LONDON Aug 22 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 furore 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 programmes, 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
neighbour 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. (1700 GMT) on Thursday and
appear for a question and answer session early on Friday.