What went wrong at The Australian: an insider's account

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The man who helped Rupert Murdoch establish The Australian, Rodney E. Lever, feels some regret about a newspaper he says "remains the idiotic plaything of rogue amateur journalism".

The Australian has "shredded ... once proud standards of Australian journalism".[/caption]

I ALWAYS CRINGE whenever I read an intelligent critique of The Australian and the way it has shredded the once proud standards of Australian journalism — because perhaps, only in a minor way, I feel responsible.

It is the most ill-conceived newspaper ever produced in this country, even worse than John and Ezra Norton’s Truth because The Australian had presumptions that Truth never had.

Its conception arose one Saturday in Melbourne, when I drove Rupert Murdoch to the Caulfield races and we spent the afternoon together. (It may not be universally known that Rupert’s grandfather had been, in earlier years, the official starter at Caulfield races.)

At that time, Rupert was particularly disappointed at having been rejected as an applicant for a television licence in Perth and was moaning to me that he had lost out because he had no political influence. That licence had gone to the West Australian, which gave the Herald and Weekly Times group two licences, where all the other publishers got only one.

Rupert blamed his disappointment on Robert Gordon Menzies who, as Prime Minister, had reluctantly agreed to allow television in the country.

Rupert’s father had been fairly kind to Menzies — but not always. Their private correspondence reveals that their relationship was more intimate than with the other publishers.

Rupert, at that time seen as a brash and ignorant upstart in certain circles, had no political influence at all. While he was at Oxford, he had corresponded occasionally with Ben Chifley, who always replied courteously. Soon, Rupert would strike up a friendship with John McEwen, head of the Country Party in coalition with the Menzies Liberals. This resulted in some mutual benefit. (And was particularly important later when Rupert wanted to buy the British News of the World — but that is another story.) Indeed the very first edition of The Australian would headline a threat by McEwan to take his party out of the coalition.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="336"] President John Kennedy, centre, with Rupert Murdoch, right, and the Daily Mirror editor, Zell Rabin, at the White House in 1962.

Rupert had recently spent a few weeks driving alone around Australia and buying any provincial newspaper he could get his hands on. His technique was simple: he would bully the owner into selling his paper with a threat that he would start a competing paper in the town. He had some successes, notably in Mt Isa and Darwin. (His Mt Isa paper lost a long battle with the mining company, but his Darwin paper survives.)

Previously, he had acquired the afternoon Sydney Daily Mirror and the scandalous Norton weekly Truth — only because none of the other proprietors wanted either paper or its clapped out printing presses.

Rupert got it cheap and it had become a major success, adding to The News in Adelaide and another bargain buy, The Sunday Times in Perth.

Rupert needed political influence if he was going to fill his television ambitions. At that time, I had been studying some of the new newspaper publishing technologies that were emerging overseas. It was the first stirrings of the technology boom that would change the world in the last half of the 20th century. One of the benefits would be to make it possible in Australia to print a national newspaper that could be distributed throughout the country, using offset presses and digital equipment and photography.

I also suggested mildly to him that, if he wanted more influence, he should buy the Canberra Times, then owned by the Federal Capital Press, whose proprietors were the general manager Arthur Shakespeare and his brother Bill, who was advertising manager. The brothers had inherited the business from their father, a Canberra pioneer. The Times was the favourite paper of politicians who had to remain in Canberra for long parliamentary sessions in the days when, unlike now, many of them could not go home for weekends. They read the Canberra Times most avidly each day because it reported all their speeches and recorded their attendance at diplomatic functions — and simply because it was available earlier than the interstate papers, which didn’t reach Canberra until lunchtime.

I told Rupert that Arthur Shakespeare was a nervous little man with some commercial links with the Sydney Morning Herald and that he would have to be careful to win him over if he wanted to buy the company. Rupert’s eyes seemed to be glazing over. Soon afterwards, I heard that he had gone to see Shakespeare and, after an anxious meeting and some phone calls, Arthur had flown to Sydney and sold his company to Warwick Fairfax.

Time passed and one day I got a call in Melbourne from Rupert telling me to start setting up a bureau for his new national daily newspaper. That was late in 1963.

Paul Whittaker, Rupert Murdoch and current The Australian editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell

The newspaper industry has existed in Australia for 200 years, dominated by a few families: the Finks, the Murdochs, the Symes of Melbourne, the Fairfaxes and Packers of Sydney and the Nortons — all having been prominent in our history. (Theodor Fink was the founder of the Herald and Weekly Times company in 1900, succeeded after his death in 1940 by Rupert’s father, who died in 1952.)

The days of newspaper wars are finished now. The Australian attracts some attention, mainly through rival media, including television, the internet, radio and other newspapers revelling in reporting some of its more outrageous – and often false – proclamations.

The paper may continue, but only as long as Rupert Murdoch’s wealth and ego can support it.

Beyond that, it may also have some practical future on the national scale — with better reporting. But not while it remains the idiotic plaything of rogue amateur journalism and an owner who rarely reads it and does nothing to change it.

(You can follow Rodney Lever on Twitter @ngungun.)

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