James Murdoch Will Not Join Disney if Fox Deal Is Completed

Posted May 8, 2018 11:38 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — Ever since December, when the Walt Disney Co. struck a $52.4 billion deal to acquire most of 21st Century Fox, speculation has swirled in Hollywood about James Murdoch’s future.

His exact plans remain a mystery, but one thing is now certain: He will not be involved with the Magic Kingdom.

Murdoch, who is Rupert Murdoch’s younger son and the chief executive of 21st Century Fox, will not make the move to Disney and intends to start his own company, perhaps to invest in digital media businesses, according to two associates who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. His plans were reported earlier Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal.

A spokeswoman for 21st Century Fox did not respond to a request for comment. Disney declined to comment.

At one point last fall, during the acquisition talks between his father and Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, Murdoch had seen a path to Disney’s corner office. Iger was expected to retire in 2019 and a long search for a successor had yet to identify a successor. But the likelihood of a very senior role for Murdoch at Disney — one that would set him up as Iger’s successor — had grown slim by the time the deal was unveiled.

Rather than securing a place for his son at Disney as a condition of the sale, Rupert Murdoch instead required Iger to extend his own tenure. Iger will now retire at the end of 2021. The deal will still be a financial boon to the younger Murdoch. If the deal closes — not a foregone conclusion now that Comcast is maneuvering to make a hostile offer — he will emerge with a stake in Disney worth at least $1 billion.

When the subject about a job for James came up on a post-deal conference call with analysts, Iger was respectful but noncommittal. “He will be integral to helping us integrate these companies over the next number of months,” Iger said. “Over that time, he and I will continue to discuss whether there is a role for him here or not.”

Rupert Murdoch struck a harsher tone in a Sky News interview. “No guarantees of any sort” is how he described the likelihood of his son receiving a senior Disney post.

At the time, Disney insiders noted that the most obvious role for James would involve international operations. Disney was buying Fox’s stakes in two behemoth overseas television-service providers, Sky of Britain and Star of India — complicated businesses with which Disney had no experience but ones that James Murdoch helped build.

But James made it known that he had limited interest in an overseas post, something he had already done.

Such a gig would also have returned him, at least in a way, to the darkest chapter of his career, the phone-hacking scandal at the Murdoch family-owned tabloids in Britain. He was never found to have had direct knowledge of the hacking by reporters, but a parliamentary committee accused him of “willful ignorance” after he acknowledged that he had failed to read emails that referred to settlement payments made to hacking victims.

Disney, preparing for the absorption of Fox assets, announced a sweeping overhaul of its management structure in March that closed the door on any international role for Murdoch.

Kevin Mayer, who has recently served as Disney’s chief strategy officer, working on the purchases of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, was named chairman of a new Disney division: Direct-to-Consumer and International. The unit will be made up of Disney’s overseas businesses; global advertising sales for ESPN, ABC and other channels; and a portfolio of subscription streaming services, including Hulu.

Unlike his older brother Lachlan, James Murdoch has never worked outside the family businesses, other than founding a hip-hop record label after dropping out of Harvard. His father bought it, bringing James into the corporate fold.

Lachlan Murdoch, who has recently served as executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, is expected to stay behind to run what some analysts are referring to as “the stub” — a group of businesses that Disney is not buying. Those include Fox News, a chain of local television stations and the Fox broadcast network.