Rupert Murdoch's six-decade long iron grip on his media empire appears to be slipping.

The 86-year-old was famous for surprising managers from far-flung outposts of his companies by questioning them closely about a line or two in the accounts of their operations.

Before the internet, he used to have the front pages and editorials of all of the newspapers he owned around the world faxed to him, wherever he was, so he could stay on top of what his editors were doing.

But there are signs Murdoch's tight control of his empire could be slipping, throwing into doubt the long-held succession plans he has for his sons James and Lachlan.


News broke a few days ago that long-time shareholder supporter Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal had sold his stake in Murdoch's 21st Century Fox, throwing into question how much control Murdoch will be able to exert in the future.

Murdoch runs Fox as if it's a family-owned grocery store, doing pretty much whatever he wants, regardless of the wishes of other shareholders.

How else to explain how in their early 20s his sons Lachlan and James both took the sort of very senior roles at the newspaper and entertainment conglomerate that would usually go to executives with decades of media experience.

Yet he is able to exercise this control over Fox despite only owning 14 per cent of the shares.

It's a result of the two-class share structure Murdoch established just for this reason. All Fox shares have the same equity value, but the B Class of shares have voting rights and A Class don't. Thus despite Murdoch's small shareholding, he controls 39 per cent of the votes.

Prince Alwaleed, the billionaire investor who was arrested the weekend before last in a Saudi anti-corruption crackdown, owned about 5 per cent of the voting shares and always voted with the Murdochs.

The loss of the Saudi Prince's votes means Murdoch is more vulnerable to those non-voting shareholders who are agitating for an end to the two-class structure.

For the moment, Murdoch has enough allies among the B class shareholders to stave off any challenge to the share structure at the Fox annual meeting in Los Angeles this Wednesday.


But he appears to have seen the writing on the wall and is deliberately shrinking his empire to ensure his family can retain control of what remains.

It looks as if he is planning to combine the broadcast and the print arms of his empire into one. According to reports Murdoch is planning to sell the movie and TV production arm of Fox and leave it as mainly a sports and news broadcaster.

He will then merge it with News Corp, the New York-headquartered newspaper arm.
In the process, Murdoch would also sell off his 39 per cent stake in Britain's pay TV operator Sky, apparently giving up on his ambition to buy the entire business.

The result would be a much smaller company, but one completely owned by the family.
This would be a huge turnaround for Murdoch, who has worked to expand his companies since he was 21 and inherited what was left of his father's media business - an afternoon newspaper in Adelaide.

The result was one of the biggest media and entertainment empires in the world, and one that Murdoch looked set to one day hand on to his sons.

But any merger of the newspaper and broadcast arms of the empire would throw into doubt the succession plans. With two companies, each son could have had one to himself when Murdoch senior was no longer around for whatever reason.

There is also the fact that Murdoch's companies have been walloped by the internet. It's not just newspapers that have been hit. Traditional broadcasters and pay TV network are shedding viewers and advertising revenue to the likes of Facebook, Google and Netflix.

The decline of Murdoch's control has been predicted before, but what makes it different this time is that some of Murdoch's own people are saying it.

"The Murdoch control looks vulnerable," wrote Terry McCrann, a business columnist with Murdoch's Melbourne Herald Sun.

This matters because McCrann has worked for Murdoch for three decades and is well-informed about the goings on inside the company. Importantly, a column like this would not have appeared without approval from the very highest level.

In the absence of any official word from the 21st Century Fox, we can consider the musings of McCrann and other well-placed Murdoch journalists around the world as the company word.

Some of his assertions are extraordinarily frank.

He writes there is no synergistic benefit in a re-merger of Fox and News Corp.

"The only logic in a re-merger would be in aggregating the Murdoch holding in the two companies into a bigger, more assuredly controlling, stake in one. But it would be at the cost of ending up with a camel of a company."

Murdoch's air of invincibility is slipping.