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Rupert Murdoch's Australian dream

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Rupert Murdoch checks pages of the newly launched Australian newspaper, 15 July 1964 (Image via mumbrella.com.au)

Does Australia really need a national newspaper? Or is its existence just about one man's pride? The man who helped set up The Australian with Rupert Murdoch, Rodney E. Lever, comments.

IN 1911, THE LABOR GOVERNMENT under Andrew Fisher consolidated existing local and State banks into one Commonwealth-owned bank to secure and support the wealth pouring in from the gold miners, as well as sheep, cattle and general agriculural farming led by the squattocracy.

In the British mind, Australia was still a colony and the mother country was entitled to a share of Australia's wealth. When Victoria suffered a major financial crash after feverish home and roads building for a growing population between 1890 to 1901, the British banks felt no obligation.

Ben Chifley became prime minister of Australia at the end of World War II and went to an Imperial postwar conference in London with his Director-General of the Department for Postwar Reconstruction, H. C. ("Nugget") Coombs, where together they ensured that the Commonwealth Bank of Australia would be able to meet the needs of their own country without future reliance from the exhausted British Empire.

During the period of the Victorian crash, a bankruptcy lawyer named Theodore Fink made a personal fortune from the crash. He found an obscure legal avenue in British law that had been copied word for word into Australian Law and remained there even after Federation. That discovery saved many businessman and some newspaper owners from debtor's prison. In lieu of payment, Fink took property and land, as well as taking possession of a number of early Victorian newspapers.

In 1900, Fink amalgamated the newspapers and registered a company as the Herald and Weekly Times and subsequently employed Keith Murdoch as editor of The Herald.

Keith Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s father, rose through the company to become a director and, when Fink died in 1942, became chairman.

After his father's death, Rupert genuinely expected that he would replace Keith as the head of the company, or at least obtain a senior role. He told me about it himself.  He said he had been robbed of his inheritance.

He was refused a place on the board. He would have to earn that position first and he was not popular in the company's executive management. His mother, against Rupert's wishes, was persuaded to sell Keith's own Herald and Courier-Mail shares back to the company.

Rupert chose to use what was left of the family's assets after death duties to establish himself in the publishing business.

One of the Murdoch family assets was the magazine publisher, Southdown Press, in Melbourne, as well as the Adelaide afternoon paper, The News. He continued to use the National Bank to finance his future acquisitions. The chairman of the National Bank, John Getty, had replaced Keith Murdoch as chairman of the Herald and Weekly Times.

Ron Corbett was in charge of the finance at Southdown Press. We often played weekend golf with two senior executives of the CBA and discussed switching our accounts from the National Bank.

The Fairfax family then purchased the Norton papers, including the afternoon Daily Mirror and the three editions of the weekly Truth in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, before virtually handing them over to Rupert so that he would then be satisfied.

When Rupert completed his purchase of the Truth group, he made me the manager for the incipient, yet still unnamed, national newspaper. 

The first serious plans for the new national paper began in Melbourne, in a rented building conveniently across the road from Truth. There was no lift. Visitors had to climb a staircase up three levels to the very top offices occupied by a small staff of salesmen, hoping to raise support by securing early advertising contracts.

Keith Barrow, the Adelaide News’ advertising manager, had a heart problem and died tragically soon after coming to Melbourne. Rupert was bounding up those stairs one day and saw Keith struggling.

Rupert told Keith's deputy:

"Keith's too fucking old. Tell him to go home."

Keith came to see me and cried. I gave him a cup of tea and my best advice.

His deputy came to me also in tears, asking:

"What should I do?"

Keith died one week later.

He had worked for The News all his life.

I was required to fly to Canberra every Monday morning for what was loosely described as a "conference". More accurately it was a "free for all." The growing number of would-be journalists and executives were all pushing their own often impractical ideas.

Rupert asked me what "column rules" were. Someone had urged column rules and someone else was demanding no column rules. It was that silly!

