The reporter placed her digital recorder on Ken Cowley's desk and it was running when he elected to slip his proverbial RM Williams boot into Rupert Murdoch's chosen heir, Lachlan. ''Both James and Elisabeth are much smarter than he is,'' Cowley said of Lachlan's brother and sister. Cowley, who had been Rupert's most trusted lieutenant in Australia for almost 40 years, ought to have known his remarks would be newsworthy. At 79, he might also have been wise enough to suppose that the troops at News Corp would kick him back with their steel-cap Blundstones. Cowley, half-owner of RM Williams, was alongside Rupert Murdoch 50 years ago to help him establish The Australian, a newspaper rarely coy about flattening its proprietor's detractors; a vehicle that reversed quietly over Cowley even as he retreated on Monday. Lachlan Murdoch, who in March returned to the fold as Rupert's co-chairman at News Corp, would have been alarmed two days earlier to read the front page of Fairfax Media's The Australian Financial Review, which quoted Cowley declaring that the elder Murdoch had anointed the wrong child. It should have been Elisabeth. ''She's the smartest of all them,'' Cowley said. ''I've tried to tell him. He got angry with me. He said, 'Oh you're saying it just because she's a woman.' I said, 'I am not! It's her brain!' … He's got an old-fashioned view [of women]. And … he thinks he's going to live forever.'' Cowley had been mentor to Lachlan, who succeeded him as head of News Corp Australia in 1997, but he told the AFR's associate editor Anne Hyland: ''I like Lachlan. He's a nice man, but he's not a great businessman. He's not a big and good decision-maker in my opinion.'' The Australian struck back on Monday. In a front-page story it quoted Cowley claiming he had been misled, misquoted, verballed and quoted from off-the-record remarks, and that he thought he was being interviewed for a small business story about RM Williams. He had no recollection of telling Hyland that The Australian was ''pathetic''. The AFR had put that in a business, not editorial, context. Either way, Cowley now reckoned it was ''the best paper in the country'' and he had high regard for Lachlan. Cowley and his wife were devastated by the AFR article and he had called The Australian's editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell, to apologise. In case readers were not yet convinced, The Australian's Blundstone avengers kicked the repentant Cowley. The paper could reveal that Lachlan Murdoch had advised against News Corp throwing a $30 million to $40 million lifeline to Cowley's battling carbon farming and cattle company, and Lachlan had declined his request to join the board of RM Williams Agricultural Holdings. (Get it? Cowley must have been motivated by sour grapes.) And former News chief John Hartigan said Cowley's quoted remarks "seem to me to be the words of a corporate revisionist". "I'm sure my many former colleagues share with me in offering sympathy to someone so gripped by delusion," he said. The Oz also pointed out an omission in Hyland's coverage: that Cowley was the architect of News' ''disastrous'' attempt to create the super league in the 1990s, a ''mess'' Lachlan had to clean up. The paper's Media section rounded up a cheer squad to vouch for Lachlan's business credentials - James Packer, Gerry Harvey and APN News and Media chief Michael Miller. Wouldn't have happened in Cowley's day, surely. He did not return calls. Nor did Mitchell. The AFR and Hyland stand by the story. Hyland interviewed Cowley at his Milsons Point office on May 22. After discussing RM Williams, Cowley had offered his opinions on other matters ''unprompted by me'', she wrote on Monday.