1924-2015 | Western Australia | Executive
James Cruthers rose from being a 14-year-old mailroom boy at the Daily News in Perth to become the man who introduced television to Western Australia, an important influence on the international development of Rupert Murdoch’s News empire and a remarkable philanthropist who established a children’s charity telethon said to be the world’s most successful on a per capita measurement. In 1958, working for West Australian Newspapers, he led the successful application for WA’s first television licence, beating an opposing bid from Murdoch. Cruthers became founding general manager of TVW Channel 7 and later chairman.
Jim Cruthers had a 50-year media career spanning newspapers, television, radio and film-making. He is widely regarded as the father of television in Western Australia. He served for several years on the board of News Corporation. He also served as chairman of the Australian Film Commission and was a founding member of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation.
Cruthers started work at Perth’s Daily News just after he left school in 1938. His mother wanted him to become a butcher but she couldn’t get him an apprenticeship. The diminutive Cruthers worked in the mailroom and manned the front desk and the switchboard on Saturdays.
With the start of World War II, he joined the army but later transferred to the RAAF where he trained as a pilot. After the war, he returned to the Daily News as a cadet reporter and worked his way up to being a sub-editor, leader writer and eventually editor of weekly publications.
In 1958, the managing director of West Australian Newspapers, James Macartney, sent Cruthers to Melbourne to study television and prepare a bid for the first TV licence in Western Australia.
The WAN bid won the day against a rival bid from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Cruthers became the inaugural general manager of TVW7. He was later appointed managing director of the company and was chairman when he retired in 1981.
Cruthers brought with him from WAN a cultural belief in investing social capital to engender loyalty among readers and viewers. His new station quickly established itself as “the station for Perth people” and had very strong community engagement.
So strong was the platform Cruthers created that, after Perth’s second channel, STW9, was launched in 1965, it took nearly 20 years to match Seven in the ratings game.
Cruthers was always one step ahead of his rivals. His sense of community saw him launch the iconic charity Telethon in 1968 and he followed it up with the Channel Seven Christmas Pageant in 1971. Both these events helped to cement Seven’s position as “the people’s channel.”
Both have endured and Telethon in 2017 raised more than $36 million, bringing the total raised since its inception to more than $250 million. Cruthers would later say he started Telethon not just to raise money but because “it gave people, and particularly children, one day of the year in which they could think of other people rather than themselves.”
Cruthers was fiercely competitive in the ratings battle, but he was also commercially savvy. With the arrival of STW9, both stations were keen to prevent competition causing the cost of “national” programs to skyrocket, with eastern states networks now spruiking their programs to a competitive Perth market.
So the two entered into a joint venture (effectively a cartel) for the purchase of programs from the eastern states. The new company, TV Facilities Pty Ltd, operated as the sole buyer. They then met in a meeting room at the Parmelia Hotel to divide up the programs on the basis of alternate picks. First pick would be determined by the toss of a coin.
That arrangement lasted until 1979 when the Trade Practices Commission, under pressure from Kerry Packer’s Nine Network and other program producers, put an end to the arrangement, ruling it anti-competitive.
The takeover of WA Newspapers by The Herald and Weekly Times in 1969 gave Cruthers access to capital for expansion. TVW Limited became TVW Enterprises Ltd and over the next few years acquired Channel 10 Adelaide, City Theatres and the 6IX radio network. It also built the 8000-seat Perth Entertainment Centre, then the biggest auditorium in Australia.
By the time Cruthers retired from TVW in 1981, the company he had built was a significant media conglomerate.
Cruthers then threw himself into golf and working for dozens of charities. But retirement didn’t really suit him and in 1983 he accepted an invitation to move to New York to be Rupert Murdoch’s personal assistant.
He would also become deputy chairman of News America, chairman of Sky Television in Britain and a director of Murdoch’s holding company, News Corporation.
Cruthers was heavily involved in Fox Broadcasting news and current affairs and commuted regularly on the Concord from New York to London where Sky Television was locked in battle with British Satellite Broadcasting and was losing millions of pounds each month. Cruthers dramatically improved Sky’s position by cranking up its news division with the help of legendary Australian newsman John O’Loan.
Their efforts were largely responsible for the merger of the competing broadcasters that saw the creation of B Sky B with Murdoch as a 50 percent stakeholder.
Cruthers returned to Perth in 1989 and became chairman of Murdoch’s Sunday Times until his retirement in 2001.
Cruthers was knighted in 1980 and made an officer in the Order of Australia in 2008 in recognition of his service to community and charitable organisations and for services to media and the arts.
He died in 2015 at the age of 90. His son John told his memorial service that Cruthers had lived by his mother’s admonition: “Help people, Jimmy.”
Cruthers certainly did that. He was a tireless worker for charitable groups, including the Lions Eye Institute (where he was a founding patron), the University of Western Australia’s Hackett Foundation, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, the Association of the Blind (WA) Guide Dogs and the St George's Cathedral restoration project.
He and his wife, Lady (Sheila) Cruthers, were strong supporters of the arts. His wife was especially interested in twentieth-century art by Australian women, and the Cruthers Collection of Women's Art has works by Australian women artists from the 1890s to the present. Both supported the National Gallery of Australia and the US National Portrait Gallery.
In June 2007, Sir James and Lady Cruthers donated the women's art collection - more than 400 works by 155 Australian artists including Grace Cossington Smith, Margaret Preston and Susan Norrie—to The University of Western Australia, where it is now housed at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.
Few people have had such an illustrious media career. Even fewer have made such a contribution to their communities.
Bob Cronin is a former editor of The Sun News-Pictorial in Melbourne and former editor-in-chief of West Australian Newspapers.
Courtesy of the Australian Museum of Motion Picture and Television, Inc. and Western Australia Television History.
Portrait of James cruthers donated to AMMPT by the Cruthers family.
'Sir James Cruthers dead: Former chairman of The Sunday Times and WA media pioneer dies age 90', Perth Now, Kate Campbell, 14 October 2015
James Cruthers archive, State Library of Western Australia
'A Tribute to the late Sir James Cruthers - Founder of the Channel Seven Telethon in 1968', WA TV History, video