As we sat down to lunch in my garden, I mentioned to James Murdoch that I've been reading a lot of classical plays lately and a popular theme is the rancorous battle between two brothers over a kingdom.
"But these plays end in cannibalism and civil war, so at least your family hasn't gone there yet," I said brightly.
Above his mask and behind his Kingsman glasses, Murdoch's brown eyes widened with alarm.
The issue of dynastic succession — the real one and the one in "Succession," the Emmy-winning HBO drama that is inspired by the Murdochs — was definitely on the menu, along with fried calamari.
Murdoch, 47, resigned from the board of News Corp this summer with an elliptical statement, saying he was leaving "due to disagreements over certain editorial content published by the Company's news outlets and certain other strategic decisions."
Rupert Murdoch's youngest child with his second wife, Anna, is loath to get into the epic family drama that found its climax in the 15 months between pushing a deal to sell 21st Century Fox to Disney and ankling the family business he once hoped to lead.
But in his briskly analytical way, over lunch and a subsequent phone call, he tried to explain why he "pulled the rip cord," as he put it, after deepening estrangement with his father and brother and growing discomfort over the toxicity of Fox News and other conservative News Corp properties.
"I reached the conclusion that you can venerate a contest of ideas, if you will, and we all do and that's important," he told me. "But it shouldn't be in a way that hides agendas. A contest of ideas shouldn't be used to legitimise disinformation. And I think it's often taken advantage of. And I think at great news organisations, the mission really should be to introduce fact to disperse doubt — not to sow doubt to obscure fact, if you will.
"And I just felt increasingly uncomfortable with my position on the board having some disagreements over how certain decisions are being made. So it was actually not that hard a decision to remove myself and have a kind of cleaner slate."
The younger Murdoch's disgust had flashed publicly before on a few occasions: He showed the disdain for Roger Ailes he shared with his more conservative, older brother, Lachlan, 49.
In 2017, President Donald Trump's praise for white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, as "very fine people" spurred James Murdoch to give $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League. In an email to friends obtained by The New York Times, Murdoch rebuked Trump and wrote: "I can't even believe I have to write this: standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis. Or Klansmen, or terrorists." The email stood in sharp relief, given Fox News' fetid racism-by-night routine.
In January, James and his wife, Kathryn, expressed "frustration" about News Corp's peddling of climate change denialism in the face of apocalyptic Australian wildfires that incinerated 46 million acres. Fox News nighttime anchors picked up a false storyline about arson from The Australian, a Murdoch-owned newspaper in Oz.
Once, James Murdoch thought he could reshape Fox News. But in the summer of 2016, he failed to get his father to sign off on replacing Roger Ailes — embroiled in the sexual harassment scandals at Fox News — with David Rhodes, the former president of CBS News.
When Rupert, the chairman of the company, decided to run the network himself, the writing was on the wall. Rupert and Trump stepped up their dangerous tango, and James, those who know him say, eventually decided it was time to get out of his Faustian deal.
At times, over the years, it looked as if James and Kathryn might be bringing around Rupert Murdoch on climate change. But that was not to be, either.
"We've been arguing about politics since I was a teenager," James told me.
So it wasn't possible to change News Corp from the inside?
"I think there's only so much you can do if you're not an executive, you're on the board, you're quite removed from a lot of the day-to-day decisions, obviously," he said. "And if you're uncomfortable with those decisions, you have to take stock of whether or not you want to be associated and can you change it or not. I decided that I could be much more effective outside."
'His better angels'
James Murdoch was on top for long enough to get more than his share of headlines about the rising son of the Sun King. But then, while he was overseeing the operation in London, Rupert's lieutenant and spiritual daughter, Rebekah Brooks, and her former deputy and lover, Andy Coulson, got ensnared in the British phone hacking scandal. (Brooks was acquitted and Coulson convicted in the case that followed).
The slime splashed on the son who had been seen as a clean-as-a-whistle smarty-pants. British regulators faulted James for not stopping the hacking, despite his claim that he didn't read an entire email chain that would have clued him in. A New York Times Magazine investigation into the Murdochs last year by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg reported that James' sister Elisabeth urged her father to fire James and replace him with her. (She denied it).
Some Murdoch familiars say that it was only when it was clear that James had lost the succession war that he showed more leg in expressing qualms and pushed the $71.3 billion Disney deal — it ensured that Lachlan, seen as his father's darling, would be left with a hollowed-out empire.
Though the kids each walked away with billions in cash and stock, the deal bared all the competing interests in the family. Lachlan was, by all accounts, aghast to be left merely with the rump — the part James had dismissed to friends as an "American political project." Rupert Murdoch did not try to make a top job for James at Disney a condition of the deal. He looked at James objectively vis-à-vis the deal, Disney insiders said, not with a father's protective instinct.
