Books

Book cover: a portrait photograph of a young Rupert Murdoch.

Walter Marsh
Young Rupert: The making of the Murdoch empire

There’s an art to writing the journalistic yarn, and Walter Marsh has it. Young Rupert: The making of the Murdoch empire is his biography of the youthful Rupert Murdoch, documenting the kingpin’s rise and rise. In plain but far from dull prose, Marsh shows how Murdoch’s father, Keith, tried to leave his son an empire. Instead, young Rupert was the heir to a fight: “His father’s colleagues and rivals were descending on his inheritance like seagulls on a bag of chips.”

And how he fought. He fought other newspapers for advertising and circulation, such as Adelaide’s The Advertiser. He fought Western Australian parliamentarian William Grayden on the welfare of Aboriginal people, writing a cheery report of his desert travels (“some passages … read more like a travelogue”). He fought the Crown in South Australia on charges of “seditious libel”, after his headlines attacked commissioners.

Rupert Murdoch did not always win, but he rarely lost outright. To build his own empire, he was stubborn, brutal and willing to say whatever seemed necessary. “Monopoly is a terrible thing,” he told The New Yorker, “ till you have it.”

Marsh sketches fine portraits. We meet young Murdoch himself, toying with leftist ideas while partying in Europe in a Ford Zephyr (“real Murdoch style”). We meet Keith’s protégé and Rupert’s mentor, Rohan Rivett, taking his wireless radio to the toilet to keep up on breaking news. We also meet the newspaper offices of postwar Australia. I could almost smell the tobacco smoke and printer’s ink; almost feel the bristling moustaches of chauvinists, angry at one Rita Dunstan in their subeditors’ rooms.

Some of Marsh’s chapters are thrilling. I was surprised to find myself so entertained by Murdoch’s struggle against Sir Lloyd Dumas for control over Sunday publishing. I snorted aloud as Murdoch, seeking a new television licence, was lambasted by lawyer Antony Larkins. Other chapters are informative but less dramatic, such as Marsh’s brief history of South Australia and its early newspapers.

Consistent throughout Young Rupert is Marsh’s talent for research, which involves not only seeking the right sources but also using them correctly. He is careful with his conclusions, never peddling glib fantasies as facts.

It would be easy for a biographer to condemn Murdoch as a selfish, callous emperor, someone whose supposed youthful socialism was less an ethos and more an early talent for bullshit. But Marsh understands the worth of careful description: simply tell the truth about them and the worst condemn themselves.

Scribe Publications, 352pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "Young Rupert: The making of the Murdoch empire".

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