Rupert Murdoch had it coming for a long, long time.
I was there back in 1975 at the height of the greatest
constitutional and political crisis in Australian history when Murdoch showed
his contempt for truth, for journalistic integrity, for democracy itself.
After 30 years out of power, the Labor Party led by Gough
Whitlam won election in 1972 in no small measure thanks to support from the
then liberal-minded Murdoch who had come from nowhere to best the press lords
and become a powerful force in Australian journalism thanks to topless girls on
page three of his tabloids and a shameless willingness to appeal to the lowest
By 1975, Murdoch’s invasion of British journalism was
well under way and his politics had shifted sharply to the right. He joined in
a relentless bashing of the Labor government whose own follies allowed the
Governor-General, the queen’s surrogate, to sack Whitlam, install conservatives
into power and call a snap election.
Murdoch, as he did periodically, flew to Sydney and took
over running the news desk of The Australian, his one respectable broadsheet
As a reporter there and sometime news assignment editor,
it was fascinating to watch Murdoch work and to listen to him as he held court
from time to time.
He was a journalistic genius, like no one I’d seen before
or since. The only one close to him was Gene Pope, the demonic founder,
publisher and editor of the National Enquirer.
There was a common thread to them both. They grew up amid
wealth and privilege, yet they had an intuitive instinct for the guts of a
story, an uncanny sense of the mind of ordinary people, born, I believe, from contempt for their banality.
As a rewrite man at the National Enquirer I always felt
what I wrote was true, I just didn’t know if it was real. With Murdoch, neither
truth nor reality seemed to matter which is what makes his downfall so
With thousands of people protesting in the streets and
passions running out of control during the three week election campaign in
1975, Murdoch decided his lead political reporter’s work was too fair and
balanced so he took to throwing his stories in the wastebasket and writing them
himself under the reporter’s byline.
Labor’s last hope was that unemployment numbers coming
out on a Friday afternoon would show its economic policies were working and
that’s what the numbers released by the acting conservative government showed.
Murdoch was furious. He called the Minister of Labor and
demanded the numbers be revised and got what he wanted half an hour later,
allowing The Australian to report exclusively on the failure of Labor’s
It was astonishing to see how the news could be so
nakedly manipulated. The reporters and desk editors who saw what happened were
furious and by Sunday morning, a handful of us decided to do something about
We pressed leaders of the journalists’ union to call a
special meeting but they refused, kissing off the complaints. We found a
provision in the by-laws that allowed us to petition for an emergency meeting
over their objections and Monday evening during dinner break about 600
journalists at The Australian, Sydney Mirror and Sydney Telegraph gathered to
consider a motion to strike.
Unlike America, unions in Australia are powerful with
some 55 percent of the work force unionized back then and many of them run by
My impassioned pleas to stand up for the First Amendment
as if there was a Bill of Rights in Australia and to defend freedom of the
press and the integrity of our work seemed to be falling on largely deaf ears
as if my American English was truly a foreign language.
But then a drunken columnist with the tabloid Mirror
started jeering and disrupting the meeting, denouncing me in rhyming slang as a
“septic tank,” meaning dirty Yank and the room began to turn.
After much debate, we won the vote and no one went back
to work for 24 hours.
With Labor in tatters, Murdoch became the media story of
the final days of the election, appearing on television defending his actions.
The strike became part of the Murdoch lore. A couple of months later, I and two
other ringleaders were fired. Everyone went on strike again and we were offered
our jobs back or severance within hours. I went to work as correspondent for
Newsweek magazine and The Guardian in London.
For a long time, I loathed Murdoch and delighted in
heaping contempt on him. But as a got older and wiser I began to have a
grudging respect for what he had achieved as the greatest media mogul of the
last 50 years, of all time, in my estimation.
He had started with a small failing newspaper in
Adelaide, which he had gotten as settlement of a lawsuit based on broken
promises made to his father, a prominent newspaper executive who died young
while Rupert was in England as a Rhodes Scholar.
Within a year the Adelaide paper was flourishing and
Murdoch invaded Sydney and took over a failing tabloid from one of the three
press lords who dominated the nation’s media and hoped the upstart publisher
would drown in red ink.
Murdoch quickly became bigger than any of the press lords
and then did the same thing in Britain.
He tried to do the same thing in America, buying a paper
in San Antonio and the New York Post but the newspaper industry was different
here and so were newspaper readers for the most part. Still, the Post became
the model for the sensationalistic tabloid TV and Internet gossip mania that
has swept the country and Murdoch has made the Wall Street Journal livelier
much as he did the London Times.
Television, as it turned out, was the Murdoch medium in
America. Of all his achievements, the greatest is creating a fourth TV network
that has triumphed over the Big Three and making Fox News the most successful
cable news network and the most powerful political force in America.
Don’t cry for Rupert Murdoch. The collapse of his
overwhelming political power in Britain is good for the country. That his image is tarnished beyond repair is
good for the world. He had it coming for a long, long time.