If anybody had any lurking doubts over Rupert Murdoch’s likely successor, the Dow Jones negotiations should erase them. As part of his attempt to show the Bancrofts that News Corporation, like Dow Jones, is a family company, he took his son James to Monday’s pivotal meeting.
It made sense to take someone from the next generation: the 76-year-old Mr Murdoch will not run the company forever. But James’s older brother Lachlan has been more closely involved with newspapers, as former publisher of the New York Post. He is also the only one of Mr Murdoch’s children still on the News Corp board, even though he quit his operational role in the company and returned to Australia two years ago. Unless he had some very pressing engagements, he would have been a more obvious choice.
In contrast, James, 34, left the News Corp board in 2003 to avoid conflicts of interest when he took the reins of BSkyB, the UK broadcaster. He has unfinished business there, including a move into broadband and an investment in rival ITV. Still, after years of flatlining, Sky’s share price is finally picking up, and there may now be bigger fish to fry.
James’s presence at the Bancroft meeting is certainly a sign that a return to the News Corp mother ship is likely at some stage. The challenge will be how to give James a role in News Corp that builds his credibility with US investors while avoiding a clash with other powerful executives such as Peter Chernin and Roger Ailes. Lachlan seems to have been caught in the crossfire while in New York and ended up resigning from his largely artificial role of deputy chief operating officer.
If Dow Jones is acquired, it would feasibly give James the platform for a return to the US. If not, he could well still return in another guise in the not too distant future to prepare for the top job at News Corp. US investors are grudgingly prepared to accept his father’s bold bets because of his excellent record in running a global media business. They will not have the same faith in a son whose record is both less convincing and little known.