I wrote an article for Crikey some years ago describing how journalists and would-be editors had flocked to Rupert's door wanting to be part Australia's new national newspaper. 

Some practical issues bothered me. Not least of them was how papers printed in Canberra could be distributed all over Australia seven days a week. The more I thought about it, the more impossible it seemed.

Anybody who has lived in Canberra for some time would know of its notorious and unpredictable winter weather. Interstate and international planes were often locked in by heavy cloud, particularly early in the day.

Rupert said he would use private charter planes. But charter planes and passenger planes were frequently locked on the ground sometimes until lunchtime. Canberra's winter weather is notorious for heavy fogs that last for hours. Private charter planes faced the same control tower restrictions as commercial passenger planes. 

Thousands of freshly printed copies of the new paper sat nearly all day until it was too late to send them. They went to the tip instead. Reliability and regularity are essential for regular newspaper readers.

When I was a night-shift copy boy at the Daily Telegraph, earning twenty five shillings a week, I would nearly always be too late to catch the Manly ferry home.

Sometimes I slept on a couch in the Women's Weekly offices on the top floor. Other times, I would hitch a ride on one of the trucks that delivered the papers to newsagents on the beaches from Manly to Palm Beach.

I made friends with the Manly driver and we had a deal that I could ride on the back of his truck and throw off the marked bundles at each of the newsagents. It saved the Manly driver time and got me home before dawn.

I would jump off at the Corso and he would go further north. I had a one-and-a half-mile walk up a steep hill to reach Bower Street.  

I told Rupert that he had serious problems getting The Australian distributed if they arrived late. The agents already did two runs for home deliveries every day. They'd never do a third run.

"Crap." he said. "They'll have to do another."

There was nothing in the agent's contract that required three daily deliveries.

Agents have rights, too. They would deliver The Australian with the afternoon paper, effectively a day late with the yesterday's news. Customers were soon cancelling The Australian in droves, refusing to pay the agents.

Rodney E. Lever generously gifted Independent Australia with the first (incredibly rare) dummy edition and number one edition (above) newpaper pulled off their respective print runs.

After a dummy edition was produced on July 14, 1964, the first public edition of The Australian paper was distributed the next day.

“A clean and handsome thing,” wrote Keith Inglis in Nation magazine after, 1964. It was the only really good thing one could find to say about a paper that led its front page with an hysterical beatup threatening the collapse of the Federal coalition. It didn’t happen then and it hasn’t happened since.

In Canberra, I met Solly Chandler, who had retired from Fleet Street after a long stint as deputy to the legendary Arthur Christiansen, editor of Max Aitken’s Daily Express for 24 years, and the man who revolutionised newspaper layout and set new standards that the rest of Fleet Street eagerly copied.

Hank Bateson of the Sydney Mirror was The Australian's editorial manager in 1964. A level-headed veteran of the Norton group, Hank was enthusiastic for Solly to be editor. Others argued that the editor of the new national daily had to be someone born in Australia.

In the end, Rupert chose an economics graduate with disputed journalistic abilities. It was the first and worst mistake he made, the forerunner of many more. None of Rupert's papers have had so much pressure put on the staff than The Australian. The level of internal disputation, the on-the-spot sacking of a range of great editors and journalists were all signs it would never last.

It beggars the use of the word "if."

In the aftermath, just about everybody wished for Solly Chandler, an all-round newspaperman; an editor and writer as well as a creative technician. He had a puckish sense of humour and a gift for attracting bucket-loads of readership, whether he was running a racy tabloid or a sober politicised broadsheet.

Rupert had hired Solly to be the editor of The Australian. On one of my early visits to Canberra, he told me the sad story of how the whole concept had turned into disarray and calamity. In the frenzy of personal ambition that surrounded Rupert at that time, he was run over by the pack.

Solly was a quiet, modest man of few words, but a mercilessly ruthless editor ‒ he never sacked people, he “strangled” them ‒ and he demanded the best.

