LONDON (Reuters) – Elisabeth Murdoch steps out of the shadows this week to deliver the biggest speech of her career, a chance to show her credentials to take over father Rupert’s empire as her brothers’ claims to lead it out of scandal have faded.
While Rupert and James Murdoch both used the same forum of the annual Edinburgh Television Festival in years past to attack the state-funded BBC, Elisabeth, 44, is likely to take a more measured approach and could even touch on the failings of her own family firm when she speaks at the event on Thursday.
A successful television producer in her own right with powerful friends in the British establishment and global business, what she says about the tabloid phone hacking affair that cost News Corp dear, tarred its reputation and scuppered an expansion in British television may help shape views of her fitness to run the company among both investors and regulators.
Overlooked for more senior jobs that have in the past gone to younger brothers Lachlan and James, Elisabeth rarely speaks in public, despite being well known in Britain for her company’s TV shows and as host alongside her PR man husband Matthew Freud of opulent social gatherings for the rich, famous and powerful.
A change in tone from famously confrontational appearances at the festival by her father and brother, while understandable from someone whose clients have long been the other major broadcasters, will also underline how much has changed since James Murdoch addressed the same audience three years ago.
Speaking then as chairman of the pay-TV group BSkyB and head of News Corp in Europe and Asia, James Murdoch, now 39, used the 2009 MacTaggart Lecture to describe the scale and scope of the BBC as “chilling” and said the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of media independence was profit.
The speech helped consolidate his position as heir apparent to his father’s role, with its echoes of Rupert Murdoch’s own 1989 assertion to a largely hostile MacTaggart audience that broadcasting was a business that would benefit from competition.
Since then, both men have been chastened by the fallout from the hacking scandal at their News of the World tabloid – now closed – which sparked outrage last year, damaging the value and reputation of News Corp and the Murdoch family.
At the height of the furor father and son had to appear before parliament for a televised grilling to explain how such industrial-scale wrongdoing could have taken place. They also had to pull a $12-billion bid for the part of BSkyB they did not already own, scuppering News Corp’s biggest ever takeover.
Rupert Murdoch has spent decades grooming his three children from his second marriage to inherit the company built on the foundations left by his Australian journalist father Keith.
While son Lachlan, 40, was also often pictured with the family last year, Elisabeth stayed discreetly in the background. Lachlan had stood down from his role as News Corp deputy chief operating officer in 2005 after clashing with senior executives.
Now James Murdoch’s fall from grace, which has forced him to move to New York to revive his career, means the spotlight has turned to Elisabeth, founder of television production company Shine, in the long-running debate over who will one day replace the 81-year-old Rupert at the head of the company.
“This is unquestionably a big deal for her,” said media consultant and broadcaster Steve Hewlett, who will interview Elisabeth Murdoch before an Edinburgh audience on Friday.
“I’m sure that she’ll want to talk about her achievements at Shine, which is now a very substantial production company.
“But of course the world will be watching for anything she says about the events of the last year and the impact it has had on her family”.
Aided by her husband Freud, a great grandson of the psychoanalyst and widely described as Britain’s most influential public relations executive, Elisabeth has managed to distance herself from the scandal.
One person familiar with the running of the conference this year said they expected her to address the phone hacking issue and the role of her brother and father in Britain. Whatever she says, she is likely to get a warmer reception than either.
After a private New York education, she worked at BSkyB in London before showing her independent mettle by setting up Shine in 2001. With it, she sold a range of programs, including spy drama Spooks, fantasy series Merlin and the Masterchef reality show, to the BBC and commercial broadcasters before cashing in to sell the firm to News Corp last year for some $650 million.
With scandal-burned investors complaining about the family’s control over the $55-billion empire, however, Elisabeth Murdoch did not take up a seat on the company’s board, as many expected.
At the time, company insiders spoke of rifts within the family after his elder sister blamed James for the crisis and then flew off on holiday while their father gathered the rest of the clan in London to fight the firestorm of recrimination.
Now, Elisabeth Murdoch’s business pedigree and a network of establishment admirers that includes her country mansion neighbor David Cameron, the prime minister, may propel her to a central role in the company’s efforts to build its future.
She will give the annual MacTaggart Lecture to television executives in Edinburgh at 6 p.m. (1.00 p.m. GMT) on Thursday and appear for a question and answer session early on Friday.
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)