1896 - 1986 | NSW | General Manager
“Rags” Henderson was the chief architect of the building of Fairfax into a media powerhouse in the 20th century. He began as a cadet reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald in 1915 and quickly became a star reporter. He moved into management and became managing director in 1949, occupying the role until 1964. He was a canny businessman and negotiator who drove Fairfax’s expansion into television, radio and interstate newspapers. But he never lost sight of the importance of editorial quality, supporting the careers of people who became great influences on some of the best Australian journalism.
After World War II, the media in Sydney was dominated by men of ruthless but colourful character and deeply conservative political views. They were Rupert Henderson, general manager of John Fairfax & Sons, publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald, Frank Packer, publisher of the Daily Telegraph, and Ezra Norton, owner of the afternoon tabloid Daily Mirror and the salacious twice-weekly Truth.
NSW Labor Senator Doug McClelland, Australia’s first Minister for the Media (1973-75) recently recalled Henderson “as ruthless as ruthless can be” but they finished up sharing a wary friendship. “I was surprised when he said to me one day, ‘You’re not a bad bloke for a Labor man, senator, but I can’t stand that bloody Bob Hawke [elected ACTU president in 1969] who’s pretending to be a worker’.”
Following the election of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in December 1972 McClelland summoned all owners of commercial TV channels to a meeting at the Commonwealth Bank headquarters in Sydney’s Martin Place and asked them: “What is your biggest gripe?” Henderson replied immediately: “I’ll tell you. There is not enough revenue for three television networks. We only need two.”
McClelland turned to Packer to ask what he thought. “I don’t often agree with Mr Henderson,” the grizzled Consolidated Press supremo replied, “but on this occasion he’s absolutely right. We should have two networks instead of three. That’s the only way to make the industry viable.”
Then it was the turn of commercial airline entrepreneur Reg Ansett, owner of Channel 10. “What do you think, Mr Ansett?” the Minister asked. To everyone’s surprise, Ansett said he supported the position taken by his two rivals but added a caveat: “We should settle this in the old-fashioned Labor way by putting the names of the three networks in a hat and conducting a draw. The first two networks successfully drawn should be allowed to continue and the other one closed down.”
There was total silence for a nanosecond before Messrs Henderson and Packer both said the suggestion was “ridiculous” and the meeting broke up. “I never again heard the proprietors suggest culling the number of networks from three to two,” said McClelland, a former Senate president and UK High Commissioner. “It only resurfaced under John Howard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.”
Born in inner-city Camperdown in 1896, Henderson was the eldest of five boys from an upper middle class family which made its money during the earliest commercial growth of the British penal colony. He joined The Sydney Morning Herald as a cadet reporter in 1915 and quickly rose through the ranks covering shipping, joining the Newcastle office and becoming the paper’s chief political reporter in Sydney before being sent to London in 1923 to open its Fleet Street bureau.
On his return to Sydney, Henderson was promoted to general manager in 1938 and managing director in 1949. In 1940 he became chairman of Australian Associated Press (AAP) and two years later he achieved the owners’ highest office, president of the Australian Newspaper Proprietors’ Association.
He launched The Australian Financial Review in 1951 and appointed Trevor Kennedy the company’s first Catholic editor at the weekly National Times in 1972. He changed the structure and culture of the newspaper giant, turning it into a multi-media communications company by securing the licence for ATN Channel 7 in 1956 followed by QTQ9 in Brisbane.
His daring deal-making led to Fairfax’s acquisition of the Australian assets of Lord (Lew) Grade’s Association Television Corporation (ATV) followed by Macquarie Broadcasting Holdings Pty Ltd. By the early 1960s, Fairfax was sitting on a media goldmine reaping profits from print, television and radio.
Henderson’s boldest acquisition was David Syme and Co Limited, the august Melbourne publisher of The Age and Sunday Age. The hotly contested 1983 marriage was opposed by descendants of the founding Syme family, journalists, politicians and academics, but it went ahead anyway.
