Murdoch (the only thing they could ever agree on), who was brought down by sexual harassment accusations in 2016 and died the next year. Ailes created the behemoth by recognising that some viewers didn’t want progress; they wanted to stay in 1965. “He made a business of the left-behinds. That’s interesting, from a business standpoint, because the left-behinds previously had no commercial use. He figured out how these people could be monetised, and that changed everything.” Once they’d been monetised, they were a calculable entity, looking for a political home.
Ailes had another interesting mantra: it’s not enough to make conservatives happy; you have to make liberals angry. Which, again, feels like an important insight, but Wolff’s response to “alt-right” provocation feels … well, you decide: “I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed every moment I ever spent with Roger. You know, he had these political views that were reprehensible. He would get on these rants and you knew that if you let him go all the way down, at the end of the day the Jews would be killed. You would have to veer him off if you didn’t want to hear that. I remember, once, he was on a rant, and I interrupted him to ask about his son. His son was born when he was 60. I myself at that age was considering having another child. So we had this lovely conversation which precluded having to talk about some ugly politics.”
Did more baby Wolffs result from this conversation? “No, my wife persuaded me to have a baby when I was 60, but he helped. Not only has it not been a disaster, then I had another after that.” (This family is with his second wife, the 43-year-old journalist Victoria Floethe. He has three children with his first wife, the lawyer Alison Anthoine.) And what is the consequence, the hangover, from checking your moral compass at the cloakroom while you dodge antisemitic necropolitics over linguine?
Wolff’s adventures in Trumpland landed him in hot water from all quarters: the president tried and failed to block publication; numerous sources complained about Wolff’s reporting of off-the-record conversations, or the conversation simply not unfolding the way they remembered it; and then there were people lodging my kind of objection, which is essentially, “Come on, this isn’t a game.” But now the dust has settled, Trump is “no longer upset. I’ve been to Mar-a-Lago to have dinner with him and Melania. He calls me from time to time. And it’s as though we are – actually, I don’t know what we are. We’re friends? That can’t possibly be. But we have some relationship.”
He quotes a lot of people as thinking Trump is a moron, but does he think Trump is a moron? “I certainly think he’s unlike anyone that I or, I would go so far as to say, any of us have had any experience with. Sometimes he can certainly sound like a moron. He can sound as if he knows literally nothing about anything. But on the other hand, obviously he does know something. He has keen instincts. Obviously on some level he’s a genius. So I guess you can be a moron and a genius.”
How would Wolff write himself; what’s his motivation? “It’s partly that I’m a storyteller. But I would also say that I’ve spent my time trying to get rich. On quite a number of occasions I’ve set out to get rich beyond my wildest dreams and never succeeded. It makes me interested in people who have. Most journalists have accepted the fact that riches are not for them. But I never accepted that.”
I then ask how he’d feel if Trump gained a second term in 2024, and he says he’d feel like he had to get back to work. Any anxieties about the future of democracy at all? “I feel that American democracy is pretty damn strong, that it can probably withstand Donald Trump. It can withstand Fox News. America survives, it grows, it prospers. Could that end? I guess it could. Would we know it ends when it ends, or would we only know that in hindsight?”
“I’m a fundamentally optimistic person, who keeps having children,” he says. Maddening. A lot of fun. Still maddening.
The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire by Michael Wolff is published by The Bridge Street Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


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