1914-2000 | South Australia | Reporter & Media Executive
May had a 70-year association with Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers and was the main driver for the Australian end of the empire while Rupert expanded overseas. He joined The News in Adelaide as a 15-year-old copy boy and worked in Broken Hill before returning to Adelaide after World War II to become chief political reporter at the News. Murdoch asked May to become his personal assistant, then assistant manager and ultimately chief executive in Australia, a post he held for 11 years before becoming chairman of Nationwide and Mirror Newspapers.
I've just had the thoughts of Chairman May.
I've just had the thoughts of Chairman May.
It was 11 November 1975 and the editor of The Mirror newspaper, Mark Day, had some important news for the executives having lunch on “Mahogany Row” on the upper floor of News Limited’s Sydney office. He remembers bursting in without knocking and announcing to the room that Governor General John Kerr had sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
Day remembers about two and a half seconds of stunned silence and that Rupert Murdoch said nothing. But then the chairman of Mirror Newspapers, Ken May, threw his napkin in the air and screamed “whoopee”.
It was a revealing moment in the career of one of Murdoch’s key lieutenants, a career that spanned 70 years with the News company and included 11 years as its chief executive, during which he was known more for his unfailing loyalty than corporate innovation or great journalism.
Ken May started out as a copy boy on the Adelaide News at the age of 15. The shorthand skills he’d acquired by studying in the evenings at the South Australian School of Mines led to a cadetship. He was sent to Broken Hill where he worked as the chief reporter and sports editor on the Barrier Miner, until World War II, when he enlisted and served in the Middle East and later as an army public relations officer in New Guinea.
After the war, May returned to Adelaide where he became chief political reporter on the News. Veteran Adelaide journalist Rex Jory remembers him sitting in the front desk in the news room. “I used to take Ken’s typewriter, an old Remington, across to State Parliament House and we had a press room there and he and other reporters used to report parliament by taking a note for five minutes and coming out and reading the copy and I would read it through to the phone room.”
Jory says May was a “very powerful figure in politics because of his status and because of his arrogance, or confidence is a better word.” May knew the key figures and wasn’t cowed by politicians during the long reign of premier Sir Tom Playford and, later, Don Dunstan. His influence was such that “he played a role in the development of South Australia as a reporter.”
Rupert Murdoch had acquired the News after the death of his father, Sir Keith, and had taken a keen interest in it operations. In 1959, Murdoch asked May to be his personal assistant and made him assistant manager. It was the time the News was embroiled in the case of Rupert Maxwell Stuart, an Aboriginal man who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to hang by the South Australian Supreme Court. Murdoch opposed the death penalty and the News campaigned against the sentence and criticised the Royal Commissioners who had been appointed to review the case. Under then editor Rohan Rivett, the paper published a scathing report with the headline “These commissioners cannot do the job.” The News was charged with criminal libel.
Ken May was called as a witness. Jory recalls that “he gave strong evidence in favour of Rupert and the News which helped diminish the case.” He suspects May’s testimony “helped save the News from being heavily fined and perhaps other penalties”. Jory says Murdoch never forgot this and believes the knighthood May received years later was organised by Murdoch as a reward for it, as well as other acts of loyalty.
In 1964, May was appointed general manager of the News. He later followed Murdoch to Sydney, where he became chief executive in Australia following Rupert’s purchase of News of the World in London in 1969.
Mark Day says: “Rupert brought him across because he was utterly loyal and, in Rupert’s mind, utterly trustworthy not to make a silly mistake. Ken never wanted to be the boss, you know, that was Rupert. Ken never wanted to be the strategic decision maker. That was Rupert.” Day says May was Murdoch’s “eyes and ears internally at Mirror and Telegraph publications in Sydney and externally in his dealings with Canberra and the State Government of New South Wales. But he wasn’t an innovator in any way, shape or form.”
Day says May had a military bearing about him that “reeked of authority” He had an imperious “haw haw” laugh but “you wouldn’t have cheeky asides with him.” His politics were conservative but Day contends he didn’t browbeat people with his views.
Jory remembers May differently: “Ken had a habit. At five o’clock he would call his editors, trusted men, and advertising managers, for a drink and then would laud it over them about ‘bloody Whitlam’ and he would lay down the law and he’d have a couple of drinks and really impose his personality and his views on the room. You didn’t argue with him.”
Jory says May “was pulling some strings in Canberra as a puppeteer” throughout the demise of Whitlam. “His influence on the editors, although it wouldn’t have been direct, it certainly would have been very powerful.” He says May was close to Malcolm Fraser and “played an enormous role alongside Rupert in that whole Whitlam-Fraser period”. After the dismissal, he became “a huge influence on Fraser and on the papers that reported Fraser”.
Former editor of The Australian the late Adrian Deamer was not a supporter. In the oral history he recorded for the National Library he described May as a “strange man” and “very much an Adelaide News person whose idea of journalism was to take the handouts from Playford”. He said May hated the probing and commentary style of political reporting in The Australian: “He thought this was the wrong way to go about it. Reporters report, they don’t inquire into anything. If the premier has got something to say, well that’s good enough for him. I mean, being lectured by Ken May about journalism was not my idea of an education.”
Deamer claimed credit for the nickname that became associated with May after May gave him some advice about the newspaper business.
“He said, ‘How’s the Melbourne office going Adrian?’. I said, ‘Oh, it’s settling down, it’s going pretty well.’ He said, ‘I always say a paper’s only as good as its branch offices’. I said, ‘Thank you, Ken’. He said, ‘What’s the subs team like?’, and I said, ‘Oh, all right’ … He said, ‘I always say that a newspaper is only as good as its subs’. So I went back and said to someone, ‘I’ve just had the thoughts of Chairman May’.”
Deamer says this observation went round the company and from that time onwards the boss was known as Chairman May, a reference to Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
May was present on the day in 1979 when Murdoch made his first, and ill-fated, takeover bid for the Herald and Weekly Times. The way author Michael Leapman tells the story, May didn’t do much at the meeting. Murdoch told HWT chief executive Sir Keith MacPherson that he intended taking control and that he would want MacPherson to stay on afterwards. At that point, May simply concurred with his boss, “We’d want you to do that,” he said. MacPherson was unimpressed. “What?” he replied. “Like all those other gentlemen who have been sacked so frequently from everything you’ve taken over?”
May served on the board of Murdoch’s global company News Corporation. He retired as chief executive in 1980 and moved back to Adelaide, where he accepted a seat on the board of Santos. After Murdoch’s second successful bid for the HWT in 1987 he was appointed chairman of the News’ arch rival, the Adelaide Advertiser. He was knighted in 1980. Jory concludes that although he liked being called Sir Kenneth, he remained a “small town boy” from Adelaide’s western suburbs.
There was “nothing snazzy about his background. He wasn’t private school or anything like that and he always retained that working class background. It was always there, never far from the surface. It was as if he couldn’t forget it.”
Andrew Dodd has been a radio, television and print journalist with Radio National, ABC TV and The Australian. He is an Associate Professor of Journalism and the Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne.
The Adelaide News on 11 November 1975
Adrian Deamer interviewed by Stewart Harris for the National Library of Australia
‘May, Sir Kenneth Spencer (1914-2000)’, A Companion to the Australian Media, Andrew Dodd, Bridget Griffen-Foley (ed), Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014