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Elisabeth Murdoch: Staying Firmly Out of the Family Business

The succession plan taking shape for Lachlan and James Murdoch at 21st Century Fox raises the question of whether their sister Elisabeth will re-enter the family business on any level.

The answer for now is a firm no — not in an executive role and not as a board member, multiple sources say. Elisabeth Murdoch is removed from the Fox and News Corp. fray by making her home base in London. She’s focused on running the investment fund, Freelands Group, that she launched after leaving Shine Group last fall following its merger with Endemol and Core Media Group.

Freelands is focused on making early-stage investments in digital and tech companies. She’s teamed on some projects with Shari Redstone, a fellow daughter of a media baron, Viacom-CBS Corp. chairman Sumner Redstone.

A rep for Elisabeth Murdoch declined to comment for the story.

Elisabeth Murdoch has had a roller-coaster relationship with her father’s media empire in the past decade. She was said to be dismayed by the actions of her younger brother James when the phone-hacking scandal erupted in 2011. She had been in line for a nomination to a board seat at the time but declined to pursue it under pressure after what was then News Corp. (prior to the 2012 division of the companies into the Fox media and entertainment conglom and the publishing-centric News Corp.) was facing heightened scrutiny of its governance.

Elisabeth Murdoch worked for various Fox entities in the U.S. in the 1990s and held a senior exec role at BSkyB before setting out on her own in 2001 with the launch of Shine Group. The company grew quickly through acquisitions of production-distribution companies. Murdoch brought a global vision to the business from the start with the focus on developing shows that could be exported as formats in a range of worldwide markets. Shine gradually expanded with outputs in the U.S., Germany, Australia, Scandinavia and other markets with the goal of creating a worldwide network of content suppliers and on the ground production capabilities.

News Corp. cut a deal to acquire Shine Group in early 2011 — a few months before the charges that News Corp.-owned newspapers in the U.K. engaged in illegal tactics and bribes as a routine newsgathering practice. That scandal spurred a tidal wave of criticism directed at Rupert Murdoch and Fox interests, and the $663 million acquisition of Shine became another target those charging that Rupert Murdoch ran the company not for shareholders but as his personal fief. In that environment, Elisabeth had no choice but to give up ambition for a board seat despite her stake in the family trust that controls a majority of voting shares in Fox and News Corp.

Shine maintained its autonomy within the News Corp. and 21st Century Fox fold for several years, with Elisabeth remaining chair. But last year, 21st Century Fox began talks with private equity giant Apollo Global Management to merge Shine with Apollo’s Endemol, which pursued a similar business strategy as Shine, and the smaller Core Media Group.

When the joint venture was finally assembled and the who-runs-what questions were sorted out, there was no role for Elisabeth. She left the company with no fanfare last fall, around the same time her 13-year marriage to PR maven Matthew Freud ended. It’s no secret that Freud had at times been a source of tension within the Murdoch dynasty, particularly after he was quoted in a 2010 New York Times story slamming Fox News and its leader, Roger Ailes.

For now, sources say Elisabeth Murdoch is eager to stay mostly out of the spotlight and is putting her energies into raising her four children and nurturing the seedling investments she helps select for Freelands. Among those investments is animation production startup Locksmith Animation, where she serves as chair.

Murdoch is also active in arts and culture projects. She is chair of the Tate Modern Advisory Group, part of the U.K.’s formidable Tate arts conversation and archive org. In addition, Murdoch has launched a private foundation to lend support to visual artists.

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