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Morgan, Roy Edward (1908–1985)

by Murray Goot

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Roy Edward Morgan (1908-1985), pollster, market researcher and city councillor, was born on 30 April 1908 at Malvern, Melbourne, younger of two surviving children of New Zealand-born Herbert Edward Morgan, warehouseman, and his Victorian-born wife Mary Eliza, née Williams. Educated at Brighton Grammar School (1917-24) and Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (1925), Roy topped his exams with the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants in 1928. He then commenced a bachelor of commerce degree at the University of Melbourne, but did not complete it. Meanwhile he worked with auditors, an accountant, and a bankruptcy trustee, and from July 1931 as a public accountant with J. B. Were & Son.

Admitted as an associate member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia in 1934, Morgan started an accountancy business from his home at Brighton and reviewed balance sheets for the Stock Exchange Official Record. He also summarised the accounts of public companies for the Argus until 1936, when he became a finance writer for the Herald. Already known to Sir Keith Murdoch, Morgan impressed his new boss by convincing many companies to publish their reports in the afternoon Herald, rather than the following morning’s Argus. On 3 March 1939 at the Melbourne Grammar School chapel, Morgan married Marie Emma Marples Plant.

On joining the Herald Morgan had aspired to a job in management, but in April 1940 Murdoch arranged for him to travel to Princeton, United States of America, where he worked with the pollster George Gallup. He spent time at the advertising agency Young & Rubicam, studying techniques of market research, and at the American Institute of Public Opinion, home of the Gallup Poll.

Returning to Australia in October 1940, Morgan became managing director of Australian Public Opinion Polls (The Gallup Method), reporting to the general manager of the Herald group, William Dunstan. The position had earlier been offered to Sylvia Ashby, but she declined. APOP was owned by newspapers in each of the capital cities, but controlled by the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd; in September 1941 it became the first company to conduct opinion polls for the Australian press, enjoying a monopoly of nationwide polling for the next thirty years. Morgan was required to conduct six surveys a year, each covering eleven subjects, some ‘lighter’, others ‘heavier’. Respondents were usually asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements crafted by Morgan and approved by Murdoch and other senior men from the subscribing papers. Comments were also recorded and ‘typical’ comments used to colour each release.

Morgan took pride in his ability to write questions and needed little guidance from Murdoch about what was or was not acceptable; he shared most of Murdoch’s conservative social, industrial and political views. He recruited the interviewers but did no interviewing himself; nevertheless, the Herald’s cartoonist ‘WEG’ (William Ellis Green) depicted him as a sharp-nosed, bespectacled, inquiring man, while in 1949 a journalist described him as ‘a squarely-built youngish man with pleasant manners but somewhat withdrawn, the ideal man to draw out an interviewee’.

From 1943 the Morgan poll attempted to estimate the level of support for the political parties nationally. After an inauspicious start–Morgan underestimated Labor’s winning margin by 13 percentage points—subsequent predictions proved more accurate. Nonetheless, he was out by nine points for the 1946 referendum on social services, and erroneously forecast that both the 1951 referendum on the dissolution of the Communist Party of Australia and the 1973 referendum on price controls would be carried. After the 1961 election, when he substantially underestimated the Democratic Labor Party vote, he introduced a ‘secret ballot’—a cardboard box into which respondents would place a faux ballot paper.

Less than transparent about how he conducted his polls, Morgan knew that his fortunes depended largely on his picking election winners, to a lesser extent on his estimate of vote distribution, and hardly at all on how he did it. His accuracy depended, in part, on how he distributed the undecided; sometimes this was based on little more than an educated guess. In addition to voting intention, he asked questions about who should lead the parties, but only about once a year. He thought questions about the performance of political leaders were ‘disrespectful’; not until 1968 did he start asking respondents whether they approved or disapproved of the way the prime minister or leader of the Opposition was ‘handling his job’.

Morgan was a frequent visitor to the USA. He worked with Gallup in the run-up to the presidential elections of 1948, 1952 and 1956, and was proud to be made an honorary member of Princeton University’s class of 1948. He admired America greatly and named his younger son, Gary Cordell Morgan, born the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, for Cordell Hull, the secretary of state. From 1963, anxious to please and to profit, he fielded surveys for the United States Information Agency in Australia. For APOP, his questions on Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War were among his most controversial; so keen was he to show Australian opinion in a favourable light that he altered one of the questions provided by Gallup and misrepresented responses to others.

