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Like father, like son

There have been two Murdoch media empires: one of which all the world cannot help but be aware, the vast globe-encompassing octopus of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation; the other, the original and lesser known, is the Australia-wide media business of Rupert’s father Keith Murdoch, built on behalf of the Herald and Weekly Times company between the wars. The son’s empire has dwarfed the father’s of course, yet in corporate philosophy, acquisition strategy and key decisions, the father’s career uncannily foreshadows the son’s.

Keith Murdoch was born in 1885 into the Presbyterian establishment of Melbourne. His father Patrick was a Christian minister of the muscular and worldly variety, who used his considerable contacts to get young Keith his first journalism job, covering the suburban beat for The Age newspaper. The tyro reporter saved his money and, in 1908, bought a passage to England with the hope of getting work on one of the big Fleet Street dailies. Nothing came of it. After nearly two years of failure and homesickness that gave him nothing but resentment towards the parochial and class-bound English society, Murdoch returned to Melbourne, becoming the Federal parliamentary reporter for the Sydney Sun.

Soon after war broke out, Murdoch was appointed the London editor of the United Cable Service, and was asked by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher to stop off in Egypt and investigate delays in mail deliveries to Australian troops. He did much more than that. Having managed to briefly visit Gallipoli, he wrote a scathing letter to Fisher outlining much of what was to become the Anzac legend: that the valiant diggers were being sent to the slaughter by their incompetent uppercrust English commanders. It was a dodgy piece of reportage – prejudiced, inflammatory and factually inaccurate – yet it made Murdoch’s reputation. Indeed, his entire career was founded on it.

In London, Murdoch’s newfound fame placed him in the circle of Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, who owned a clutch of papers that had all the social and political classes covered: the working class Daily Mirror, the petit bourgeois Daily Mail, the liberal Observer and the ruling class Times. His business motto, absorbed by Keith Murdoch and decades later passed down to young Rupert, was straightforward: ‘A newspaper is to be made to pay. Let it deal with what interests the mass of people. Let it give the public what it wants.’ When, in 1920, Murdoch was offered the editorship of the Herald in Melbourne, he followed this principle to the letter, brightening the trip home for Melbourne’s commuters with human interest, eye-catching headlines, women’s pages, competitions, and comics. Sales increased by almost fifty per cent within the first year.

Moved up the management chain to run the Herald and Weekly Times company, Murdoch began to expand and diversify. He bought or started up a number of specialist magazines, picked up a Melbourne radio station (3DB), and began to gather together a collection of major provincial newspapers, including the West Australian in Perth, the Advertiser and News in Adelaide, and the Courier and Mail in Brisbane, which he promptly merged. Throughout the thirties, Murdoch kept buying interests in radio stations across Australia, eventually making the Herald group the largest and most diverse media company in the country.

If this pattern of acquisition seems familiar then you probably know something of Rupert Murdoch’s early career; he used the same strategy of gathering modest assets to create a profitable base before taking on the Fairfax and Packer companies in their Sydney heartland. In the case of the elder Murdoch, his bid to take over Frank Packer’s failing Daily Telegraph in 1939 was thwarted by Packer colluding with the Fairfax family in a price-fixing arrangement, which saved the paper and kept Murdoch out of their market.

Perhaps the most important lesson Rupert Murdoch learnt from his father was that it’s not enough to run a media company successfully, you need to own it. As managing director, Keith Murdoch had made the Herald group a rich and powerful company, but his personal wealth was limited. Ailing with a heart condition in the final years of his life, Murdoch tried to acquire some profitable assets to leave his widow and children. With his employer’s assent, he bought a controlling interest in Queensland Newspapers, which published the Courier-Mail, and a year before retiring in 1948, he added a majority share in the Adelaide News. It was his intention that Rupert should eventually run these newspapers on behalf of the family. When Murdoch died in 1952, his widow Elizabeth, fearful of going into debt, allowed the shares in Queensland Newspapers be sold back to the Herald group. Studying at Oxford at the time, Rupert objected to the sale but couldn’t prevent it. He was forced to start his publishing career with just two major assets: a modest provincial newspaper, the News, and the considerable legacy of his father’s example.

This article is taken from the official souvenir programme for Rupert, available for purchase at Arts Centre Melbourne during the Melbourne season of the play.

images: Left – Sir Keith Murdoch (via Arts Centre Performing Arts Collection), Right – Sir Keith Murdoch with son Rupert Murdoch (via Melbourne Press Club)

Published on 22 August 2013