Books

Tom D. C. Roberts
Before Rupert

“Men must have legends, else they die of strangeness,” said Les Murray, worried we lacked myths. Kidding, right? We have nothing but, from Ned Kelly to Ern Malley, to the Dismissal, and back to “the Dreaming”, which is itself a myth, a creation of anthropologists. Every nation has myths; we appear to specialise in metamyth, in which the mythmakers get mythologised. They do it with taxpayers’ dollars now. The recent sequence of mini-series detailing the heroic doings of Packer, Murdoch et cetera was simply a way of using the local content provisions to mythologise Australian tycoons past and present, on TV stations they owned, past and present. That is a degree of recursiveness that suggests Australia’s tycoons are vanishing up their own fundament. Soon nothing they don’t want us to see will be sighted of them, save Jamie Packer’s red kabbalah wristband, trailing like a tampon string of power.

Were there a real interest in telling our history, Tom D. C. Roberts’ new biography of Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, would be first in line for a TV treatment. One would be pleasantly surprised should that occur, because the book is not merely a demythologisation of the stories Keith made his fortune on, but of the man as mythmaker himself. The man who allegedly alerted us to the folly and slaughter of Gallipoli, to the waste of life and the indifference of British commanders was, then and forever, playing so many ends against each other that any notion of a middle disappeared. As Roberts shows, Keith developed what Rupert perfected; the presence of the media mogul, and his journalistic minions, working both sides of a story, advising politicians at the same time as reporting on the words they uttered, presenting them as news. It was the making of him as a mini-mogul, the undoing of him as a man. As with all great myths, the nemesis has passed to generations anew.

The Murdochs were Scots folk, from the town of Rosehearty. (Rupert, after a visit there, wore a cap emblazoned with the town’s name, perhaps in homage to Charles Foster Kane’s “Rosebud”.) Keith’s father Patrick emigrated and became entwined with the Melbourne establishment. When son Keith went back to the old country in 1908 to make his way, he took with him a letter of introduction from Alfred Deakin. Progress was slow at first, especially due to a bad stammer, alleviated by Lionel “King’s Speech” Logue, but he became a clubbable freelancer and then a keen student of the new “tabloid” press in New York, before returning to Melbourne. Along the way, he lost his faith in God, but, as he assured his father, gained faith in the media: admitting to the masses that there was no higher authority would create anarchy; the press was there to do the job the pulpit once performed, but purveying a necessary myth, not the truth.

This “moral” defence of elitist manipulation would echo down the century.

Back in Melbourne, Keith’s rise was “meteoric”, as his new tabloid style would have had it. He reported federal politics for The Age then Sydney’s Sun, before his connections got him into the action in Gallipoli when war broke out. That he broke the imposed silence over the disastrous course of the campaign is true; less well known is that he was simultaneously advising both Australian prime minister Billy Hughes and New Zealand prime minister William Massey on PR tactics to get conscription introduced, then breathlessly reporting their every move (he never tried to enlist himself).

Keith’s progress was rapid because he moved from apostasy to cynicism without bothering with an intervening period of decency. He smeared a sitting and military-serving Labor MP, to turf him out of his seat; he marshalled anti-Semitic mutterings against John Monash. The First World War put him at the centre of a whirlwind global career, befriending Lord Northcliffe, bonking the British prime minister’s daughter (and maybe, later, a sexagenarian Nellie Melba), sucking up to royalty before returning to Melbourne to run the Herald. There he dumped his fiancée to marry the better-born Elisabeth, and pushed a passion for the modern: broadcasting, photojournalism, eugenics, flying. When he helped engineer Joe Lyons’ split from Labor to create the United Australia Party, he had Lyons photographed with Charles Kingsford Smith and won him the election. 

His star rose until World War II when, appointed by Menzies as director-general of information, he attempted to impose a draconian censorship regime (one he urged support for via regular radio addresses). When Curtin sacked him, the Herald began to flout censorship to such a degree that General Douglas MacArthur, based in Melbourne, called him “a quisling”. In private. Publicly, they had a great mutual respect, or so the myth goes.

Trying and failing to pull together a national newspaper group with British financing, he was defeated by ill health, and died in 1952 after trying to purge left-wingers from the Herald newsroom. He had lived long enough, however, to see his son Rupert abandon such leanings and write like a “real” journalist. “He’s got it!” Keith exclaimed, reading one early effort. Murdoch fils would go on to what the father couldn’t, creating a media empire in the manner he had been taught: “preach and teach”. And smear, favour, influence, distort and censor.

Against his undoubted achievement in modernising Australia on many fronts, from the scandalous Herald art show of 1939 to pushing aviation and radio, must be set the original sin of this son of a preacher-man: to believe that the readership was there to be shaped and turned towards a set of prejudices masquerading as reflected-upon values. Roberts has done a great job of turning this into a fantastically readable story, and the flash-forwards to Rupert and James et al now – no doubt imposed by an anxious editor – are no more than mildly annoying. But maybe the book’s editor knew their business as much as Keith did: we live in the land of Oz, where almost nothing will disturb the myths we have retold for decades, no matter how many times the curtain is pulled away. Must-have myths? They’re just about all we’ve got.  XS

UQP, 392pp, $34.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2015 as "Tom D. C. Roberts, Before Rupert". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: XS

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