"James was nothing but a gentleman in the whole process," Bob Iger, the chairman of Disney, told me.
James said he pressed the deal because he knew, as the great digital transformation of Tinseltown got underway, that the Murdochs' collection of old-school media assets had to be combined with a company like Disney to have the heft to compete against behemoths like Netflix.
Friends say that James has been on a collision course with his family for 15 years. His evolution has been profoundly influenced by his wife, a former communications executive. He is, as one friend puts it, "living much more in his own skin, realising his better angels and his better instincts."
But when your last name is Murdoch and those billions sloshing around in your bank account come from a juggernaut co-opting governments across the English-speaking world and perpetuating climate-change denial, nativism and Sean Hannity, can you ever start fresh? As a beneficiary of his family's trust, James is still reaping profits from Rupert Murdoch's assets. Can he be the anti-venom?
And is the great game of Murdoch succession truly over? Murdoch watchers across media say James is aligned with his sister Elisabeth and his half sister, Prudence, even as he is estranged from his father and brother.
When Rupert, 89, finally leaves the stage and his elder children take over, that could make three votes in the family trust against one. Is there still time to de-Foxify Fox News — labelled a "hate-for-profit racket" by Elizabeth Warren — and other conservative News Corp outlets? Would Fox News and its kin — downscale, feral creatures conjured by Rupert to help the bottom line — be the huge moneymakers they are if they went straight?
For a long time, people have referred to James as "the smart brother," the more strategic one, the more interesting one, the harder working one, the more enlightened one.
He is nothing like the hopeless sons on "Succession." He came into his own at Star TV in Asia and then deftly entered the broadband market and positioned Sky TV as more than a satellite television provider. He says he is very proud of helping to restructure the National Geographic partnership, which caused the society's endowment to swell to nearly $1 billion.
Unlike his father and grandfather — who broke the story of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign and later become an Australian regional newspaper magnate — James wasn't interested in the romance of newspapers. He has always been looking around the corner for new technologies.
In 2006, he promised to make Sky carbon neutral. (He invited Al Gore to give his climate slide show at a corporate retreat in Pebble Beach, California, a talk that inspired Kathryn Murdoch to become an eco-warrior.) He drove a Prius around London and then switched to an early model of the Tesla roadster; he later joined Tesla's board.
A Harvard dropout, James has long been teased for his techno argot, a contrast to Lachlan's rock-climbing, red meat, good ol' Aussie boy style. James' look was more mogul-casual at lunch: a Loro Piana navy jacket, slim-fit jeans and Common Projects white sneakers. His hair, flecked with a few strands of gray, is longer than it has been since college. "I haven't been to the barber since March," Murdoch said. "Now it catches leaves and stuff."
His Panama hat from San Juan — he wears straw hats year-round — was attached to his attaché case.
He has set up offices for a new company, Lupa Systems, in downtown Manhattan, New York, and Mumbai. It is named for the she-wolf who suckles twin boys in Rome's origin myth. When they grow up, Remus is killed by Romulus, who goes on to found the city — which James says is his favorite — and become its first king. (In "Succession," Brian Cox's character, the Rupert of the show, refers to his younger son, Roman, as Romulus).
So far, Murdoch has made investments in the Tribeca Film Festival, Art Basel, Vice Media and a comic book company whose publisher once worked for Marvel. The dream there is to create another Marvel-like universe of characters who could cavort across different platforms.
He is excited about investing in startups created to combat fake news and the spread of disinformation, having found the proliferation of deep fakes "terrifying" because they "undermine our ability to discern what's true and what's not" and it "is only at the beginning, as far as I can tell." He's funding a research program to study digital manipulation of societies, hoping to curtail "the use of technology to promulgate totalitarianism'' and undermine democracies.
"So everything from the use of mass surveillance, telephone networks, 5G, all that stuff, domestically in a country like China, for example," he said.
I wonder if this is some sort of expiation, given all the disinformation that News Corp has spewed. (Shades of Melania fighting cyberbullying?)
Murdoch did not really answer. But later, when I talked to Kathryn Murdoch over Zoom from their farm in Connecticut, where they live with their three teenagers, chickens and sheep, she was more direct about the issue of using money made from disinformation to combat disinformation.
"I think that what's important about what we're doing is that we're in control of ourselves," she said, adding: "I'm in control of what I do, he is in control of what he does. We should be held accountable for those things. It's very hard to be held accountable for things that other people do or are in control of. And I think that's what was untenable."
I asked her if they are happy with their liberation. "It's nice to be able to do our own thing and just to have James be free of that tension," she said with a broad smile. "It's good for him."
She added: "When a family is very involved in the business, it's a big decision to leave that. I don't know if it's ever ending. It's always, you know, ongoing." She gave a wry chuckle.
