Murdoch’s father, Sir Keith (1885-1952), was an Australian media owner and a pioneer in favor trading between newspaper controllers and politicians: swift to see the new dimension in broadcasting licences. His career lifted off during World War I, as an agent conducting intrigues on behalf of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, while appearing to the world as simply as a journalist. He was a clandestine spin-doctor before spin was a term of art. For decades legend presented him as brave, maverick war correspondent, but in 1982 Geoffrey Serle’s biography of the great soldier John Monash (John Monash: A Life, 1990) exposed him finally as the opposite. Sir Keith was astonishingly ready to put journalism at the service of state power.
Keith’s newspaper and radio properties passed to Rupert in 1952 via a trust, which had to certify him as an appropriate successor. Some of us growing up in Australian journalism during the following years hoped Rupert might supersede the father’s philosophy. But his loyalty to Sir Keith’s methods soon grew clear.
They brought Rupert substance enough—generated largely from broadcasting licences—to make the News of the World bid. But the bid required political favors, earned by a revealingly dirty editorial trick.
The instrument was Murdoch’s first attempt at a serious paper, The Australian. Launched in 1964, it was legendary for chaotic incompetence—within weeks its 250,000 launch sale fell to nearly 50,000—and for its part in a savage succession battle after the death of Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967.
Murdoch’s close ally was Deputy Prime Minister ‘Black Jack’ McEwen, who had a special relationship with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)—and used it to develop “evidence” that his enemy Billy McMahon, federal Treasurer, was influenced by foreign agents. The allegations were grossly spurious even by standards of Joe McCarthy, but Murdoch’s Australian front-paged them two days running. And in a frantic political atmosphere Black Jack’s succession candidate, John Gorton, outmaneuvered McMahon.
In its gross partisanship, the incident seriously reduced The Australian’s already shaky credit, but many inner details were unknown until 2000, when some secret files came to light in the Australian Record Office. ASIO’s boss, Charles ‘The Scorpion’ Spry, was a good butt-covering bureaucrat: he carefully noted that everything had been done at McEwen’s command, and that McEwen had personally handed the phoney dossier to Murdoch.
A first point is that McEwen could never have run the conspiracy via a competent, honest newspaper. The true story—abuse of state-security powers in political vendetta—would automatically cancel the gross fake and terminate Black Jack’s career. Second, though unusually reckless, Murdoch’s behaviour was characteristic of his editorial attitude. The record of wheeling, dealing, and dismissals is too long to set out here, but there are books that amply document it.
When Murdoch departed for London to command the News of the World he left behind a moribund Australian, and local management were allowed put Adrian Deamer in charge. That he turned the Australian around was no total shock, because people remembered Deamer’s father, Syd, saving two papers for Sir Keith. (And departing after a ferocious row: probably because Syd loathed intrigue as deeply as Keith loved it.) And the 1970s were a turnround opportunity. The economy was booming, Australia was in conflict over Vietnam (its army was engaged), over feminism, over sporting racism (sport being akin to religion), and over aboriginal land rights.
Deamer’s gift was organizing limpid, precise coverage however disorderly the news. It was the first paper in years to get educated Australians enthusiastic. Sales nearly trebled in two years, and everyone was happy.
Whenever Murdoch flew in to see Deamer, it seemed that the paper’s workings puzzled him. Riffling through editions, he would take an arbitrary item and ask, more or less: ‘What’s that doing?’ This drew answers in the general form: “Christ, Rupert, I don’t know. If you stick around while we’re getting the paper out you’ll find out these kind of things.”
Two notions of control collided. Some tabloids are pure confection. Their editors locate every piece of glazed fruit consciously. But in a real news machine, trying to keep simultaneous tab on every moving part actually induces the chaos from which Deamer had extracted The Australian. Like most great editors he set some principles, chose people, told them not to waste time, and practiced a peculiar talent for incessant refocussing without distraction or exhaustion. He expected many things in the paper to surprise him.
Unfriendly debate continued until Murdoch said: “You’re not producing the sort of paper I want.” Deamer said: “Rupert, I don’t think you know what sort of paper you want. So until you do I’ll go on producing the paper I want.”