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 a 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.
News reports at the time suggested James harbored a fantasy about succeeding Mr. Iger, and the two talked about a possible role. But, James told me, “I decided pretty soon after we closed it that I didn’t want to stay on in the business. So if you think about it, I mean, your ego talks to you a little bit or somebody writes a story that says, ‘Oh, they don’t have a succession plan. James Murdoch can do X, Y and Z.’ And your ego goes, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ But then, you have to sit back and go, ‘That’s not me defining that. That’s some media journalist somewhere making up what they think success or failure is.’
“The idea, at my age, with a long career ahead of me, of going into a place where it’s a big corporate structure. You don’t really know what the future’s going to hold. And the other side is absolute self-determination and agency. It was a pretty simple choice. We never really even took talks very far at all about going to Disney because I informed them, because they were really trying to figure, ‘OK, what does the structure look like? Et cetera.’ I called Bob and said, ‘Look, you need to design that without me.’”
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, realizing 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?