Recent scrutiny questions future of conglom

As Steve Jobs’ untimely death reminds us, even wealth, power and status can’t bestow immortality. Historically the closest one can come is by passing on a legacy, often through heirs.

Rupert Murdoch has never hidden his desire to do precisely that, entrusting News Corp., the company he inherited from his father and dramatically built, to his children. And while the 80-year-old mogul would doubtless keep working even if that wasn’t the motivation, one rationale for his prolonged stewardship has been to remain until one of his kids is deemed ready to replace him.

Yet if the recent shareholder rebuke to Murdoch’s sons is any indication, there’s ample truth in the notion — popularized by a John Lennon lyric — about life being what happens while you’re making other plans. Because whatever Murdoch’s ambitions, it looks far less likely the family name will still pilot News Corp. when the great man hangs up his spurs.

In a sense, Murdoch and his generation of media tycoons — with a big assist from federal deregulation in the 1990s — succeeded a bit too well. Freed of restrictions preventing studios from owning broadcast networks, they built vertically integrated companies so big and varied you can’t blithely hand the keys to just anybody.

It’s no slight to the Murdoch progeny to state the obvious: Today’s multinational corporations are not the corner drugstore — or even a big-city newspaper — however much Murdoch might want to approach his company that way. As Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff wrote back in 2008 before there was any cause to believe something would threaten his succession scheme, “this kind of dynastic construct is met with easy ridicule. It’s an extremely difficult modern conceit.”

Murdoch’s current heir apparent, James, will next week again face Britain’s Parliament, which is eager to grill him about what he knew and when he knew it in regard to phone hacking at News Corp.’s U.K. tabloids. The scandal has roiled the company, claimed the News of the World and delighted Murdoch’s detractors, while raising questions about James’ future that were further stoked by the high percentage of stockholder votes against him and his brother Lachlan.

Admittedly, annual shareholder meetings are hardly the ideal forum for expressions of moral indignation. As long as companies are profitable and trading prices remain high, many would happily give a thumbs up to Genghis Khan — who, incidentally, passed along a divided empire to his kids, illustrating similarities between “mogul” and “Mongol” aren’t merely phonetic.

Not surprisingly, speculation surrounding the hacking inquiry and News Corp.’s succession has triggered numerous mentions of the elder Murdoch as “The Lion in Winter,” referring to the James Goldman play turned memorable 1968 movie.

The description certainly sounds poetic, but the comparison isn’t especially apt.

In that story, Henry II’s three odious sons are clawing to assume his throne. With the Murdochs, to most appearances it’s been the father prodding his middle trio of heirs to embrace their lineage, while the contenders have at times taken themselves out of the game.

Once pegged “first among equals” to succeed his dad, Lachlan was said to have clashed with senior execs, relocating to Australia. Elisabeth went off to build Shine into a prolific production entity, before selling to News Corp. for $673 million, which unleashed additional griping about potential nepotism.

James has been the proverbial tortoise — slow and steady wins the race — until the hacking scandal, which has damaged perceptions of him, particularly among those who already see News Corp. as an evil empire.

Thanks to Murdoch, nobody bearing his name — including his young kids with current wife Wendi — will ever fret about their next meal. (Full disclosure: I’m a part-time contributor to a News division, Foxsports.com.)

By the same token, though, Murdoch can rest easy: His legacy is secure whether the next CEO shares his DNA or not. And Murdoch might not be doing his grown kids any favors saddling them with the crushing burden of this heightened scrutiny.

Wolff noted those children have grown up “trapped in the Murdoch bubble.” Maybe it’s time to burst that bubble — either to let the occupants out, or let some fresh air in.

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