Sneaking smokes with Jerry Hall
CNBC has called Kathryn and James "a political power couple in the Trump era," and James says his wife is "a force of nature." "She's encouraged me to take risks, to do things," he said. "She's encouraged me to speak up about things. I'm very lucky."
Their foundation, Quadrivium, has supported voter participation, democracy reform and climate change projects. "I never thought that we would actually be at the point where we would have climate change effects and people would still be denying it," Murdoch said.
Murdoch donated to Pete Buttigieg in the primary, and the couple has given $1.23 million to Joe Biden. So that's who he'll be voting for in November then? "Hell, yes," he said with a smile.
I noted to Kathryn Murdoch that the effect of News Corp on the world is astounding when you think about it, from Brexit to Trump to the Supreme Court we may be heading toward.
"I'm not sure if I would give it that much credit," she said. "Rupert's talent was always in understanding what the public wanted, and I think it much more follows or echoes what's going on as opposed to leads. That's not to say it doesn't have responsibility. It does. But I think sometimes, inside the journalism world, it gets a little more credit than it deserves on that."
I wondered if Rupert Murdoch ever got mad at Kathryn for pulling James to the light side on the environment and other issues. Was it daunting to argue with him?
"We've had plenty of very good dinners and very good discussions," she said. "He relishes an argument. If you're well prepared and you have your facts, it's a really good debate practice. We've always gotten along even if we disagree. I actually have friends whose fathers are far scarier. Rupert actually told James to marry me as soon as he possibly could."
Like James, she thinks Jerry Hall, the patriarch's wife since 2016, is really fun. "Rupert is so lucky," she said. "She's just always wanting to, you know, sneak over and have a drink or smoke with you. 'Just don't tell Rupert I'm smoking.'"
Kathryn Murdoch has been tempted to watch "Succession." But Murdoch said he didn't watch it, possibly so he didn't have to answer pesky questions about the portrayal of sons who veer between feeling entitled and feeling unworthy because they fear that everything they get is only because of their name.
Asked how he could possibly not watch a buzzy show about his family, he smiled and replied: "I think you'd find it really easy. The other thing is, the dramatisation of family affairs is as old as anything. It's always built in a certain construct, back in Shakespeare or back in Homer.
"I think the reality, my reality anyways, is that I've never felt that comfortable drawing any parallels, because I don't feel as if I live solely in a needy orbit of approval or whatever from the charismatic megafauna. Not at all. I'm entirely my own person. I think having agency from the beginning when I left school and started on my own, to set up with some partners, a tiny hip-hop record label, to moving with Kathryn to Hong Kong a few years later." Five years after that he went to Sky. "I feel like every few years I set out on something new, and it's not this drama that other people try to make about it," he said. "But I don't know anything about the show."
After so much time in the executive suite, Murdoch seems genuinely excited to be in a smaller shop. He said that last year, just for the hell of it, he thought of becoming an architect, going back to school.
"The outside world," he continued, "it looks at you and says: 'Well, these are the runners and riders. This person is up and down and this is success and this is failure.' I think that that has to come much more from yourself. I'm incredibly grateful to be able to be just a totally free agent."
When he looks back at the searing hacking scandal, to that painful moment sitting in front of a parliamentary committee in London with his father, who called it "the most humble day of my life," how does he feel? Was James angry to be left holding the bag for the hacking, which was the ultimate end of the tabloid culture his father created?
"Going through something so intense like that, you definitely learn a lot of different lessons," he said, adding, "It was very much about some stuff that had gone on at the newspapers before I was there, by the way."
I wondered what he made of Fox News and Trump playing down the coronavirus, even after the president was hospitalised.
"Look, you do worry about it and I think that we're in the middle of a public health crisis," Murdoch said. "Climate is also a public health crisis." He continued: "Whatever political spin on that, if it gets in the way of delivering crucial public health information, I think is pretty bad."
He added that Trump's likening Covid-19 to the flu had been "his message from Day 1," and was "craziness." He thinks that "companies have a responsibility to their customers and their communities" and "that responsibility shouldn't be compromised by political point scoring, that's for sure."
Did he catch that bananas moment on Fox News after the president's loony Evita balcony star turn, when Sean Hannity compared DJT to FDR?
Murdoch, who doesn't usually watch Fox News, said he didn't see that show and didn't like to criticise specific Fox News personalities, but added dryly, "I think comparing that kind of personal behavior to FDR, it's a little much, you know?"
I noted that his father had a very dim view of Trump — in 2015, he tweeted, "When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?" — before the pragmatic Rupert came around to the president.
"I'm just concerned that the leadership that we have, to me, just seems characterized by callousness and a level of cruelty that I think is really dangerous and then it infects the population," he said, referring to the Trump administration. "It's not a coincidence that the number of hate crimes in this country are rising over the last three years for the first time in a long time."
With Trump and Fox News, who is the dog and who is the tail?
