1885 - 1952 | Victoria | Journalist & publisher
From a humble start as a district correspondent for The Age in 1903, Murdoch became one of the most significant characters in Australian newspaper history - as a journalist, correspondent, editor and publisher. He was the Sydney Sun’s political correspondent before travelling overseas in 1915. After a visit to Gallipoli, he took to London a controversial letter which contributed to the recall of the senior British commander. Appointed to editorial control of Melbourne’s Herald in 1921, he later became managing editor (and later chairman) of the Herald and Weekly Times. He built a family of publications in Melbourne, and an interstate empire of newspapers.
His insatiable desire to be a journalist together with his determination “to be useful in the world” would set a lifelong path for the young Keith Murdoch.
Born in West Melbourne to the Reverend Patrick and Mrs Annie Murdoch who had emigrated from Scotland, Keith, the third of six children, grew up in the Camberwell district and was to have a huge influence on national politics and policy throughout his 50 years in journalism, becoming one of the twenty most influential people in the nation.
Despite a crippling stammer and an unsuccessful cadetship interview at The Age, he was offered a district correspondent’s round in Malvern, paid only on published copy; one shilling per eight lines printed.
Keith’s freelance objective was to save 500 pounds, sufficient for him to travel to London to seek treatment for his speech impediment and, importantly, secure journalistic experience in Fleet Street.
In 1908, aged 22, Keith boarded the Himalaya armed with letters of introduction to influential Fleet Street people and a letter of commendation from Prime Minister Deakin. During his 18 months in London, despite his lack of success in gaining Fleet Street experience, he persisted with his speech elocution as well as enrolling at the London School of Economics, with particular interest in international affairs and liberal scholarship.
On returning to Melbourne in 1910 he joined The Age as a parliamentary reporter and quickly became a respected member of the Press Gallery, building personal rapport with Scottish born Labor parliamentary leader, Andrew Fisher, who attended his father’s church, and Labor’s Billy Hughes.
After two years he joined Sydney’s The Sun as its federal parliamentary correspondent based in the Melbourne Herald’s offices. Both newspapers then formed the United Cable Service and Murdoch, aged 29, was appointed to the London posting.
Murdoch had discussed his initial misgivings about the London appointment with Prime Minister Fisher who encouraged him to take the posting and formally asked him to look into problems Australian troops in the Dardanelles were having receiving mail from home.
Fisher provided him with a letter of introduction to Sir Ian Hamilton, commander in chief of the Allied Forces in the Gallipoli campaign. Once in contact with Australian field commanders and privy to other first-hand accounts, he was convinced the Gallipoli campaign was a disaster with dreadful loss of life and little prospect of success. He believed the highly censored war correspondents’ dispatches published in British newspapers and repeated in Australia were grossly misrepresenting the reality.
Murdoch’s views were supported by a seasoned British war correspondent, Ellis Ashmead Bartlett, and the two agreed Bartlett would write to British Prime Minister Asquith and Murdoch would courier the letter to London on his return, thereby circumventing Command censors. The plan was leaked and the letter was confiscated from Murdoch by British Intelligence.
Murdoch had separately written an 8000-word report to Prime Minister Fisher condemning the Gallipoli campaign and in particular Sir Ian Hamilton’s “incompetence”. After much political strife fuelled by the Murdoch letter, Hamilton lost his command and preparations began for the Gallipoli evacuation.
During his six-year period managing the United Cable Service, Murdoch had become the new Australian Prime Minister Hughes’ go-to man in London, and he was clearly now a serious player at the highest level of Australian politics. He had also negotiated a deal for the Melbourne Herald to take Lord Northcliffe’s London Mail news service. Personal relationships with the all-powerful Lord Northcliffe and the Melbourne Herald’s chairman Theodore Fink were to lead to greater prominence.
In 1921 he returned to Australia, aged 36, to take up the Fink appointment as editor in chief at the Melbourne Herald, where he was charged with undertaking a major overhaul of the paper. His game plan was simple and effective: Open up the news pages to more general news, which in turn would increase readership, which in turn would secure advertising support (mainly departmental stores), which in turn would fund additional news pages and reporting staff, and importantly, increase profitability.
He increased his reporting and photographic staff, encouraged the use of pictures, women’s interest content, increased sports coverage, and ran crosswords and comics. He understood the public’s appeal for crime reporting and broadened the use of specialist contributors. He demanded accuracy and professionalism from his staff, continually positioning the paper as a serious afternoon broadsheet.
Murdoch was innovating in a manner new to Australia and the impact was spontaneous with circulations and profitability rising accordingly. Community campaigns became The Herald’s signature, including a campaign for a permanent war memorial in St Kilda Road.