When Solly came to Melbourne to edit Truth, he and I became close friends, attending race meetings,  dog tracks and hobnobbing with some of the more powerful personalities and politicians. He had a way of making friends and influencing people, and picking up odd conversations that he turned into a story. 

He would hang out with state premiers, federal politicians, senior public servants and some of Victoria's worst criminals. At first, he was working close to 24 hours a day, sleeping in the office, and writing most of the paper himself, leaving only the racing editor, Ron Taylor and Molly O'Connell — Truth's jealous guardian of the paper's archives and an incredible source of information.

Everybody else, he strangled.

Truth began to attract a team of brilliant young journalists, most of who are still alive and working elsewhere.  At the end of his first year, Solly had doubled the circulation, then trebled it.

Solly's wife Wynn was a joyful personality. When my wife, Pam, gave birth to a daughter, Wynn came to our house and stayed for several weeks. She looked after all our young children, bathing them, putting them to bed, reading them stories, giving Pam the break she badly needed, since I had long hours at work.

Solly Chandler (right) and Hank Bateson looking at a page one proof with Murdoch on 15 July 1964. (Image via Inside Story)

I wrote a story myself for Truth and it splashed the front page. The Hollywood movie star Judy Garland came to sing to a huge Melbourne audience in the old John Wren wrestling stadium, as did other stars from time to time, including Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope. 

Judy Garland was an hour and a half late that night and so inebriated when she finally arrived that she could barely squark the words of her traditional musical triumphs. It was a Thursday night and a tragic experience that brought tears to the eyes of the thousand or so people who had waited for her. I was sorry for her but I had to go back to the Truth office and write a story, without being too cruel.

In Truth, Solly had captured the spirit of John Norton. It was too much for Dame Elisabeth Murdoch. When Rupert closed Melbourne Truth, it was because his mother was embarrassed. Unwittingly, Solly had stepped into an area that shook the good and not-so-good citizens of Toorak, her friends and her charity contributors. It was as simple as that. Ultimately, Rupert closed Truth in Sydney and Brisbane. The era of the wild men was over.

Solly went to Sydney seeking another job. I was in Darwin then. He wrote me a long private and personal letter. I didn't even have time to reply. Solly died just a day or two later while among friends at the Hotel Australia. He suddenly collapsed on the floor and was dead. He loved to sip a good brandy, but I never ever saw him drunk. It was too late for me to write back. 

Solly had attributes that could have made The Australian a great newspaper. He was not just a tabloid man, or a Truth man. He was a newspaper giant who understood that elegant design, good concise writing, a sense of humour and intelligent and substantial content all need to work together to make a newspaper successful.

The Australian today shows no sign of ever being able to reach a peak of excellence comparable with Brian Penton’s wartime Telegraph or The Age in E G Perkins’ short seven years as editor or Ted Bray’s Courier-Mail.

It falls well short of Melbourne’s Herald and The Sun in the days when Rupert’s father worked for Theodor Fink (the true founder of the Herald and Weekly Times and its chairman for 40 years, but now the invisible man in the company history).

Keith Murdoch learned his craft as a reporter in the streets and suburbs of Melbourne, not at Oxford University where Rupert learned nothing. He has been criticised for his leanings in politics, but Keith is still a significant memory, as well as having formed the crucial partnership between the famous Reuters news service and AAP, he was a genuine, if often controversial, newspaperman.

His personal papers in the archives of the National Gallery in Canberra have revealed more of his character than any of the books he inspired. Childhood speech difficulties made it easier for him to write than talk. Many of the notes he wrote to members of his staff exist in his personal papers.

To his editorial staff:

‘No cheap or sloppy thought should find expression in our papers. We should always leave the reader feeling he has been reading a wholesome, fragrant newspaper, fearless in tone but appreciative of all that is good.’

To a reporter:

‘The general public is censorious, suspicious, and self-opinionated. We should always remember this. The reader does not always believe everything we say.’

To one editor:

‘Flaring headlines over flimsy matter simply nauseates readers.’

How true. How true indeed.

You can follow Rodney on Twitter @RodneyELever.

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