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Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch Heads To Australia As Fox News Faces Headwinds

Fox Corp.'s Lachlan Murdoch and his wife, Sarah, arrive at the White House for a 2019 state dinner honoring Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Murdoch and his family have left the U.S. for Sydney through at least the end of summer.
Alastair Pike
AFP via Getty Images
Fox Corp.'s Lachlan Murdoch and his wife, Sarah, arrive at the White House for a 2019 state dinner honoring Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Murdoch and his family have left the U.S. for Sydney through at least the end of summer.

Updated March 30, 2021 at 10:44 PM ET

Lachlan Murdoch, the Fox Corp. CEO and executive chairman, has departed Los Angeles and returned to Australia with his wife and children, according to three people with ties to the Murdoch family.

His move comes at a time when the company's most profitable property is confronting daunting challenges: Fox News currently faces two new defamation lawsuits from election machine and software companies seeking combined damages of $4.3 billion.

The network is accused of hosting and amplifying false claims of a conspiracy to rig the 2020 general election against former President Donald Trump. (Fox News denies the allegations and said it's proud of its coverage.)

Fox News' opinion stars have been among the former president's top advocates, advisers and apologists, on and off the air.

Yet the top-rated cable news network is straining to appeal to Trump loyalists to stave off sharp drops in ratings. Many viewers peeled away after the elections in reaction to the network's coverage of President Biden's win.

Murdoch's children are now enrolled in school in Sydney, Australia's largest city, and the family is expected to stay there at least through the start of the next school year.

Many Americans as well many executives have scattered to alternate locations to ride out the pandemic. The company has not explained to employees how Murdoch intends to run the company a half-world away. Fox Corp. released a brief statement Tuesday evening: "Lachlan continues to split his time between Los Angeles, New York and Sydney as he has for years. Our businesses all are thriving, even as we, like most organizations, have predominately managed our teams and communicated by zoom for the last 12 months."

Lachlan Murdoch is the elder son of the founder of the family's media empire, Rupert Murdoch; the elder Murdoch is executive chairman and Lachlan is co-chairman of News Corp., the family's newspaper and book publishing company.

Though effectively controlled by the Murdochs, the two companies are publicly traded, and Fox Corp. currently has a market valuation exceeding $21 billion. Fox owns the Fox News Channel, Fox Business, Fox Sports and the Fox broadcast network, among other properties.

By far, the most important property in Fox Corp.'s portfolio is Fox News Media, which also includes the conservative paid streaming platform Fox Nation. It generates more than $2 billion in profits annually, reportedly more than 80% of the parent company's profits.

Murdoch is running a far smaller empire than his father did: Two years ago, the family sold off the vast majority of its Hollywood and entertainment holdings in a deal valued at more than $71 billion and refashioned the prior company around live news and live sports.

It also gave up its controlling stake in a huge British-based satellite television company, Sky, which was obtained by Comcast.

Lachlan Murdoch was born in London; his father and his wife are native Australians, and the family retains close ties there. Indeed, in 2005, then just 33, Murdoch resigned from a top job in New York City helping to oversee the family's corporation and moved to Sydney even though he was his father's anointed successor.

Murdoch was frustrated by what he saw as Rupert Murdoch's unwillingness to prevent corporate machinations against him by some of his top executives, including Peter Chernin, then president of the company, and the late Roger Ailes, head of Fox News. Rupert Murdoch wanted Lachlan to learn to fight and win his own battles.

Lachlan Murdoch struck out on his own in Australia, with modest success. His younger brother, James Murdoch, ascended to be the new apparent successor to Rupert Murdoch. (All the C-suite politicking inspired the HBO hit series Succession.)

Yet Lachlan Murdoch returned to his father's side when James was tripped up by the family's British tabloid scandals a decade ago, and he rejoined the fold as co-chairman of the companies in 2014, taking on increasing stature.

James, never comfortable with the conservative tilt of the company's tabloids and Fox News, resigned his remaining corporate positions last summer. He has been critical of their coverage of climate change, the push for racial equity, and Trump.

Lachlan Murdoch still retains control of an Australian media company called Nova Entertainment, built around radio properties.

Even at the age of 90, his father is still seen as a defining force at Fox and News Corp., making Lachlan Murdoch's own influence in piloting the larger family's holdings tough to discern.

Fox News remains a huge success, but one with unanswered questions about its path forward at a time of growing competition. The conservative news channel Newsmax, for example, enjoyed a strong boost in ratings for a few months.

But in March, Fox News reclaimed the ratings lead after falling behind CNN and MSNBC in January.

To the anger of Trump and many of his supporters, Fox News was the first major news outlet to project that Biden would win Arizona. Its reporters also debunked many of the false claims of voter fraud found on its opinion shows.

In recent weeks, Fox has sought to appeal tangibly to disaffected viewers. It hired former Trump White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany as a co-host and Lara Trump, a daughter-in-law of the former president who is considering a run for the U.S. Senate, as a contributor.

Under Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott, Fox forced out its political director, Chris Stirewalt, who helped to affirm the decision to project Arizona for Biden; its Washington managing editor, Bill Sammon, left, too, along with more than a dozen news-side digital journalists.

Opinion shows have been given more prominent slots at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., which were previously led by news anchors, and news programs now contain extensive segments based on exchanges taken from the network's leading opinion shows.

That said, Fox News executives permanently pulled star Fox Business host Lou Dobbs off the air a day after the Smartmatic elections software company sued for $2.7 billion. Earlier this month, the Dominion voting machine company sued for $1.6 billion.

Both companies said that Dobbs, several prominent colleagues and frequent Fox News guests, including Trump attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, had defamed them in baseless claims of conspiracy to falsify election results. (In responding to the lawsuit publicly, Fox has noted segments from its reporters refuting or casting doubt on their claims; prime-time star Tucker Carlson also laced into Powell over failing to provide evidence.)

Fox has come in for sharp condemnation for the rhetoricof some of its stars and guests ahead of the Jan. 6 protests that turned into a siege of Congress.

"I think we're very happy with where we're positioned," Lachlan Murdoch told investors at an event staged by Morgan Stanley earlier this month. "It's, you know, insane to think that we would have the center and right of the political sort of news and opinion and analysis on our own. And we welcome that competition."

He said Fox would not change its focus.

"We think that's where America is," Murdoch said. "Seventy-five million people voted for a Republican president, sometimes in spite of his ... his personality at times. And so they believe in those politics and they feel strongly about those political and policy positions. And that's what we represent. And so you know, we're going to stick to the center-right. We think that's where our audience is."

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.