1897 - 1967 | NSW | Publisher
Ezra Norton was disinherited by his wife-beating father, John Norton, and had to fight for a share of his Truth newspaper inheritance after Norton Senior died in 1916. After taking control in 1921 he tried to modernise but eventually returned to Truth’s formula of reporting scandal, sport gossip and crime. A blunt, uncouth and overbearing man, he ruled by fear and in 1941 was able to overcome wartime newsprint restrictions to establish the Sydney Daily Mirror in opposition to the tabloid Sun. By 1947 he had circulation leadership, but sold his newspapers in 1958, eventually providing Rupert Murdoch with his entry to Sydney.
When Ezra Norton was a baby, his father, John, snatched him up and threatened to dash his brains out. This story, told in court during his parents’ divorce hearing in 1915, was one Ezra in later years professed not to believe but by then it scarcely mattered. It had become indelible - a tabloid tale no more extreme than many of the others which coloured John Norton’s scandalous life.
Norton’s was a life lived almost entirely in the public eye, for he treated his newspaper, Truth, as a document akin to a personal diary, using it to turn himself into the hero - and villain - of a mythology which kept the paper’s tens of thousands of readers enthralled for twenty years.
Truth was the first real Australian tabloid. When John Norton died in 1916, it was a national weekly with a circulation of 147,000, and editions produced in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.
Ezra Norton further expanded this publishing empire when he took over the paper’s management in 1922 at the age of 25. When it was eventually sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1960, the Norton style could still be discerned in its papers’ big headlines, relish for the shock tactic and view of itself as a working man’s paper.
It took a lot of legal manoeuvring for Ezra to be able to claim his inheritance. After the divorce hearing, which was exhaustively covered in Truth, John Norton left Ezra and his mother, Ada, out of his will. The bulk of the estate was to go to Ezra’s nine year-old sister, Joan, until the New South Wales Legislative Council conveniently decided to speed up the introduction of legislation expressly designed to help spouses and children in Ada and Ezra’s position.
After taking control, Ezra Norton retained the paper’s enthusiastic coverage of crime, sex and the divorce courts while introducing some causes of his own. His preoccupation with health and hygiene led to the paper’s exposés of all forms of medical malpractice. An animal-lover, he crusaded against animal cruelty. And he campaigned for the protection of the merino wool market. On an uglier note, he also endorsed the paper’s racism, initiating its fulminations on the importance of upholding “the white Australian ideal”.
Norton was a hard drinker with a gruff manner and a volatile temper that was often directed at his editors. His “boning-and-gutting sessions” were notorious - as were his feuds. The most ferocious - with rival newspaper proprietor Frank Packer - climaxed in a fist fight at Royal Randwick on Derby Day in 1939. One of Norton’s minders intervened to stop it. Packer was left the worse for wear and Norton’s reputation as a belligerent and faintly sinister character, who moved around accompanied by bodyguards, was cemented.
Even so, he deftly cultivated political influence. As a result, he was able to obtain enough newsprint to launch his afternoon tabloid, the Daily Mirror, in 1941 despite wartime rationing and the protests of competing press barons.
While he didn’t baulk at his papers’ invasions of other people’s privacy, he was obsessed with his own. He was a regular race-goer and he owned several horses but in 1957 when his horse, Straight Draw, won the Melbourne Cup, he remained in Sydney rather than go and watch the race. The horse’s trainer was sent to collect the Cup on his behalf, probably because he wanted to avoid having to make a speech.
The following year, Cyril Pearl, one of Packer’s most brilliant editors, wrote Wild Men of Sydney, a scathing attack on the character and conduct of John Norton and his confederates. The book outraged both Ada and Ezra, who were still capable of arguing that accounts of his father’s drunkenness had been much exaggerated, and they attempted to have it banned. The row reached the New South Wales Parliament, prompting a heated debate over proposed changes to the Defamation Act. But in the end, Norton took a more direct approach to the book. According to his secretary, he had several of his employees buy as many copies as possible so that they could be burnt on a Sydney rubbish tip.
Ezra Norton had two happy marriages. His first, to Mollie Willoughby, a gentle, glamorous young English war widow who was teaching ballroom dancing when he met and married her in 1924, lasted until her sudden death from a heart attack thirty years later. He was devastated but found new happiness in 1953 with Emma Morrison, or Peggy, as she was known to family and friends, who had worked as his secretary. In 1955 they had a daughter, Mary.
Norton bowed out of newspapers in 1958 as the media landscape began to undergo a radical change. Television was coming and the press barons, record, film and electronic firms, radio stations and theatre companies were forming strategic alliances in preparation for the 1955 licence hearings.
Ezra, too, did some lobbying but his heart wasn’t in it. His health was poor, and he knew that he had little hope of a licence so he and Rupert Henderson, John Fairfax’s managing director, devised a plan. Since media regulations prevented a takeover, Fairfax would set up a shelf company financed by one of its subsidiaries and this company would make the purchase. In this way, Fairfax would distance itself from the arrangement while ensuring that none of its rivals gained control of the Norton papers.
By December, O’Connell Pty Ltd was established, the transfer was made and Ezra set about trying to content himself with his other business interests. But things did not go well at O’Connell and Henderson began negotiations with Rupert Murdoch, finalizing the papers’ sale to “The Boy Publisher” as Murdoch was known, in May 1960.
Six years later, Norton was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1967, aged 69, after converting to Roman Catholicism. But the shrill, muckraking brand of tabloid journalism that he and his father had pioneered would survive in the media empire forged by Rupert Murdoch.
Sandra Hall is film critic for Fairfax Media and a former literary editor of The Australian.
Ezra Norton in 1967. Courtesy of Fairfax
Tabloid Man: The Life and Times of Ezra Norton, Sandra Hall, Harper Collins, 2008
Wild Men of Sydney, Cyril Pearl, W.H. Allen, 1958
That Damned Democrat: John Norton, an Australian Populist, Michael Cannon, Melbourne University Press, 1981