During his wartime career Henderson led the media’s counter-attack on the strict newsprint rationing and censorship imposed by Information Minister Arthur Calwell, Labor MP for Melbourne. Calwell likened Henderson to the grotesque dwarf Daniel Quilp in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. Calwell told MPs:
“I know that Quilp-like creature Henderson and I know that had Australia been overcome The Sydney Morning Herald would not have ceased publication. It would have come out the following day as The Sydney Morning Shimbun, with Henderson still as editor.”
It was a reprehensible defamation of Henderson’s sincerely held patriotism but he had some kind of compensation almost two decades later when Opposition Leader Calwell changed his tune and thanked Henderson profusely for switching the paper’s support to Labor in the 1961 Federal Election. It was to no avail: Menzies swept back to power and Labor lost two seats.
Henderson’s greatly admired record of asset building is tarnished by his sale of the Sydney Daily Mirror to the “boy publisher”, Rupert Murdoch, for a song. The sale, opposed by chairman Sir Warwick Fairfax who was abroad at the time, allowed Murdoch to set up shop in the prime Sydney market and launch his global acquisition blitz.
When he hired reporters, Henderson put terror into the interview by confronting them with a point-blank question: “Why do you want to be a journalist?” Hal Myers, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Canberra correspondent from 1952-56, stammered back: “I just wanted to, and I had felt that way for a long time.” To which Henderson barked: “We want you to start on Monday.”
Henderson revelled in his reputation as a tough-minded misanthrope who once told someone who came to him with a hard luck story: “You’d break my heart – if I had one.”
V.J. (“Vic”) Carroll, a retired Fairfax editorial executive of immense professional standing, summed up his former boss: “Henderson was a formidable, potentially volcanic, presence, He used language and gestures with explosive force.” Others recall him showing glimpses of warmth by telling business friends he was first and foremost a “journalist” and encouraged women to take senior reporting roles.
To this day, his career remains the subject of intense disputation among journalists with some damning him as a right-wing bigot while others contending he gave Fairfax a much-needed 20th century shake-up. He was a fierce opponent of industrial trade unions, all strikes and any form of public protest which he referred to as “anarchy”.
His ferocious campaign against the 1945 steel workers’ strike at BHP’s plant at Port Kembla and the 1949 coalminers’ strike against prime minister Ben Chifley’s Labor government are scorched into the memory of the labour movement.
Henderson’s main Sydney rival, Sir Frank Packer, retained his sturdy dislike of Henderson and when he phoned would ask to be put through to “Ebenezer”, a reference to the cold-hearted Scrooge in another Dickens novel A Christmas Carol.
But when Henderson retired in 1964 Packer praised him as “one of the most powerful forces in Australian journalism in the past 15 years”.
Packer’s loyal liegeman David McNicoll of the Daily Telegraph wrote: “Rupert Henderson might have given up his title, but he was still Cardinal Richelieu. Frail of body, his little shrunken frame sizes too small for his shirts and suits – as he entered his eighties he was still the power man in the Fairfax organisation. He was, as Frank Packer used so often to say, ‘an incredible little bugger’.”
In 1976 “Rags” (a nickname taken from the initials of his full name) proved his longevity when he rose from his sick bed to organise the palace coup which ousted Sir Warwick Fairfax as chairman and replaced him with Warwick’s son, James. As McNicoll acidly remarked in his autobiography: “Not a bad effort for a near-blind octogenarian.” Henderson died on 9 September 1986 at Potts Point on Sydney Harbour, aged 90.
Alex Mitchell is a former political editor, crime reporter, investigative journalist and foreign correspondent. In retirement in northern NSW he combines fishing, gardening and swimming with blogging and freelance writing.
Caption number one goes here to accompany this photo
Company of Heralds, Gavin Souter, Melbourne University Press, 1980
Breaking News – The Golden Age of Graham Perkin, Ben Hills, Scribe, 2010.