The company had outgrown its stodgy offices on the corner of Flinders and Russell streets and commissioned a new 450,000-pound investment in new offices and high speed presses on the corner of Flinders and Exhibition Streets, operational in 1923.
Murdoch’s success was attracting rival attention, including the Sydney Sun launching the Sun News Pictorial in Melbourne in 1922, with an additional afternoon newspaper, The Evening Sun, to follow. Murdoch met this competition head on, undoubtedly contributing to the Sydney Sun’s announcement it was closing The Evening Sun, just 18 months after its launch.
In classic Murdoch style, he convinced his Board that they should make an offer to buy the Sun News Pictorial which was successfully negotiated for 175,000 pounds, thereby completing the morning and afternoon strategy. In a short while the Sun News Pictorial’s circulation lifted from 95,000 daily circulation to 130,000 circulation, with the Melbourne Herald increasing to 180,000 circulation.
Murdoch was clearly the essential element in the company’s success and the Board was keen to hang on to their star recruit. He quickly rose through the ranks to managing editor, managing director and ultimately chairman.
Throughout Murdoch’s era the company invested in radio, magazine publishing, film production and eventually preparing for television.
During his thirties Murdoch remained a bachelor, but those days would come to an end after he met young debutante Elisabeth Greene. They were married in Scots Church, Collins Street on June 6, 1928, celebrated by Keith’s father.
As a wedding present to Elisabeth, Keith had purchased a 90-acre farm at Langwarrin (which they renamed Cruden Farm after the Murdoch’s home village in Scotland), which was to become the base around which the family – including their four children, Helen, Rupert, Anne and Janet – and the family tradition would be built.
This new phase in Keith’s life, which included his knighthood in 1933, allowed him to turn his mind to building a lasting personal legacy, but there was much still to do at The Herald & Weekly Times. HWT was keen to expand interstate and had eyes on Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth and Hobart, which provided investment opportunities for HWT as well as Sir Keith.
Not all was plain sailing in his career. He had been prevailed upon by the government to become the Director General of Information during the Second World War, which required him to temporarily sever his ties with HWT. He was warned the appointment would attract criticism from rival proprietors and that journalists would object to the concept of censorship which he would be administering. He regretted taking the position and eventually resigned.
Sir Keith’s view of post-war Australia was that it should open its mind to the wider world and embrace expansionary free market policies, which brought him into direct conflict with Labor’s preference for State control. These conflicts were played out publicly in the columns of his papers and on the floor of Parliament.
He campaigned for foreign investment in Australia, particularly in the automotive industry, which he believed would drive Australia’s post-war economy. He also aspired for Melbourne to build a world-class arts centre and pushed government to secure the St Kilda Road site.
The late 1940s saw his health deteriorate but he refused to lessen his broad interests and hectic schedule. In the early 1950s he set his mind to reshaping his personal investments including increased investment in the Adelaide News with a plan for Rupert to run it, after completing his Oxford studies.
On October 4, 1952, Sir Keith died peacefully at his beloved Cruden Farm from a heart attack.
Undoubtedly, Sir Keith had been one of Australia’s towering figures of the 20th century. He had built a newspaper company from the ground up and taken it to unrivalled success. During his stewardship the Melbourne Herald had risen from 140,000 circulation to 400,000, and the Sun News Pictorial from 90,000 to 410,000 circulation. HWT had become the largest and most successful media company in Australia. Importantly he had developed talent capable of continuing his success.
His untimely death at 67 had implications. Dame Elisabeth would immerse herself in children’s health, driving Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital to a top ten status within the world’s paediatric hospitals and becoming the visionary force in the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, as well as supporting the arts and a multitude of worthy causes.
Rupert, at 22, would take over the Adelaide News and turn it into a massive media empire across the world, establishing himself as Australia’s most successful businessman. In 1987 he was to successfully engineer a $2 billion takeover of the HWT group of companies.
The broader Murdoch family would continue to throw their weight behind the national interest that had so occupied Sir Keith’s life.
Julian Clarke is a former Chief Executive of News Corp Australia and former managing director and chairman of The Herald & Weekly Times.
Keith Murdoch and wife Elisabeth
Murdoch's letter to Australian PM Andrew Fisher about the Gallipoli campaign.
Letter from the British Prime Minister Asquith to Major Dawney on Murdoch's Gallipoli correspondence.
General Sir Ian Hamilton
‘Murdoch, Sir Keith Arthur (1885–1952)’, Geoffrey Serle, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press.
In search of Keith Murdoch, Desmond Zwar, The Macmillan Company of Australia, 1980.
Keith Murdoch: Founder of a media empire, Ronald M Younger, Harper Collins, 2003.