While Gallup avoided any appearance of political favouritism, Morgan conducted a poll for the Liberal Party in Tasmania in 1948 and later surveyed the audience for the ‘John Henry Austral’ radio series, devised for the 1949 Federal Liberal campaign. His APOP survey results sometimes found their way to senior members of the Liberal government days before they were published, and from time to time he passed on unpublished data. Convinced that Morgan’s polls were biased, the Labor leader, Gough Whitlam, encouraged Rupert Murdoch to set up Australian Nationwide Opinion Polls in 1971, to conduct polls for the Australian.

Morgan had entered the market research field in 1946, creating Opinion Research, named after Gallup’s Opinion Research Center. By 1954 it constituted about half of his business. His biggest clients were overseas corporations operating in Australia; ‘Australian manufacturers’, he complained in 1955, ‘make little use of our services’. In addition, the decision not to use focus groups—they were ‘subjective and not scientific’—or other qualitative techniques cut him off from advertising agencies. He did, however, work for the Sydney Sun on newspaper readers and conducted some of the earliest studies on television audiences for the Herald group’s HSV-7 television station.

In 1958 he founded Roy Morgan Research Centre Pty Ltd and in 1965, helped by his son Gary, brought in computers and developed a readership survey for newspaper and magazine publishers. In a crucial development he also established Consumer Opinion Trends, an omnibus survey that catered for a variety of clients, especially food companies interested in grocery buyers; the survey boosted profits and allowed the company to open an office in Sydney.

Though Morgan was to stay involved in the business until his death, in the late 1960s he helped Gary buy him out. In 1973, when his contract with APOP came to an end, the Herald refused to renew it; his public admission that he had ‘never read a book on statistics, nor on sampling, nor on market research, nor on public opinion polls’, his boast that in arriving at his election forecasts he ignored his own poll, and his advice that his audience of market researchers do the same, helped seal his fate. The newspaper continued to underwrite Morgan’s readership surveys, but APOP hired McNair Anderson & Associates to conduct the poll. Morgan threatened litigation on the grounds that he owned the ‘Gallup Poll’ in Australia, but Gallup refused to be drawn and the matter lapsed. An agreement signed in 1973 by Sir Frank Packer saw Morgan start polling for the Bulletin.

Morgan was a founding member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia (1949) and of the Market Research Society of Australia (1955), but he walked out of the latter when it refused to endorse his use of the secret ballot. Beyond Australia he was a founding member of the International Association of Public Opinion Institutes, which brought together the Gallup affiliates, and a member of the sponsoring committee that organised the American Association for Public Opinion Research and the World Association for Public Opinion Research.

In a parallel political career, Morgan was elected to the City of Melbourne Council in 1959, after standing as a ‘Progressive Independent’ at a by-election. A member and briefly chairman (1973-74) of the council’s anti-Labor Civic Group, he also chaired the town planning committee and was involved in negotiations that led to the development of the City Square. He lost his seat at the 1974 election.

Morgan was a tough employer and a tight one. Reluctant to invest in training or technology, he was unforgiving of senior staff who ‘jumped ship’ and was prepared to sack employees when he could no longer pay them junior rates. Stubborn, suspicious and slow to take advice, he would often round on colleagues by declaring that the solution to a problem was ‘easy’. Towards superiors his demeanour was quite different, his determination to be a favourite of Gallup’s sometimes causing tension at international meetings.

Morgan’s recreations were gardening, yachting and skiing; he was once lost on Mount Hotham in a blizzard. His family relations were fraught, particularly with his elder son Geoffrey, who he had hoped would succeed him; Geoffrey never worked in the business and alienated his father further by becoming an active member of the ALP. Morgan was diagnosed in 1968 with lymph sarcoma and given one year to live. Survived by his wife and sons, he died on 31 October 1985 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His estate was valued at $825 138, but his largest legacy was the biggest market-research company in Australia with an annual turnover of $12 million. A portrait by Sir William Dargie, painted in 1978, hangs in Gary’s home in East Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Goot and R. Tiffen, ‘Public Opinion and the Politics of the Polls’, in P. King (ed), Australia’s Vietnam (1983)
  • M. Goot, ‘Fudging the Figures’, in B. Costar et al (eds), The Great Labor Schism (2005)
  • M. Goot, ‘“A Worse Importation than Chewing Gum?”’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol 30, no 3, 2010, p 269
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 5 Nov 1972, p 80
  • private information and personal knowledge.

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Citation details

Murray Goot, 'Morgan, Roy Edward (1908–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morgan-roy-edward-15763/text26951, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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