From down under, meet Hollywood's hottest new power broker — though Lachlan Murdoch must first prove he can cut it atop Rupert's Everest, News Corp

By David Hochman
Updated July 30, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The story begins, as most Murdoch family stories do, in Australia. Severe hail and lightning are forecast for Sydney, but inside the converted brick chocolate factory that is News Ltd.’s headquarters, another kind of storm is brewing. It’s the first day back at work for Lachlan Murdoch, 27, following his honeymoon with Wonderbra model Sarah O’Hare, 27. As heir apparent to his father Rupert Murdoch’s $33 billion media kingdom (which includes Twentieth Century Fox studios, the Fox network, TV Guide, the New York Post, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and 200 or so other properties on five continents), he is facing a downpour of new responsibilities.

In his first 11 hours back on the job as senior executive vice president of News Corp., he’ll meet with newspaper editors about page layouts, plot Internet strategies, schmooze newsprint buyers and budget minders, huddle with marketing gurus, and take meetings with execs from Fox’s bustling new Sydney movie studio, where the next two Star Wars films will be shot. He’ll also log in calls to his father. ”I try to speak to Dad every day,” Murdoch says in his soft-spoken, Australian-edged American accent, ”to see what he’s doing or to say, you know, ‘I love you.”’

The feeling is obviously mutual. This past February, Murdoch fils gained entry to the office of the chairman, which is Murdoch père‘s inner circle of top News Corp. execs (Lachlan’s been overseeing the company’s Australian operations since 1997). The move struck many as Rupert anointing Lachlan as his successor, over daughter Elisabeth, 30. The managing director of Sky Networks, which oversees BSkyB, a $16 billion British satellite TV and programming service, she is seen as mogul material, having had some major programming successes, including signing up the Duchess of York as a talk-show hostess. And then there’s son James, 26, now heading up Fox’s latest entry onto the Internet at News America Digital Publishing. (Another daughter, Prudence, 40, is not involved in the family business.)

Though Papa Murdoch, 68, has recently suggested that highly regarded Fox group chairman and CEO Peter Chernin, 48, would be his immediate successor were anything to happen to him in the near future, it’s Lachlan who’s now running all over the world in the name of News. With an ever-expanding profile in the U.S., he’s spending as much time power brokering in L.A. and New York as he is in Sydney. He just squeezed in a trip to Herb Allen’s annual confab of media moguls in Sun Valley, Idaho (Rupert, who was unavailable for comment, has been honeymooning with Lachlan’s new 32-year-old stepmother, Wendi Deng). He’s been attending for years with his dad, but this time Lachlan noticed something different. ”I wasn’t thinking ‘I’m a member of the Murdoch family,”’ he says, ”as much as ‘I have greater responsibilities than ever with this company, how can I do them right?”’

That’s exactly what those monitoring Murdoch’s progress are wondering. ”He’s been at his father’s knee for many years, learning many of the issues required to understand a company as large and diverse as News Corp.,” says Christopher P. Dixon, a media and entertainment analyst at PaineWebber, ”but to suggest he’s ready to step into the top seat is naive.” Adds Anthea Disney, executive vice president for content at News Corp., who is introducing Murdoch to the publishing business: ”Are we expecting Lachlan to play a major role? Absolutely. He’s done a remarkable job,” referring to his successes in presiding over the construction of the new film studio down under, remaking several newspapers, and overseeing a company-wide 3 percent budget cut. ”Still, I don’t think anyone can peer into their crystal ball at this point and say whether Lachlan will run the company one day.”