MELBOURNE/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, matriarch of the Murdoch media empire and mother of News Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch, was both an inspiration and outspoken critic of her tumultuous family and balm to some of its excesses.
A philanthropist and tireless charity worker regarded for years in her homeland as a national treasure, Murdoch died on Wednesday night at her sprawling home outside Melbourne, a city she loved for its genteel culture, aged 103.
Murdoch was a uniting force in both the community and within her family, where she would often voice concerns to her publisher son over his brand of journalism, including racy exclusives on celebrities and partisan stance on politics.
“We don’t always see eye-to-eye or agree, but we do respect each other’s opinions and I think that’s important,” she told Australian television ahead of her 100th birthday in 2009.
“I think the kind of journalism and the tremendous invasion of people’s privacy, I don’t approve of that,” she said.
Murdoch’s death comes at the end of a tumultuous year for News Corp, with the company under attack over phone hacking in Britain and amid tensions among those in line to one day replace Rupert Murdoch at the head of the company.
Harold Mitchell, a major figure in Australia’s advertising industry who has done charity work alongside Murdoch, said Dame Elisabeth was deeply respected by her family and the community.
“I always found she was a great force in binding together many parts of the community and all people within her influence, and I‘m sure she had that same affect on her family,” Mitchell told Reuters.
Equal to the zeal with which the Murdoch publishing empire has defended its news gathering methods, the far-flung Murdoch clan have also worked hard to mask their own differences, including rivalries between Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth, and sons James and Lachlan, over the company’s leadership and direction.
Elisabeth, 44, a prominent television businesswoman, had been critical of her brother James’s stubbornness during the phone hacking scandal, the New Yorker magazine reported this month, while Lachlan always bristled over his father’s close supervision and left News Corp in 2005.
“He moved to Australia, and although he remains on the News Corp board, he has busied himself with his own media investments. James, the youngest, became the new heir, but he has always resented that Lachlan was their father’s favourite,” the magazine said.
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, with her forthright but graceful criticism and focus on family, was always able to draw warring family members back together, including after Rupert Murdoch’s much publicized divorce of Anna Murdoch and marriage to Wendi Deng in 1999.
Murdoch, who would have been 104 in January, is survived by 77 direct descendants, including three children Anne Kantor, Janet Calvert-Jones and Rupert. Her fourth and eldest child, Helen Handbury, died in 2004.
“Throughout her life, our mother demonstrated the very best qualities of true public service,” Rupert said in a statement issued by News Ltd, the Australian arm of News Corp.
“Her energy and personal commitment made our country a more hopeful place and she will be missed by many.”
Murdoch, 82, remained close to his mother despite leading a global media empire that required him to split his time between Australia, Asia, Britain, New York, and Los Angeles, among other places.
A young Melbourne socialite, Murdoch was 19 when she married Rupert’s father, Keith, in 1928. When Keith Murdoch died in 1952, Rupert took over his father’s newspaper business and set about turning it into a global media empire.
Elisabeth Murdoch was a prominent philanthropist, serving on and forming numerous institutes that promoted medical research, the arts and social welfare, and she was a supporter of more than 100 charities and organisations.
Her work earned her civil honours in both her native Australia and Britain, and she was made a Dame in 1963 for her work with a Melbourne hospital.
She believed that charity work involved being involved with people, and was more than just giving money.
She also decried the world’s obsession with materialism and wealth at the expense of personal relationships.
“I think it’s become a rather materialistic age, that worries me. Money seems to be so enormously important and I don’t think wealth creates happiness,” she told a television interviewer.
“I think it’s personal relationships which matter. And I think there’s just a bit too much materialism and it’s not good for the young.”
While her son remains a divisive figure, Elisabeth Murdoch was widely admired in Australia and her death attracted tributes from across the political divide.
“Her example of kindness, humility and grace was constant. She was not only generous, she led others to generosity,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said as she offered condolences to the Murdoch family.
Reporting by Adam Kerlin in New York and James Grubel and Rob Taylor in Canberra; Editing by Alex Richardson