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”.
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.
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.
Early in 1964, I began to go to Canberra every Monday morning for conferences. Rupert had bought some land and had already built a new headquarters for the paper and installed a brand new printing press.
He had bought a home in Canberra.
Those meetings were total chaos. Friends of mine, the late Solly Chandler and Hank Bateson of the Daily Mirror, were helping to set up the new paper. They told me that chaos was a permanent feature while Rupert was there.
He was to have the paper printed in all the nation’s state capitals by flying cardboard matrixes all over the country before dawn in light aircraft. It was a disastrous conception, ignoring Canberra’s notorious winters when the city was clouded with heavy fog nearly every morning.
The Australian – printed in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra – arrived at newsagents long after their local morning papers had been delivered. The agents were being asked to do a second home delivery. Thus The Australian was being delivered with the afternoon papers, with its headlines already old news. Many of The Australians were simply being dumped.
I have a copy of the first edition of The Australian, published in Melbourne in the early morning of Wednesday, July 15, 1964. I was standing by the press as the run began and personally removed the first good copy from the delivery plate. It was designated Number One and the price was sixpence.
A single column down the front page is headed GOOD DAY and supposedly written by Rupert himself: “Here,” it said, “is Australia’s first truly national newspaper produced today because you want it, because the nation needs it.” The column went on filling space with a further 10 paragraphs making grand promises.
Looking back after 51 years, I wonder if any of these promises ever did materialise. Even today there are chest high piles of The Australian standing beside passenger entrances available free. I’ve never seen anyone pick one up.
I also have a copy of the real first edition — a practice run of a dummy paper published on the morning of July 14, a paper that carried the news of the day but was never delivered or sold. I had taken it from the press that previous early morning.
The Australian was to go through many dramas in its half-century of existence. First was a long procession of editors — more, perhaps, than any other newspaper in the world has experienced. Among the best were Adrian Deamer and Walter Kommer. Deamer was sacked because he persisted in running some articles sympathetic to the Indigenous owners of this country. Kommer had serious doubts about the Vietnam War; doubts shared by millions of Australians, but not permitted by Rupert Murdoch, who was by then opening gates towards his US ambitions.
The flow of editors continued for years, until he finally found some who could steer a careful course through Rupert’s business enthusiasms and political preferences of the moment — a skill required of people who are dull, unimaginative, timid or simply fiercely ambitious.
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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