The Real-Life ‘Succession’ Story of 1950s Nepo Baby Rupert Murdoch

Walter Marsh's new book tells the story of how a brash and pompous young Murdoch built a billion-dollar empire from Adelaide, Australia.

When the season finale of Succession aired in May, many committed fans lamented the end of the Roy family saga, in which media mogul Logan Roy, his children and their friends and families battled and bargained for power, whatever the personal and literal costs.

A collage of a book cover and a man's headshot
Marsh uncovered the media tycoon’s real-life Succession story. Courtesy Walter Marsh

The fictional Roys’ semblance to the real-life Murdoch clan was widely acknowledged, and the notoriously private Rupert Murdoch and his sons have only invited more speculation and intrigue with their unwillingness to discuss their private lives in the media. Media that, it must be acknowledged, they own a major chunk of, and even where they don’t own it, their influence and networks run deep.

Indeed, modern media is synonymous with Rupert Murdoch and his sons. Yet, the story of how brash, pompous 22-year-old Rupert managed to build an empire from the unglamorous city of Adelaide in Australia, becoming worth roughly $17.3 billion in the process, has not thoroughly been told until now.

Adelaide-based author and journalist Walter Marsh dove into unpublished archival material and the extensive research and transcripts of fellow journalist Dimity Torbett to detail the singular story of Young Rupert. While the story has roots in Australia, and the Australian media has fundamentally been shaped by that once-young upstart, this is a story of power, intergenerational privilege, and the sometimes malevolent influence of media upon democracy.

“I think what Succession does really well is pick and choose interesting media dynasties and blend them together in ways where these real-life dynasties wouldn’t necessarily make for prestige drama,” says Marsh.

He began researching the Murdoch dynasty during his university studies a decade ago, but when the publication he wrote for—The Adelaide Review—closed in October of 2020, he channeled his full energy into writing Young Rupert, piecing together a fascinating story of personal tensions colliding with a bigger picture of Australian media in the mid-century.

“At the time, Succession seasons 1 and 2 were being broadcast and that show was mixing the personal, political and business elements of a family story in a way that was so compelling,” he says. “When it came to diving into writing this book, I was constantly surprised to see the [true] story unfold in a way that was also compelling.” 

The young Rupert Murdoch, son of Sir Keith Murdoch, landed in Adelaide, South Australia toward the end of 1953. He was newly graduated from Oxford, outspoken and determined. His goal was to fulfill his father’s dying wish: for Rupert to live a “useful altruistic and full life” in the media.

Sir Keith had been a giant of the Australian press, but his final years saw him pitted against rivals and would-be successors. Keith Murdoch’s estate bequeathed Rupert the Adelaide-based News Ltd and its afternoon paper, The News—a minor player in a small city.

Led by Rupert’s friend, ally and editor-in-chief Rohan Rivett, the press in the era of Rupert Murdoch set a contentious precedent: a seven-year campaign of circulation wars, expansion and courtroom battles that divided Adelaide and would lay the foundations for a global empire.

Marsh tells me that throughout his research and discoveries he was “reminded of how these insular networks of power and family and patronage tessellate across generations. The good guys, if you can label anyone that, are interconnected: all the same archetypes, the same gene pools and circles of influence.”

Indeed, for all the recent chatter about nepo babies (i.e., sons and daughters of famous, influential parents who pave the way for their kids’ careers), it’s not a new concept, especially in the media industry. There’s no end to current media that essentially run on nepotism (Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair shamelessly so).

But while Marsh’s Murdoch is “a 1950s nepo baby,” there’s no denying the media tycoon worked hard to network, strategize, play and counter-play his moves to buy up media assets. By the time he took over his father’s properties and paid off debts, it was necessary to turn a quick profit on assets to stay afloat. Like him or loathe him, young Rupert was thrown into deep water and was swimming madly from the second his toes got wet.

When Marsh’s workplace closed down, he saw his experience as a “meta narrative” shaped by an industry that has shed hundreds of journalists in the past decade as various newspapers, radio stations and TV networks merged under concentrated ownership. Marsh says that making his way as a journalist in Adelaide in 2022 required picking over the bones of an industry that had completely imploded.

But back to the book. Marsh admits he didn’t speak to many original sources—perhaps unsurprising given that Murdoch is now 92 years old. Torbett, he tells me, was a godsend in terms of source material. She was going to write a book on Murdoch in the 1980s and duly conducted extensive archival research and interviews–many with people who aren’t around anymore—but when a flurry of biographies came out around the same time, she was deterred.

“I was so lucky to be able to visit Dimity, who had all these boxes and boxes of files and interview transcripts,” he tells me. “I also looked back at records of his school years and the literary journal he edited at Geelong Grammar to get an idea of who he was.”

The youthful Murdoch emerged as “brash, loud, and outspoken in these left-wing views that he had,” but he was also unspectacular to his classmates, who viewed him as just another son of a rich kid in an elite private school whose left-wing views apparently earned him the nicknames Red Rupert and Comrade Murdoch.

Even then, he was polarizing, and at the time, his personality and political views concerned his father. In Sir Keith Murdoch’s final days, he was worried his son—whose passion for print was not nearly so all-consuming—might squander his inheritance. Sir Keith’s deep appreciation for newspapers, suggests Marsh, is something American readers might not appreciate.

“In Australia, in the first half of the 20th century, Keith Murdoch was the biggest newspaper baron of his generation,” he explains. “From a penny-a-line freelancer to a cable correspondent in the First World War, he’d climbed his way up to become the editor, then the chairman of The Herald Weekly Times. It took 30 years to build up a nationwide empire, and he was the figurehead of that company—‘the Murdoch press’ was coined for Keith.”

Rupert also lived and breathed newspapers from a very young age, owing to his father being a ceaseless workaholic. The dynamics of their relationship intrigued Marsh as much as the unlikely story of a global media empire getting its start in one of Australia’s least celebrated cities.

“Since 1992, the Murdoch-owned Advertiser was the only paper in town,” says Marsh. “My interest grew from the question of how did a town, so seemingly inconsequential and so small it could only support one newspaper, become the foundation for this global empire that touches every corner of politics and pop culture?”

While Marsh focuses on Rupert as a young man, it is inevitable that readers will find alignments in the present day as Rupert’s own children jostle for their inheritance and the inherent political and cultural power of those media assets—Fox Media and News Corp, included. While Succession is over, the real-life dynasty of the Murdoch clan offers endless entertainment. Whether that’s classified as “memoir,” “pop culture” or “horror” is up to the audience.

The Real-Life ‘Succession’ Story of 1950s Nepo Baby Rupert Murdoch