Lachlan Murdoch , Rupert and James Murdoch
Lachlan, Rupert and James Murdoch

Lachlan and especially James Murdoch have won. The Murdoch clan’s empires of 21st Century Fox and News Corp will never be the same again.

Roger Ailes, the man who made the Murdochs significantly richer by building the right-wing money machine known as Fox News, has been forced out of the company, with US$40 million to soften the blow. Change is coming to the Murdoch empire. Even the Australian operations will feel the new, less strident agenda.

The departure terms for Ailes — three weeks after former Fox host Gretchen Carlson raised her claims of career discrimination and sexual harassment by Ailes — proved the accuracy of Drudge Report speculation on the payout. Ailes goes home with $40 million, the New York Times is reporting today. Ailes will remain a consultant to Rupert Murdoch, squashing talk he may go it alone with some of Fox News’ loyal stars.

Ailes’ goose was cooked when Fox News’ brightest star Megyn Kelly joined Carlson in making her own sexual harassment claims. That brought forward a string of other women with similar stories, both from Fox News and before its formation in 1996. 

As a victory for the younger Murdochs, it is comprehensive. Lachlan has revenged himself on Ailes for the slight of ignoring him in 2005 and forcing the new co-chair of Fox to leave the embrace of the company and return to Australia. And James, in forcing out the 76-year-old dinosaur, has sent a message to younger and female staff and viewers that their complaints and views will now be taken seriously.

[Lachlan’s revenge as Ailes leaves Fox News — with a $40m payout]

Together the sons are pushing the two companies of the Murdoch empire towards a younger demographic. The retirement of another dinosaur in Col Allan, long-time New York Post editor, earlier this year is in the same vein and now seen as the work of Lachlan. The former head of 20th Century Fox Film, Jim Gianopulos, stepped down a couple of months ago after 20 years and was replaced by a younger female veteran from studio management; that’s apparently the work of James. 

21st Century Fox announced Ailes’ resignation in a statement just after trading closed on Wall Street at 6am Sydney time. Rupert Murdoch was typically effusive, warbling about how Ailes took on elites (and ignoring the fact he has been a powerful elite himself for decades): 

“Roger Ailes has made a remarkable contribution to our company and our country. Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years. It is always difficult to create a channel or a publication from the ground up and against seemingly entrenched monopolies … His grasp of policy and his ability to make profoundly important issues accessible to a broader audience stand in stark contrast to the self-serving elitism that characterizes far too much of the media.”

The joint statement from Lachlan and James, though, contained a direct slap at Ailes (and perhaps their father):

“We are enormously proud of their accomplishments. For them, as well as for our colleagues across our entire organization, we continue our commitment to maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect. We take seriously our responsibility to uphold these traditional, long-standing values of our company.”

If Lachlan and James were to run the company as chair and CEO in coming years they had to assert their authority and control over Fox News. What is significant is that for much of the past week Rupert Murdoch has been gadding about on the French Riviera with wife Jerry Hall, dealing with his sons (and presumably Ailes) by telephone. He’s left the day-to-day stuff to the heirs.

Rupert will settle nerves at Fox News and look for a new head. Jesse Angelo, publisher of the Post (and the man who replaced Col Allan), is a big tip — he’s the younger generation and a childhood friend of Lachlan’s. But there are others (watch for a clean-out of people Ailes installed as his reports).

The coverage won’t change much in the short term; perhaps the cheerleading for Donald Trump’s campaign will be less enthusiastic than Ailes would have demanded. But watch for a slow softening of the hardline right-wing agenda at Fox News, and at some of the Murdoch outlets in other countries, especially in the United Kingdom and Australia where the future of Foxtel and Fox Sports will be resolved in the next year.

James and Lachlan Murdoch don’t necessarily share their ageing father’s views (except on the need to protect the empire and the family). That is why Ailes had to go — he was a threat, perhaps the biggest, to the continuing Murdoch control and management of 21 Century Fox and News Corp. There was no backing down for the sons. Rupert was forced to sacrifice the man who made him and his family wealthy and one of the most powerful people in America.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey