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Murdoch, Sir Keith Arthur (1885–1952)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Sir Keith Arthur Murdoch (1885-1952), journalist and newspaper proprietor, was born on 12 August 1885 at West Melbourne, second son and third of seven children of Rev. Patrick John Murdoch and his wife Annie, née Brown, children both of Presbyterian ministers, who had migrated from Scotland the year before. Keith grew up in semi-rural Camberwell in the stringent economy of a clergyman's large family. He was afflicted with a humiliating stammer which made school a torture; his speech would collapse under stress, he sometimes could not even buy a railway ticket without scribbling a note. Extreme shyness, difficulty in making friends and possibly unusually determined ambition were the consequences. He attended in turn Camberwell State School, a small local one and his uncle (Sir) Walter Murdoch's school and, in 1901-03, Camberwell Grammar of which he was dux. He taught Bible class and Sunday school at his father's church. Golf, a family recreation, was his only sporting skill.

His parents were ambitious for him and when Keith determined to take up journalism his father was disappointed that he had no interest in going to university. However, he introduced him to his friend David Syme who, impressed by the boy's shorthand skill, employed him at 1½d a line as district correspondent for Malvern, a middle-class suburb unsympathetic to the Age. For four years, working very long hours, Murdoch was highly successful in working up local news and increasing circulation in the area, and graduated to staff reporting assignments. He had saved £500 when in April 1908 he sailed steerage for London, primarily to seek advice for his ailment.

London for eighteen months was a miserably lonely experience. His sheaf of introductions from Alfred Deakin and others led to little journalistic work. He attended lectures at the London School of Economics, read widely and was interested by the radical sociological theories of L. T. Hobhouse. He was wondering whether he might feel a call to the ministry, but became worried by his lack of faith. Treatment for his stammer improved it a little. 'The survival of the fittest principle is good because the fittest become very fit indeed', he wrote home. 'I'll be able to learn much here … and with health I should become a power in Australia'. In mid-1909 he almost won a post on the Pall Mall Gazette, but at the final interview 'my speaking collapsed'.

He left for home via the United States of America. (Sir) Geoffrey Syme kept his half-promise of an Age job and by the end of 1911 had raised Murdoch's salary from £4 to £7 a week. His stammer was now under reasonable control. Becoming Commonwealth parliamentary reporter, he was soon on close terms with Prime Minister Andrew Fisher a friend of his father, Billy Hughes, (Sir) George Pearce and other Labor ministers and members, entertaining some of them at his aunt's guest-house in the Dandenongs. He was a founding member of the Australian Journalists' Association in 1910. Then in 1912 he became Melbourne political correspondent for (Sir) Hugh Denison's lively Sydney evening Sun. In July 1914 he provisionally accepted the offer, at £800 a year, of news editor on Labor Papers Ltd's projected Sydney World, with the promise of future editorship of a new Melbourne daily, but the scheme was deferred after war broke out.

When in September the A.J.A. appointed an official Australian war correspondent, Murdoch lost narrowly to Charles Bean. In 1915, however, Denison transferred him to London as managing editor of the United Cable Service (of the Sun and Melbourne Herald). Fisher and Pearce had both advised him not to enlist but to continue his important work. Possibly concerned primarily to gain a first-hand report on the progress of the Gallipoli campaign, they commissioned Murdoch to investigate Australian Imperial Force mail services and associated matters. Late in August he won permission from General Sir Ian Hamilton to visit Anzac and signed the standard official declaration to observe the rules of censorship. Murdoch had only four days on Gallipoli, sending home some emotional dispatches, but he met the chief war correspondents. The British journalist Ashmead-Bartlett, appalled by the conduct of the campaign, persuaded him to carry a letter addressed to Prime Minister Asquith which, betrayed by another correspondent, Murdoch had to surrender to a British army officer at Marseille, France. However, before his ship reached England he had composed an 8000-word letter to Fisher which he sent on 23 September. It was a remarkable document which lavishly and sentimentally praised the Australians and attacked the performance of the British army at all levels, including many errors and exaggerations.

In the next few days Murdoch made contact with Geoffrey Dawson and Lord Northcliffe, editor and proprietor of The Times, who arranged for him to meet Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Carson and other cabinet ministers; his letter was printed as a secret state paper. It provided ammunition for the 'anti-Dardanelles' faction and contributed to Hamilton's recall and the eventual evacuation. Australian and British senior officers held Murdoch in contempt over this episode. He later defended himself vigorously before the Dardanelles royal commission. Many years later Bean concluded that Murdoch was 'glowing with patriotism' and 'dearly loved the exercise of power', but that he was wrong to break his pledge and could have made his case without such 'gross overstatements'. Writing to Bean in 1933, Murdoch admitted he had made mistakes, which he greatly regretted.

In England he made the most of his notoriety and began to hob-nob with the men of great power—at the age of 30. On Prime Minister Hughes's visits to England in 1916 and 1918 he acted as his publicist, fixer and runner, helping him with speeches and editing a volume of them (1916), giving private dinner-parties for him with such guests as Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Milner and General Sir Henry Wilson. He largely organized the campaigns to persuade the troops at the front and in England to support the National government and the two conscription plebiscites, but warned Hughes that their votes could not be relied on and advised suppression of the figures. He acted as intermediary between Hughes and Lloyd George and relayed confidential information to Hughes in Australia. The embattled prime minister once replied: 'My dear old chap … I miss you dreadfully'.

Murdoch visited the front irregularly as an unofficial war correspondent; some of his dispatches, in 1918 especially, were vivid, though opinionated, and in some respects superior to Bean's. Late in 1917, pursuing governmental policy to bring the A.I.F. divisions together into an Australian corps officered entirely by Australians, he attempted to negotiate with Field Marshal Haig, and with Bean urged the replacement as Australian commander of General Sir William Birdwood by Major General (Sir) Brudenell White, while belittling Major General (Sir) John Monash. The corps was formed, but in May 1918 Monash was given its command while Birdwood remained general officer commanding. Bean, Murdoch and others attempted to persuade Hughes to give White the corps and make Monash G.O.C., distracting the Australian higher commanders during the most vital period of the war. On 6 June Murdoch explicitly put the 'offer' to Monash, flattering him, suggesting promotion to general as G.O.C., reminding him that his cables went to 250 newspapers. Birdwood and Monash, however, were not to be bullied or bribed and launched a counter-offensive which demonstrated that Bean and Murdoch almost totally lacked support from the A.I.F. Murdoch continued to nag Hughes through July, but the prime minister told him he had found no one who agreed with him. The successful battle of Hamel and the August offensive closed the question. Late in the year Murdoch, again unsuccessfully, tried to persuade Hughes that White, not Monash, should control repatriation.

About this time Murdoch and Hughes fell out seriously. Early in 1919 Murdoch wrote powerfully in support of Monash's determination to repatriate the troops as quickly as possible, against the government's wishes. At the Paris Peace Conference, where he was the only Australian journalist to witness the signing of the treaty, Murdoch privately described Hughes as 'pursuing an utterly reckless mischievous line of policy'.

In 1918 Denison had raised Murdoch's salary to £1200 and a further term of three years was agreed. He extended the United Cable Service to India and South Africa. In 1920 he covered for The Times the Prince of Wales's visit to Australasia. He had developed an almost filial relationship with Northcliffe; working from The Times office, he saw much of him and was soon barging in unannounced. Northcliffe introduced him to clubs and played golf with him. As early as 1916 Murdoch called him 'as good a friend as I have ever had', but he recognized that if he became an employee their relationship would inevitably be destroyed. Murdoch once wrote to him as 'My dear Chief … the Chief of All Journalists (of all ages)'. Modelling himself closely on him, especially in his ruthless use of power, Murdoch may never have realized how manic Northcliffe was in his last years. At Murdoch's farewell banquet from London, he was photographed at Northcliffe's right hand; the photograph was to have pride of place in his office.

In 1920 Murdoch had reached an understanding with Theodore Fink, chairman of the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd, and in January 1921 was appointed chief editor of the Melbourne evening Herald at £2000 a year. Denison, whom Murdoch had played off against Fink, was angered. The Herald was a stodgy journal, without competition, ripe for reform; but at least a new building was being constructed in Flinders Street. Murdoch quickly had the general manager demoted by the board and himself retitled managing editor. He soon found Fink 'almost insufferable' but got on well with director William Baillieu and his son (Lord) Clive who possibly financed him personally.

Northcliffe sent critical commentaries on the Herald to Murdoch, who modelled it on Northcliffe's Daily Mail and Evening News, including many more pictures and 'human interest' stories and thoroughly overhauling the paper. He was not to be allowed to forget an early experiment in sensationalism when the Herald 'tried and convicted' the 'Gun Alley' murderer. He did not move far in that direction, however, but rather went in for whipping up political issues. Murdoch employed young journalists on good salaries, engaged the popular poet C. J. Dennis, invited celebrities to contribute and published serious criticism of the arts. Copying Northcliffe, in 1924 he began 'Managing Editor's Notes', critical comments on the previous day's issue for his top executives, and House News in 1929. The Sporting Globe was established in 1922 and 3DB radio was bought in 1929.

The Herald thrived on a major challenge from Denison. Knowing that he intended to move on Melbourne, Murdoch gained a promise of £5000 from Northcliffe and from December 1921 unsuccessfully attempted to win control of the Sydney Evening News, rival to Denison's Sun. Denison established the tabloid Sun News-Pictorial in Melbourne in September 1922 and followed with the pink-papered Evening Sun next April, both launched by Monty Grover. After a bitter contest Denison threw in the towel in April 1925; the Evening Sun closed down and the Herald bought the Sun News-Pictorial. The Herald's circulation had increased by half in Murdoch's four years. The Victorian Farmers' Union's Morning Post (1925-27) was merged with the Sun. The later battle with the Argus & Australasian Ltd's evening Star (1933-36) was never in doubt. Murdoch's touch with journals was not so sure. In 1924 he acquired Melbourne Punch and had great hopes for a national weekly, recruiting John Bede Dalley, Will Dyson, Percy Leason (at £1750 a year), C. R. Bradish, Kenneth Slessor and others, but amalgamated it in 1926 with Table Talk which petered out in 1939.

'Lord Southcliffe' (or KM as he was generally known in the office) had greatly increased profits and was appointed a director in 1926; in November 1928 he became managing director. Henceforth he had to leave much more to his editors. The Herald remained his true love, his 'personal journal'; he was less interested in the Sun, even though he saw it as 'the best tabloid in Australia' and it was rising to the highest circulation of any Australian daily.

Tall, dark and handsome and an expensive dresser, the 'burly man with the quizzical eyebrows' had been an eligible young man about town. He had lived in a service-flat at Cliveden Mansions, East Melbourne, for two years, then in South Yarra with a butler and other servants, and bought a property at Langwarrin (later named Cruden Farm); Desbrowe Annear remodelled both houses. Murdoch early began collecting furniture, paintings and objets d'art ; (Sir) Daryl Lindsay and Dame Nellie Melba helped him to acquire taste. Australian Home Beautiful, a Herald publication, devoted an article to the South Yarra house in April 1928. On 6 June that year at Scots Church Murdoch married 19-year-old Elisabeth Joy, daughter of Rupert Greene, a Melbourne merchant; they moved to Toorak and had four children. Parents and children out riding near Cruden Farm were an impressive spectacle. He was a good family man.

Murdoch's interstate empire had begun in 1926 with the purchase from the Hackett estate of the West Australian by a syndicate including W. L. Baillieu and W. S. Robinson and the Herald board, which formed West Australian Newspapers Ltd. Partly because of resentment at Melbourne ownership, Murdoch abandoned direct control by the early 1930s and disposed of the syndicate's interest. In 1929 he had attacked the Adelaide Advertiser, owned by the aged Sir Langdon Bonython, by purchasing on behalf of the Herald the morning Register, reducing its price and so boosting its circulation that Bonython was frightened into selling for £1 million. Murdoch became chairman of Advertiser Newspapers Ltd, put in (Sir) Lloyd Dumas as managing editor, closed the Register in 1931, and that year also negotiated a controlling interest by the Herald in the evening News—thus Adelaide's newspapers came under monopoly control. In the late 1920s Murdoch had personally bought a share in John Wren's Brisbane Daily Mail; in 1933 they bought the Courier, amalgamated it as the Courier-Mail and formed Queensland Newspapers Ltd with Murdoch in personal control provided a certain level of profit was maintained. But for intervention by John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd, the Herald might have bought Consolidated Press from (Sir) Frank Packer in 1939. By 1935 Murdoch and the Herald had interests in 11 of the 65 commercial radio stations, and campaigned to limit the development of the Australian Broadcasting Commission and to prevent it establishing an independent news service. Whatever the prime motive—profit, power or pulpiteering—Murdoch had forged the first national media chain.

In the 1920s the Herald had been politically independent. Indeed in 1929 Murdoch instructed: 'It MUST be realised that we are not a Nationalist organ'. He emphasized that it was an Australian paper and Imperial interests should not be played up. And that year the Herald was reasonably objective concerning the striking timberworkers and the mine owners' lockout. But from then Murdoch came down heavily on the ultra-conservative side, supporting Stanley (Viscount) Bruce's arbitration bill and throwing all his weight against the Scullin government in a massive campaign. Joe Lyons was lunching at the Herald even before he left the Labor Party to become United Australia Party prime minister. But Murdoch was not among the prime plotters, though he threw all his resources behind Lyons, once his course was known. In 1931 Victorian trade unions imposed a boycott on purchase of the Herald and Sun with little effect. In office, Lyons was no puppet and Murdoch's 'kingmaker' role remains largely a myth. Lyons rejected his offer to act as a go-between to bring about a coalition with the Country Party. Murdoch's pressure on Lyons to give Hughes a ministry may have been important, but, according to Pearce, 'Murdoch gave the impression of greater influence than he in fact had'. Stating his worries in frequent letters to Clive Baillieu and Robinson, from about 1936 Murdoch became increasingly impatient with Lyons's leadership—'I put him there and I'll put him out', he was overheard saying—but he was never sure that (Sir) Robert Menzies was a suitable successor and turned against him in 1940-41.

From the 1930s the 'Murdoch press' was widely criticized, especially in Labor quarters. Smith's Weekly condemned 'the would-be press and radio dictator' and the dangers of a chain of newspapers with identical policies. One enemy, Sir Frederic Eggleston, named Murdoch with Rupert Henderson and Frank Packer as 'vindictive populists', 'the major cause of the deterioration of Australian politics' in his lifetime. Murdoch had kept the 'loathsome Dunstan' in power in Victoria and had driven Eggleston and other 'intelligent liberals' out of State parliament.

In 1933-34 Murdoch had been laid up for some twelve months with a heart condition. On his return he narrowly withstood an attempt by the Fink interests to overturn him on the Herald board. He was knighted in 1933; he had reputedly refused such an honour about 1919 from Lloyd George and Hughes.

Murdoch dominated the Australian Newspaper Conference. In 1935 he took the lead in amalgamating the existing cable services into Australian Associated Press Ltd, of which he was chairman until 1940. It was his idea to form a partnership between A.A.P. and Reuters in 1946. Similarly, Murdoch was interested in Louis Benjamin's early experiments in making newsprint from eucalypts and in 1938, with the Sydney Morning Herald as the other dominant partner, established Australian Newsprint Mills Pty Ltd (from 1947 a public company) at Boyer, Tasmania, and was its chairman until 1949. The mill began production in 1941.

On 8 June 1940 the wartime prime minister Menzies appointed Murdoch director-general of information. He immediately blundered, tactlessly issuing without adequate consultation a regulation requiring correction of newspaper reports in extreme cases. As he put it, the government might say: 'That statement has been harmful. Here is the truth. Print it and print it where we tell you'. Inevitably, his fellow proprietors reacted vehemently, the regulation was amended and Murdoch resigned in December. Meanwhile, however, with (Sir) Richard Boyer he had set up an American division of his department, aiming to entice the U.S.A. into the war, and was the leading founder of the Australian-American Association, of which he remained president until 1946.

On Fink's death in 1942 Murdoch became Herald chairman. His policy for his papers was an all-party national government and 'one army' (conscription for overseas service and amalgamation of A.I.F. and militia). He once recommended that, after formation of a national government, the Imperial parliament should extend the life of the Commonwealth parliament until victory was won. Bitterly disappointed with the war effort, he expressed his fervent patriotism in writing extensively and ponderously for his chain under his own name, exhorting, calling on the 'spiritual sources' of the nation, pontificating on military strategy, in his most Messianic mood almost incoherent. He incessantly attacked Prime Minister John Curtin, whose popularity and stature he could not recognize, and General Sir Thomas Blamey (who heartily reciprocated hostility, remembering 1915 and Murdoch's successful campaign against him as Victorian chief commissioner of police). General Douglas MacArthur described him as a quisling and recommended vigorous application of the censorship against him (which occurred at least once).

Labor's sweeping victory in 1943 muted Murdoch. He continued to travel extensively overseas. In his later years his campaigns were as extreme as ever—attacking bank nationalization, immigration policy ('You bloody old scoundrel', Arthur Calwell called out one day), and the communists whose outlawing he vehemently favoured.

In art politics, which became his major private interest, Murdoch was a cultural liberal. In 1931 he had sponsored an exhibition lent from private collections including works by Matisse and Modigliani. He was appointed a trustee of the Public Library, museums and National Gallery of Victoria in 1933. With Daryl Lindsay and Basil Burdett, Herald critic in 1936-41, he confronted the highly conservative Melbourne art establishment of which the director of the gallery J. S. MacDonald was a leading spokesman. Murdoch himself admired George Bell and allied himself in art politics with Sydney Ure Smith in Sydney; while he could not appreciate Picasso and Braque or abstractionism, his taste was moderately advanced and broadly tolerant. Late in 1939 the Herald arranged an exhibition of French and British modern art, organized by Burdett, which was a famous turning-point in Australian art appreciation. That year Murdoch also became president of the library, museums and gallery trustees and soon forced replacement of MacDonald by Lindsay, with whom he reinvigorated the gallery; meetings of trustees were enlivened, however, by the hostility of Fink's son-in-law Robert Elliott and Max Meldrum. Murdoch did much to force the long overdue creation of separate authorities for the library, museums and gallery and from 1945 was chairman of gallery trustees. He also founded the Herald chair of fine arts at the University of Melbourne, helped to arrange reservation of the St Kilda Road site for a new gallery, and encouraged formation of a society of gallery friends. He had become the leading figure in a new art establishment.

Murdoch retired in 1949 from almost all his posts except the Herald chairmanship. In his last years he underwent major operations for prostate and cancer. He died in his sleep at Cruden Farm on the night of 4-5 October 1952, survived by (Dame) Elisabeth, charity worker and philanthropist, his son Keith Rupert and three daughters, and was cremated.

His estate was sworn for probate at some £400,000. Murdoch had invested in 1938 in the pastoral property Wantabadgery, near Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, and, when it was largely taken for soldier settlement, in Booroomba, near Canberra; they were poor investments and Booroomba was heavily mortgaged. Murdoch had been obsessed with providing for his family's security and for a newspaper base for his son. About 1948 he persuaded the Herald board to sell him its holdings in the Adelaide News, then invested heavily in it and in Queensland Newspapers Ltd, building his holding in the latter to about 40 per cent and retaining few Herald shares. His trustees were forced to sell out of the Courier-Mail. Rupert Murdoch built his empire from the Adelaide News. Remarkably, Sir Keith had planned to leave the Herald and, in conjunction with the London Daily Mirror group which owned the Argus, to form a chain in which he would have a majority interest; he was to take over the Argus himself. However, the proposed deal fell through. About 1950 he had been interested in the Canberra Times and tried to save Smith's Weekly as a national institution.

The luck of being in the right place at the right time together with powerful friends and family contacts gave Murdoch a great start to his career. His enormous capacity for work, limitless driving ambition, a phenomenal memory and belief in himself carried him on. His Presbyterian upbringing remained basic—he was strait laced and easily shocked—and he sought a high moral purpose for his newspapers. He was a 'big thinker', with close contacts with many international leaders, and strove to further Australia's long-term interests. But his judgement was faulty and, as Eggleston asserted, he had no 'real social philosophy'.

Murdoch hired young reporters personally, would chat informally with them, had a capacity to inspire them with enthusiasm for their craft, and invited them home to awesome dinners. Many of his 'young men', like Angus McLachlan, liked and admired him; Bradish considered him 'the most generous and kindliest employer for whom I had ever worked'; Douglas Brass found 'not the slightest tinge of personal spite in his make-up'. But Cecil Edwards regarded him with some cynicism and others, like Clive Turnbull and John Hetherington, detested him. In a scathing biographical essay Hetherington concluded that Murdoch was essentially 'a calculating, undeviating, insatiable seeker after worldly riches and temporal power'. But his detractors would usually admit, 'At least he's a newspaperman'.

Like most newspaper tycoons, Murdoch backed conventional conservative stances of his day and lacked the originality to make many useful contributions to public policy; but he was an able journalist, a brilliant editor in his youth and a remarkable entrepreneur and organizer of his industry.

Select Bibliography

  • Herald and Weekly Times, Keith Murdoch, Journalist (Melb, 1956)
  • J. Hetherington, Australians (Melb, 1960)
  • D. Lindsay, The Leafy Tree, My Family (Melb, 1965)
  • L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861 to 1968 (Melb, 1970?)
  • C. Edwards, The Editor Regrets (Melb, 1972)
  • C. Hazlehurst (ed), Australian Conservatism (Canb, 1979)
  • D. Zwar, In Search of Keith Murdoch (Melb, 1980)
  • R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors, (Melb, 1981)
  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (Melb, 1981)
  • G. Serle, John Monash. A Biography (Melb, 1982)
  • G. Munster, A Paper Prince (Melb, 1985)
  • Newspaper News, 1 Dec 1928
  • Nation (Sydney), 4 July 1959, 29 June 1963
  • Keith Murdoch papers (National Library of Australia)
  • F. Eggleston, Confidential Notes: Journalists and Press Barons (Australian National University Library)
  • C. E. Sayers, unpublished biography (C. E. Sayers papers, State Library of Victoria)
  • C. E. W. Bean papers (Australian War Memorial).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Murdoch, Sir Keith Arthur (1885–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murdoch-sir-keith-arthur-7693/text13467, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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