When Elisabeth Murdoch stood up to deliver the MacTaggart Lecture recently – the main event at an annual British media jamboree in Edinburgh – the audience may have braced itself for a repeat of her brother James’s infamous appearance before British parliament.
Explaining why journalists at the newspapers he ran were hacking the phones of murdered girls and bombing victims, he lapsed into incomprehensible management jargon, blathering about “pushbacks” and “financial quantum”. Fortunately Elisabeth is made from different stuff.
I once met her at a party and asked her how she felt about being named the world’s most influential blonde by British magazine Tatler. “As the Corgis were also on the list I didn’t take it too seriously,” she said. A Murdoch with a sense of humour? And self-deprecation? Flabbergasting stuff.
The human side was on show in Edinburgh. “Writing a MacTaggart has been quite a welcome distraction from some of the other nightmares much closer to home,” she said. “Yes, you have met some of my family before.”
It wasn’t all end-of-the-pier stuff. She addressed phone-hacking, suggesting that greed was at the root of the misbehaviour. “Profit without purpose is a recipe for disaster,” she said, neatly contradicting (or if you like, “shafting”) her brother James who, when he gave the same lecture in 2009, said: “The only reliable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”
She added that “the absence of purpose – or of a moral language – within government, media, or business” is “dangerous” for “capitalism and for freedom”.
Obviously, words are easy and forging a sustainable (ie profitable) business around these principles might be trickier. But Elisabeth showed herself to be in tune with many next-gens, who are less likely to quote Milton Friedman than their parents’ generation and more likely to buy into Google’s slogan “don’t be evil”.
Elisabeth is now inevitably being tipped as the next head of the family firm. But is that realistic? Surely an empire that includes The Sun, Fox News, Twentieth Century Fox and the Wall Street Journal is too big and varied to be remade into one with a clear moral strand running through it.
And secondly, the phone-hacking episode made it clear that corporate cultures can be hard to change. New employees at The Sun seemed to get sucked into the old-fashioned story-at-any-cost culture, as if the paper resembled a newsroom version of Life on Mars. It’s not obvious that you can change The Sun.
Maybe it’s impossible to re-make New Corp into the sort of business Elisabeth favours. So the real question is, why would she want to take over the family firm? She has entrepreneurial experience, from running her production company Shine. She has a name and she has nous. She must look at the family business and wonder why on earth she would even try to turn around this rusty, leaky old ship.
The world has changed and some businesses that worked in the past won’t work in the future. Elisabeth can’t be the only next-gen wondering if it’s easier just to jump ship and build something better.