I picked up the book Murdoch (1993) by William Shawcross in the cheapie bin at Lifeline book sale in January. The book is an unauthorised biography and does not hold back criticism though Shawcross is recently on the record saying Murdoch saved journalism, at least in the UK. The front cover of my copy of his 1993 book is torn – an eye is scratched out of the subject’s portrait on the front cover. While those protesting against him outside the IPA dinner in Melbourne last week might have deliberately torn it, it looked more like a label had been removed. I didn’t hold much hope I’d find a tattered 600-page, 20-year-old volume on Rupert Murdoch interesting, so it lay unread for several months under a pile of other books.
By coincidence it filtered back to the top of the pile as the media baron made a rare return to Australia last week. As he appeared at the Melbourne gig, he was greeted by a protester wearing a mask of Murdoch as the devil. The image of Murdoch as Satan won’t bother a Catholic/wee free 82-year-old whose gods are money and power but the protester was not the first nor last to imagine him as evil incarnate.
Forbes ranks Murdoch as the 91st wealthiest person in the world but the 26th most powerful person. In this category Forbes tucks him in one spot ahead of Jeff Bezos of Amazon and one behind Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Yet it hard to imagine similar hatred against Bezos or Zuckerberg. Despite a silver spoon upbringing, Murdoch has always been an outsider and his modus operandi has always been blatantly ‘my way or the highway’.
Only 200 pages in, Shawcross’s book is a gripping read following Murdoch’s footsteps, from out of the giant shadow of his father Keith and into the world of international communications. Murdoch snr was one of the most important people in Australia in the first half of the 20th century. In 1915 Keith’s reports from Turkey to the Australian Prime Minister precipitated the end of the Gallipoli campaign. He grew as an editor in the 1920s under the tutelage of British press baron Viscount Northcliffe, Alfred Harmsworth.
Harmsworth showed Murdoch snr the importance of keeping a paper lively, a virtue Keith passed to Rupert. Keith Murdoch was a hugely influential managing editor but at his death in 1952 aged 63 he only owned two newspapers: the Adelaide News and the Brisbane Courier-Mail. The titles passed to his only son. Young Rupert was still at Oxford University but already well mentored in the successful ways of newspapers by Harmsworth through his father: explain, simplify, clarify.
His mother Dame Elizabeth was immensely powerful in her own way and it was her recommendation to sell the Courier-Mail when the Herald and Weekly Times came calling. Still overseas, Rupert acquiesced but was furious and was determined to build up what was left of his inheritance quickly. The Adelaide News was the minor paper in town compared to the Advertiser. But Murdoch’s inexhaustible energy pumped it up.
Never with much time for “elites”, Murdoch delighted in stoking up the News’s anti-authoritarian voice. In conservative Adelaide, the News never strayed too far from accepted opinions. Murdoch was left-wing at Oxford and had a strong interest in Communism and a bust of Lenin in his dorm room. But once established as a newspaper owner, instinctive love of capitalism grabbed him by the throat. Even more than his managing editor father, Rupert became obsessed by the bottom line. He learned quickly how to pick winning politicians and then back them all the way.
Murdoch was more than an astute proprietor; he knew every area of his business. Often he and his senior managers would put out the paper when journalists went on strike. He impressed the printers in London when he climbed onto a machine and found the bar to fold the pages to ensure the presses could run in tabloid format. Murdoch had inexhaustible energy and ran his business by telephone, constantly looking for deals to expand his footprint. His specialty was purchasing loss-making operations and turning them around.
He quickly outgrew Adelaide and brought his racy tabloid format to Perth before breaking into the Sydney market. Fairfax’s boss Rupert “Rags” Henderson preferred to sell a down-at-heels Mirror to Murdoch in 1960 than more established rivals (to the chagrin of his own Fairfax board). Murdoch seized the chance to buy in to Australian’s premier market-place. He could not immediately break into Sydney television but his Adelaide station was making money.
In the late 1960s, Murdoch was looking toward the UK and USA. He bought the News of the World after a protracted battle with Robert Maxwell and later The Sun. The News of the Screws was already a gutter product before Murdoch bought it, but the Dirty Digger (as the unforgiving British establishment called him) took it further downmarket. While his papers were successful, he and especially his second wife Anna Torv, hated London. Anna was the intended victim of a kidnapping and the wife of an employee died in her stead. They were more anxious than ever to get a foothold in the US.
Murdoch started with two papers in San Antonio, Texas. The papers performed solidly though Texans were slow to appreciate Murdoch’s formula for success: exaggerated headlines, a lively style and infatuation with sex and crime. But it worked better once he got his foothold into New York through The Post, the third paper in the US’s biggest city behind the News and the Times. But the summer of 1977 and the long-running Son of Sam saga, gave Murdoch the chance to dominate news. The powers-that-be and his rivals detested Murdoch’s hyped story-at-all-costs but he didn’t care. They were just elitists or “pipe smoking journalist academics” and he was giving the people what they wanted. Murdoch’s power in his native land grew as his international interests expanded. He could even afford a loss-leader: The Australian.
Founded in 1964, the Australian was unique as a national paper in a country with deep metropolitan divisions. Its early years established itself as a serious force and part of the national political conversation under editor Adrian Deamer. Deamer was good (and Murdoch grouchily acknowledged him as the paper’s best editor 20 years later), but he was too independent and too removed from Murdoch’s growing conservatism and was sacked. Murdoch wanted editors to implement his formula, not set a path for social revolution.
Though he supported Whitlam in 1972, Murdoch actively plotted against him three years later. Malcolm Fraser was the beneficiary (just as New York Mayor Ed Koch was two years later) of Murdoch political largesse. As a US watcher of that Koch election put it, “When the New York Times gives its support you’ll be lucky to get an editorial but when Murdoch supports you, you get the whole paper”.
Murdoch was becoming a king-maker, something prospective kings would learn to take into account in dealings with him. Australia is now small potatoes in Murdoch’s global reach but he remains the dominant figure in the local landscape. The Greens calls News Ltd hate media, but Prime Minister-in-waiting Tony Abbott was in the IPA audience last week listening to the Sun King. In 2011, former News Ltd editor Bruce Guthrie suggested Murdoch has told his people Australia needed a change of government and his editors were simply doing his bidding. Guthrie had a spectacular falling out with Murdoch but he makes a good point about the extent of his company’s power: “Given News controls about 70 per cent of Australian newspapers, which, in turn, feed talkback radio and evening news bulletins, that’s a fight most politicians want to avoid.”
At the IPA dinner, Abbott called Murdoch “probably the Australian who has most shaped the world”. Abbott was on less firmer ground when he said Murdoch’s opinionated but broad-minded publications had “borne his ideals but never his fingerprints”. “He’s influenced them but he’s never dictated to them”, Abbott claimed. Murdoch hasn’t had to dictate to his editors. A few courageous exceptions like Deamer and Guthrie aside, most of them have known exactly what to do to keep their job.