Advertisement
Share

Murdoch family associate nominated to be Australia’s competition watchdog

A younger and older man, both wearing glasses, sit in the stands of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
Lachlan Murdoch, left, and Rupert Murdoch at the 2018 U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York City.
(Adrian Edwards / GC via Getty Images)

The nomination of a respected lawyer with strong ties to Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch to head Australia’s powerful competition watchdog agency is drawing scrutiny.

On Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government tapped Gina Cass-Gottlieb to become chairwoman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Her involvement with the Murdoch family stretches back more than a decade.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Nevada corporate records list Cass-Gottlieb, based in Sydney, Australia, as a manager of a Delaware firm that administers Rupert Murdoch’s U.S.-based family trust, which controls the family’s lucrative stock holdings in News Corp. and Fox Corp. Federal Communications Commission records also list Cass-Gottlieb as a director of trust administrator.

Advertisement

Cass-Gottlieb separately is a former attorney to Fox Corp. Chief Executive Lachlan Murdoch.

“Cass-Gottlieb is one of Australia’s preeminent competition lawyers, having been a senior partner in competition and regulation at Gilbert + Tobin for over 25 years,” Australia’s treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said Tuesday in a statement announcing her nomination.

“During her distinguished career in legal practice, she has advised on some of the largest and most complex competition matters in Australia and New Zealand.”

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Cass-Gottlieb said she would not comment on any Australian Competition and Consumer Commission matters prior to taking office March 21, subject to the approval of Australia’s governor general. However, she noted that she planned to “cease private practice and relinquish any positions that may impact on my ability to perform the role prior to commencing.”

Cass-Gottlieb said she was honored to accept the position. “The [commission] is a deeply respected and renowned regulator for its protection of consumers and competition, a key driver of our economy and for upholding competition law,” she said in the statement.

But Cass-Gottlieb’s selection immediately made waves in Australia, where some politicians have expressed concern about the Murdoch family’s enormous clout.

“Is this the same Gina Cass-Gottlieb who is a long-serving director of the Murdoch Family Trustee [sic], and was also Lachlan Murdoch’s personal lawyer?” Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, soon after the nomination was announced.

Cass-Gottlieb’s nomination comes about six months before a key national election, amid a tumultuous political landscape, and one week after an Australian Senate committee issued a blistering report that called Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. the “clearest example of a troubling media monopoly.

Thirty-four years ago, Rupert Murdoch showed up in Hollywood with $250 million, buying a stake in the 20th Century Fox film studio — even though he had little interest in making movies.

In Australia, “the current regulatory environment for news media is weak, fragmented and inconsistent,” the Senate report concluded. “As a result, large media organizations have become so powerful and unchecked that they have developed corporate cultures that consider themselves beyond the existing accountability framework.”

Murdoch’s News Corp. owns nearly two-thirds of Australia‘s metropolitan newspapers and popular websites, and it has radio interests throughout Australia. It also has the controlling stake in the Foxtel news network.

Representatives of News Corp., however, have argued that the dramatic growth of technology platforms, including Google and Facebook, have fragmented the media landscape by also distributing news and information, effectively weakening the sway of Murdoch-owned outlets.

Despite the report’s findings, leaders of two of the major Australian political parties — the Labor Party and Liberal Party — declined to pursue the matter of media concentration or establish a royal commission, which Rudd and more than 500,000 people who signed a petition had demanded. The petition, which Rudd spearheaded, prompted the Senate’s review.

Frydenberg and representatives of News Corp. and Fox Corp. declined to comment.

It was in his native Australia that Murdoch, now 90, began building his empire. He inherited a small newspaper in Adelaide, Australia, after the 1952 death of his father, a noted newspaper editor and celebrated war correspondent.

That began a restless march spanning seven decades and three continents as Rupert Murdoch assembled dozens of media properties in Australia, Great Britain and the U.S., where he ultimately bought the New York Post and the Fox movie studio, launched Fox News Channel in 1996 and, a decade later, acquired the Wall Street Journal.

In March 2019, Murdoch sold the bulk of his TV and movie assets to Walt Disney Co. The Murdoch family held on to Fox News, two national sports channels and the Fox broadcast network. The family’s publishing company, News Corp., separately owns Dow Jones & Co. (WSJ, Barron’s and MarketWatch), the HarperCollins book publisher, major newspapers in London and the Australian holdings.

His oldest son, Lachlan Murdoch, has run Fox Corp. as chief executive since the Disney transaction closed in March 2019.

Both Murdochs serve on the boards of Fox and News Corp. The Murdoch Family Trust controls the family’s stock holdings. The second entity, Cruden Financial Services in Delaware, administers the trust.

According to documents viewed by the Los Angeles Times, Cass-Gottlieb represented Lachlan Murdoch a decade ago in dealings with the Australian government relating to media concentration.

At the time, Lachlan Murdoch had quit the family enterprise and was trying to carve his own path as a media mogul in Australia.

With Cass-Gottlieb’s help, Lachlan Murdoch received a 2010 determination from the Australian Communications and Media Authority that he and his father, Rupert, were not related “associates” for purposes of calculating media concentration for radio broadcast licenses and newspaper holdings.

But that designation became problematic in 2012, according to the documents.

In 2012, media reports indicated that Lachlan Murdoch had become more involved in his father’s empire and might soon return to the fold. Lachlan Murdoch was also weighing in on leadership determinations at various Murdoch papers. Australian regulators then asked Cass-Gottlieb to clarify Lachlan Murdoch’s “relationship to Mr. Rupert Murdoch.”

The matter soon became moot. In 2014, Rupert Murdoch restored Lachlan to a prominent role in the U.S.-based media conglomerate to work alongside his brother, James, who was then CEO of 21st Century Fox. (James Murdoch left the family business after the Disney deal.)

Cass-Gottlieb would replace Rod Sims, who has been the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman for 11 years, leading the agency in many major battles with business interests. Sims was quoted in the Guardian as saying Cass-Gottlieb’s experience made her a strong choice to replace him.

“You wouldn’t want an ACCC that didn’t have people who worked on both sides of the fence,” the Guardian quoted Sims as saying.

The Australian Financial Review, which is owned by Fairfax Media (a competitor of News Corp.), reported that “it is understood that a majority of states and territories — who must sign off on her appointment — swiftly agreed to Ms. Cass-Gottlieb’s appointment.”

Times staff researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


Advertisement