"It looks to me, anyway, like it's going to be a hard thing to understand because it probably goes back and forth,'' he said. "I don't think you're going to get one pristine, consistent analysis of that phenomenon."
I asked if he was friends with Ivanka and Jared Kushner. Ivanka was at one point a trustee for the fortune of the two daughters of Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng.
"She and Jared are both close with Wendi," he said, adding: "I don't know them well. I wasn't in New York, you have to remember. I came back from abroad after over 10 years and I didn't know a lot of things. I missed the whole 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians,' the whole origin story of that."
(The Times Magazine report included the detail that James and Lachlan tried to dissuade Pops, as they call him, from marrying Deng; James was worried, based on information he had received from senior foreign officials, that she was a Chinese asset; she has denied that.)
Murdoch's friends describe him as "happy as a clam," "giddy" and far more relaxed now that he has shaken off the King Lear machinations he has dealt with his whole life, as his father pitted the siblings against each other for the golden crown.
Murdoch's friend Matthew Vaughn, an English producer and writer who did both "Kingsman" movies, believes that James will now start his own empire.
"James' next chapter is going to be a damn good one, and it will surprise so many people," Vaughn said. "He'll be released from the blessing and the curse of the name Murdoch."
I asked Murdoch if he would create his own "Game of Thrones" and bring in his own children — a daughter and two sons — to help run it.
"There's no empire," he replied, laughing a bit ruefully. "There's no future dynasty."
Confirm or deny
Dowd: Judge Jeanine Pirro is really fun at the company Christmas party.
Murdoch: I have no knowledge of that.
Dowd: When you were 18, you had a summer job as a production assistant on "Rising Sun" and you held a giant duct of personal air-conditioning on Sean Connery wherever he was on the set.
Murdoch: Yes, I held the air-conditioning behind Sean Connery. The most interesting thing was, if he wanted the tube moved to a different spot he wouldn't tell me. He would tell the director, who would tell the first assistant director, who would tell the second assistant director, who would tell me. It was a very hierarchical management of the air-conditioning tube.
Dowd: You've never filled out a job application.
Murdoch: No, not true. When I went to Sky, for example, it was pretty controversial. It had to be voted on by all the shareholders. It was like months of job application in full public glare with psychological tests. Psychometric testing.
Dowd: You know how much a gallon of milk costs.
Murdoch: Confirm. I just bought one the other day. It depends on where you get it, I guess. It's like $4.
Dowd: You're tatted up.
Murdoch: I have a few. I drew them myself. One of them is a weird shape I drew when I was a kid. The other is actually a lightbulb. I feel like tattoos should never have stories attached to them. You always regret it.
Dowd: After you quit the board, you considered bleaching your hair again just for the hell of it.
Dowd: Your father made you and your siblings watch "Gallipoli" on every family vacation.
Murdoch: No. Great movie, though.
Dowd: When you had a hip-hop record company after college, you slept with a gun under your bed.
Murdoch: It's an urban myth.
Dowd: You were childhood friends with Ghislaine Maxwell.
Murdoch: Nope. Absolutely not.
Dowd: You bought a 445-acre "end of times" house in a remote part of Canada with its own water and solar energy supply.
Murdoch: Oh, it's just a fishing cabin. But the borders got shut so I haven't been. I don't know why we didn't think that through.
Dowd: You wrote a column in The Harvard Lampoon titled "Albrecht the Atypical Hun."
Murdoch: Yes. It was a cartoon that I wrote with a friend. I am not great at it, but I can draw.
Dowd: Lachlan is not very good at rock climbing.
Murdoch: I have no knowledge of that. I think he's probably pretty good.
Dowd: President Trump has handled the TikTok situation perfectly.
Murdoch: It doesn't look very handled right now.
Dowd: You do your best thinking about climate change on your father's yacht.
Dowd: You were the driving force behind Fox's Myspace acquisition in 2005.
Murdoch: No, I wasn't there at the time.
Dowd: Prince Harry reached out to you about how he should deal with Prince William.
Murdoch: No. No.
Dowd: You have a black belt in karate.
Dowd: You are extremely fastidious.
Murdoch: I have a bad habit of straightening other people's pictures on their walls, yes. I'm just trying to be helpful.
Dowd: Most of your success has come from hard work, not luck.
Murdoch: Isn't that what they say — the harder you work, the luckier you get?
Dowd: You make your children call you "Dottore".
Murdoch: I got an honorary doctorate from the American University of Rome, and I continue to insist that I'm called "Dottore," but it's not working.
Dowd: You don't watch Fox News.
Murdoch: Sometimes I watch, if there's an important thing, like an important interview or something like that, sometimes.
Dowd: Wendi Deng dated Vladimir Putin.
Murdoch: You can't ask me those questions.
Written by: Maureen Dowd
Photographs by: Jared Soares
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES