“Never trust a Sydney newspaper proprietor,” Sir Keith Murdoch told his son Rupert, who was in time to become one himself. The Sydney press lords were once a famously weird mob—and whether they remain so is an open question.
The Packer dynasty; the odd couple of stately, unworldly Warwick Fairfax and his polar opposite R.A.G. (“Rags”) Henderson; and further back the neurotic and bullying Ezra Norton, son of Napoleon admirer John Norton, founder of the “awful” Truth, Australia’s most memorable scandal sheet. Their doings and frailties and those of the senior Murdoch dominate Sally Young’s lively and often fascinating Paper Emperors. Young is a Professor of Political Science at Melbourne University.
This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The Melbourne proprietors in times past were outwardly nearer the average Australian, but part of interlocking business groups who kept each other comfortable in a way that would horrify modern economists, though not perhaps executives. Murdoch, Syme, Baillieu, Fink, Robinson and Wren are names that still resonate a century on, like those of politicians.
This book is the first of a planned three volumes. It starts with the launch in 1803 of the Sydney Gazette, a government information sheet becoming a newspaper, its editor, George Howe, appropriately a reformed convict, becoming rich and religious. It ends with the fall of the first Menzies government in 1941, the Pacific War imminent and the modern era dawning.
In Howe’s day and for long afterwards printing was simple and fairly inexpensive. Printers set the type by hand and turned a handle to operate the press. By 1941 the presses were huge, efficient, productive—and very expensive. Radio was eating into the market for newspapers and in London and New York television had arrived. Much of Young’s story is about, as well as the colourful bosses, the remorseless rise of printing technology, with both the huge opportunities it brought and the hunger for ever more capital to feed the beast or die.
The author has had access to abundant, revealing private papers and correspondence, some published for the first time. The documents tell the story of rather byzantine relations, friendly and otherwise, between newspapers, governments and other businesses. Young documents many a devious, though rarely very wicked, deal that when exposed a century later could still be a touch awkward for newspaper executives and politicians alike. In earlier times, politicians often owned newspapers. A century later it was more convoluted rivalry for influence.
Hypocrisy was a tool of the trade. Newspapers wanted a free market and free trade when it suited them but regulation and subsidies when it didn’t. They earned a living by exposures of others to enliven the news but, as Young quotes ex-editor David Bowman, “Newspapers will expose many things, but seldom each other.”
It is a wonderful overview from the top of Australian society in the years between the wars. Much has been written about Keith Murdoch, no dab hand at hypocrisy but in the Melbourne way more gentlemanly than most harbourside contemporaries. He is the dominant figure of the second half of this book, and Young’s pithy portrayal of him—as an “over-zealous” personality—is as deft as any.
I got a strange feeling that he was a similar, driven type to another Melburnian I have written about, B.A. Santamaria, with maybe a touch of Bob Hawke, without any of Hawke’s loud larrikin. Murdoch and Hawke were sons of Protestant ministers; Santamaria was a controversial lay Catholic activist. Murdoch and Santamaria both had a “Sydney problem”. All three had the same intense ambition and sense of destiny, the desire to acquire and use power and the knack of cultivating powerful older men to advance their career—the charm, but the bitter hurt when advice was rejected.
The most detailed episode is Murdoch’s relationship with Joe Lyons, who left the Labor Party over depression financing in 1931 to become conservative Prime Minister until he died in 1939. Murdoch used his newspapers to support Lyons and a chummy relationship developed until they disagreed. Similar ambivalence then developed with Menzies. But Lyons and Menzies do seem to have been over-sensitive to normal editorial criticism. The sometimes excessive hostility of the “Murdoch press” at that time also brought a sour animosity from the ALP that lingers still.
Nevertheless, Keith Murdoch, a rare combination of good journalist and good businessman, was mostly well-meaning and from being a junior suburban reporter had built Australia’s biggest, best, wealthiest and most powerful newspaper empire, The Herald and Weekly Times (HWT), though still a minor shareholder, when he died suddenly in 1952. Famously, his son has turned his small inherited portion into the world’s biggest, if not always loved, media empire.
Between the wars Melbourne’s Herald was dubbed “the best evening newspaper in the British Empire”. (The retort was that that said more about the British Empire than the Herald.) Its morning tabloid companion, the Sun News-Pictorial, was astonishingly successful with the public.
Keith Murdoch became editor of the Herald in 1921 (and much later managing director and chairman of the company). Its financial controllers then were city lawyer and businessman Theodore Fink and William Lawrence Baillieu, head of the establishment Collins House mining-oriented group. Both had been fortunate to come out as clean and newly respectable as they had from the notorious “land boom” of a generation earlier. They tended to see owning a newspaper (but a good one) as assisting their business interests.
Murdoch was more in control by the 1930s, though still a minor shareholder, when HWT acquired major, sometimes ailing newspapers in Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth as well as some smaller ones, a magazine stable and radio stations. Rather than being joined in a US-style “chain”, the acquisitions were in various degrees co-owned with local businesses or independents, out of sensitivity in the smaller capitals to interstate owners.
The chapter on the Murdoch-led newspapers attempting in the 1930s to limit the advance of radio into their news monopoly is a gem. (Young quips that brawling with the ABC might be a family characteristic.)
Young writes a lot about press bias, but it is a weakness of her otherwise good book that she does not define it well. The usual rule, if not always obeyed and often hard to define, is that owners and editors can express their views in editorials or “leaders”, but news reporting should be fair and accurate.
In a big story with big public interest, like the Lyons defection, sensational presentation can seem to one side like bias, but it is what the public wants and buys, and circulation soars. The greater sin, Young seems to say, is suppression of news, mainly to protect business interests. She is just as critical of the Age, young Keith Murdoch’s starting employer, for being bland. (Geoffrey Syme, its chief executive then, was Menzies’s favourite owner.)
The book’s tone is mostly sympathetic to the industry (and to politicians), aware of the real-world limitations, needs and problems. It is candid rather than critical and does not have the superciliousness of a lot of writing about media and business. However, it becomes a bit grumpy and tilts slightly to the Left in later chapters, as if the author has become exasperated after a century of press barons aspiring to run the country.
There is nothing wrong with newspaper executives and politicians discussing events. It is why and how they do it that matters, and Young’s book gives us an idea, including many an embarrassment and idiosyncrasy over 138 years.
It should be remembered that these proprietors and their political and business friends, oddities aside, were competent, reasonably honest people who bequeathed to later generations many good, lasting newspapers and industrial organisations, good for customers, employees and shareholders alike. They lived in difficult times and prepared the way for post-war prosperity.
Paper Emperors: The Rise of Australia’s Newspaper Empires
by Sally Young
UNSW Press, 2019, 654 pages, $44.99
Robert Murray is a journalist and author and frequent contributor to Quadrant on history