RUPERT Murdoch, the octogenarian media baron, has never officially anointed a successor-in-waiting among his four adult children.
But his choices may have just become a little more complicated following son James' ignominious exit from Britain in the wake of the telephone hacking scandal.
Murdoch's youngest son will move from London to New York and remain a senior executive with News Corporation following his surprise resignation from News International, which runs the company's scandal-plagued British newspapers.
But views among Murdoch watchers vary wildly on whether his humiliation is terminal, or whether he can regain the faith of his father and his status as heir apparent.
Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff insisted that James, 39, was finished at News, describing him as ''the shadow man''. ''Nobody talks to him - not even, at least not meaningfully, his father,'' he wrote in The Guardian. ''To say the least, there is no possibility that he will inherit the job.''
But others say that, far from being a demotion, it could be part of an elaborate plan to shore up the family dynasty's control of News, perhaps even at the expense of its newspapers.
David McKnight, associate professor and senior research fellow at the University of NSW Journalism and Media Research Centre, says it would be wrong to write James off. Family is everything to Rupert and he will do everything in his power to ensure the dynasty remains intact.
''I think the announcement moves James out of the firing line, and to that extent protects him minimally, and that reinforces my view that he is still the likely inheritor. He will be sitting at the right hand of God,'' said Professor McKnight, the author of a new book, Rupert Murdoch: an investigation of political power.
Michael Pryce-Jones, a spokesman for Washington-based CtW Investment Group, a shareholder activist organisation, said the announcement was designed to protect James and give him a fresh start in New York. ''Everyone else involved in the scandal has been thrown under the bus, but James Murdoch is being protected.''
But in his new job James will rank as a weakened No.3 in the corporate hierarchy, behind his 80-year-old father and chief operating officer Chase Carey, the man who, in Rupert's words, would replace him should he fall under a bus.
According to those close to the News Corp board, there has been a change in attitude towards the issue of the annointed successor.
''There's definitely been a change in sentiment. It's no longer about who gets the top job but more of a first-among-equals arrangement,'' said one person close to the board. ''It's not about one individual but where the family fits in and retains control.'' The Murdoch family controls 40 per cent of voting stock.
Under this scenario, Rupert would pass the baton of chairman and chief executive to Carey; James retains control of the television division, which Wednesday's announcement confirmed; daughter Elisabeth is enticed back into the fold to take on 20th Century Fox and TV production company Shine; and son Lachlan moves up to Carey's old position as deputy chairman.
The position of Lachlan, 40, is intriguing. He quit New York in 2005 and returned to Australia, where he now runs the Ten Network.
Two weeks ago, Rupert made a dramatic appearance in The Sun newsroom in London in the company of Lachlan to announce the start-up of a Sunday edition to fill the void left by the closure of the disgraced News of the World. James was nowhere to be seen.
People familiar with the dynamics of the Murdoch family have said in recent months that Elisabeth, 43, has been urging her father to remove James from all executive authority because of what she has described, often openly at London dinner parties, as James' incompetence and arrogance in his handling of the tabloid scandals.
Regardless of the motivation for the move, no one believes James will be safe in New York from the scandals in Britain.
He will leave behind a swarm of inquiries and investigations into News International, including three related police investigations, an inquiry into press ethics and a parliamentary committee investigating phone hacking.
At the time of the closure of the News of the World last summer, the outcry over the company's behaviour led James to withdraw a $12 billion bid to buy the majority share of British Sky Broadcasting, a satellite TV company that News Corp partially owns.
''You could put him in any division, and there's no way he escapes the implications if he was involved'' in hacking and bribery at the British newspapers, said David Bank, a media analyst at RBC Capital Markets.
Rupert effort to limit the damage comes at a time when the scandal seems more likely to worsen than to relent. Scotland Yard's chief investigative officer in the case said on Monday that ''people at a very senior level within'' The Sun had authorised hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to ''a network of corrupted officials'' in the British police, armed forces and government.
Rather than a punishment, Rupert sought to portray James' move as an enlargement of his responsibilities for News Corp's international television holdings, a field in which he has won plaudits as profits have soared in the British, European and Asian operations he has overseen for the past decade.
He also seemed to offer a glancing defence of his son's role in the tabloid scandals by saying that he had made ''lasting contributions'' in his ''efforts to improve and enhance governance programs'' at News International and the TV operations.
James, too, seemed to claim credit for helping to clear up the British scandals by saying in the company announcement that with the start-up of The Sun on Sunday and ''new business practices in place across all titles, News International is now in a strong position to build on its successes in the future''.
Oversight of the British newspapers will be taken up by Tom Mockridge, chief executive of News International, who will report to Carey. Mockridge is a New Zealander who once worked as press secretary to Paul Keating.
With WASHINGTON POST, NEW YORK TIMES