Lack of Murdoch succession plan mirrored by TV classic

Art imitates life in Succession, as lead character struggles to find natural heir. Does NOT contain spoilers

Logan Roy, played by Brian Cox in Succession, is rich, powerful but dissatisfied with his own children. Photo: HBO
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Now and again, a TV drama comes along that you can’t imagine living without. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Band of Brothers, Big Little Lies, Line of Duty, The West Wing, The Crown … it’s a personal list, admittedly, but these and others resonate and captivate.

So it is with Succession, the final episode of which aired this week. Logan Roy and the fate of his children have had us glued to our screens.

Why? Because the acting is superb. Because the dialogue is breathtakingly clever and slick. Because the settings are magnificent. Because we like to think we’re being afforded a glimpse of what life must be like inside such a family. Because even though they are super-rich they are so unhappy. Because, even though the creators maintain it is not centred on one single, actual family, we suppose it is the Murdochs.

Evidence of the latter, as if it was needed, came with the revelation in a long Vanity Fair article about Rupert Murdoch that the media baron had a clause inserted into his ex-wife Jerry Hall’s divorce settlement that she was not to assist the scriptwriters of Succession.

At the heart of Succession is human frailty. A rich, powerful man who struggles to let go, but one of the reasons for that is his dissatisfaction with his own children. He would like his corporation, Waystar, to continue to have a Roy at its helm, but none of the siblings are up to the task, not in his eyes and as the series unfolded, nor in ours.

We were able to see exactly why he had so little faith in them, why he held on for so long in the hope that one would display the requisite mettle, only to be dashed. He ends up doing the job himself, becoming ever more frustrated and disappointed.

It’s true in real life, which is why it has us spellbound. There’s a phrase used in the North of England: "clogs to clogs in three generations".

Pick any dynasty and find a successor who proved more than capable. It’s a struggle. Usually none of the children or grandchildren exhibit the same hunger and drive as the original.

Jerry Hall was Rupert Murdoch's fourth wife. Reuters

The path is familiar. The patriarch is born with a gift, with a brilliant nose for business, for deal-making and accumulating. They also bear a rare ruthlessness. As they get richer, they do what they regard as their right and send their children to expensive schools. Ironically, frequently they did not have or did not complete a smart education themselves and it’s been a running sore ever since.

The children go to university, they’re softer. They dont want for anything, they don’t have to push themselves, it’s easy for them.

British giant

One example that fits the bill is the Moores family. John Moores was born above a pub in Eccles, Lancashire, one of eight children. His father was a bricklayer who became a pub landlord.

Young John’s ambition was greater.

His eye for an opportunity saw him invent the Football Pools in 1923. Not content with having built one hugely profitable business, he added mail order catalogues in 1932 and department stores in 1937.

His Liverpool-based Littlewoods group was the largest private company in Europe in the 1980s, employing 25,000 people. John Moores was a self-made billionaire at a time when such a person was more or less unheard of in Britain.

When it came to his children, he sent the two boys to Eton and the two girls to Cheltenham Ladies. None of them had his ambition and determination to make money. After Moores retired, aged 81, and it became obvious they were not capable of succeeding and profits were falling, he returned to the fray, at 86.

Sir John Moores was 97 when he died in 1993. His £1.7 billion ($2.1 billion) estate was left to his family. A series of sales and closures saw the Littlewoods brand disappear almost completely. A postscript in 2018 saw the iconic Littlewoods Pools building in Liverpool engulfed by fire. It had been empty since 2003.

True stories such as this are what make fiction like Succession so compelling. We can relate to them, think to ourselves who this character reminds us of, whether life among the Moores – and in Succession’s case, because it is based on a media empire, the Murdoch’s – is really like this.

Murdoch's heir

Rupert Murdoch with sons and Lachlan (left) and James. Getty

What is incredible is how often in business a founder, a dominant figure, cannot, will not, put in place a succession plan. They can face everything else down except the inevitable and their own mortality. It should be a requirement that they must choose and groom a successor and that person must be approved by the board.

It ought to be, but it rarely is – such is the power of the boss – or if it is, the selection process is half-hearted with no one able to envisage the day when they will no longer be in charge. Look at the Murdochs. Rupert is 92, still running the show, perhaps not as full-on as he once was, but nevertheless firmly in charge.

In Succession, it is easy to see why Logan Roy had such little faith in his children. HBO via AP

Of his four older children, Prudence never displayed much interest in the family firm, Elizabeth appeared to rule herself out years ago and has her own successful TV operation, which leaves the two sons, Lachlan and James.

For years it appeared as though James was the chosen one but then he publicly expressed his dismay at the right-wing, climate-change-denying direction of their Fox News channel, and was gone. So it falls to Lachlan.

But he has previous for leaving unexpectedly – he suddenly quit in 2005 as an executive, working with his father. He returned to the fold in 2014, aged 42, and was handed top jobs. That was nine years ago but still Rupert carries on.

That would suggest the father does not have the confidence in Lachlan – or is it simply a case that he cannot abide not working? Or does he hanker after James? Could it be Elizabeth all along? We won’t know until the Murdoch season finale.

Until then we’ve got to contend ourselves with repeats of Succession and brilliant art imitating life.

Published: May 30, 2023, 9:53 AM