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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Trusts in Fact and Fiction

An article in The N.Y. Times today about Rupert Murdoch’s past and present wives, “Wife and Ex-Wife Now Shape News Corp.’s Fate,” suggests an updating of a time-honored literary theme—that of the family trust. According to Siklos and Fabrikant’s story, Murdoch’s most recent spouse, Wendi Deng, and his wife of thirty-one years, Anna Murdoch Mann, are vying on behalf of their children for control of the 28.5% of the News Corporation that the trust owns. Murdoch himself is portrayed as a remarkably passive figure in the narrative.

The most renowned novelistic representation of a trust and the miasma of legal intricacies that can consume the time and resources of generations in legal battles and fees, occurs, of course, in Dickens’ Bleak House. There the legal system itself seems largely to blame, as the arcane procedures of the Court of Chancery overwhelm any underlying substantive dispute. Although the reformist agenda of the novel had already been largely accomplished by the time that it was published in book form, Bleak House remains associated with the attempt to remedy the inconveniences and delays of nineteenth-century equity proceedings.

More recently, a family trust figured on the margins of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The narrator’s elusive “Uncle Giles” appears at unexpected moments—although with some regularity—throughout the work, and brings with him complaints about the distribution of the interest from the family trust. In this case, legal intricacies have complicated matters, and although Uncle Giles and Jenkins’ (the narrator’s) father have “come to a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ on the subject of their respective shares,” Uncle Giles persists in the belief that his share is inadequate, and, for different reasons at different times, should be adjusted. His appearances, however, had the disturbing effect of causing Jenkins to wonder “Would one’s adult days be spent in worrying about the Trust?”

In the Murdoch family, the stakes of the trust have shifted somewhat. Although money is doubtless an important component of whatever controversy exists, it seems that the direction of the News Corporation itself might be a more central concern. Indeed, in the words of the article, “The Murdoch children agreed that the trust could be changed to include their half sisters financially, but objected to their half sisters sharing control of the company . . . .” How the conflict over the trust is resolved may thus hold even more important implications for the general public and for the delivery of news than for the Murdoch family members and the legal system.

Perhaps it is time for a new fiction about struggles for control over trusts that will determine the direction of multinational companies as well as the financial futures of the beneficiaries.

Posted by berniemeyler on August 2, 2005 at 04:11 PM in Culture | Permalink

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