1944 - | Editor & Publisher
Les Hinton began his career as a copy boy at the Adelaide News in 1959. Among his duties was fetching sandwiches for 28-year-old Rupert Murdoch. Hinton became one of Murdoch’s most important executives in a 50-year career with News. He has been variously described as Murdoch’s “hitman”, one of his “most trusted lieutenants” and an “astute political operator”. Hinton was a reporter, foreign correspondent and editor for Murdoch before being appointed to run, in succession, almost all parts of Murdoch’s newspaper empire in the US and UK.
“Mr Hinton will be joining us as a copyboy tomorrow morning.”
With those words, Rohan Rivett, editor of Adelaide tabloid The News, heralded the start of Lesley Frank Hinton’s newspaper career. It was 1959 and Hinton was 15 years old.
Hinton, born in the English seaside town of Bootle, was fresh off the boat from Liverpool after stints living in Singapore, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya and West Germany. He was the son of a British Army cook and a mother who had toiled through much of World War II in the women’s branch of the Army.
It was an inauspicious start on a now defunct newspaper. Nobody, least of all Hinton, could have predicted he would become one of the world’s most senior newspaper executives and a trusted confidant to perhaps the world’s most powerful media proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. 52 years later, Hinton had risen so far that his resignation – taking responsibility for a scandal not of his making and of which he was ignorant – made headlines around the world.
Hinton’s first story, a single-column brief in The News four months after he became a copyboy, certainly gave no hint of his future success. Nor did his first interaction with Murdoch, in which the News Limited proprietor simply asked the teenager to get him a ham sandwich for lunch. “For 15 years, we discussed nothing more elevated,” Hinton said of that first encounter.
To anyone who knows both men, it is perhaps no surprise that they would one day become close. Hinton displays the traits found in many of the executives closest to Murdoch: a singular focus, lots of energy, infinite curiosity, a pathological aversion to snobbery, a large dollop of loyalty – sometimes of the blind variety – and, of course, a liking for gossip.
Hinton had another talent: whether by accident or design, he always managed to be in the city in which Murdoch was operating.
But proximity to The Boss wasn’t going to be enough to get Hinton to the top. Before becoming a trusted lieutenant and friend of the most famous and divisive newspaperman of the 20th century, Hinton needed a promotion from copyboy. It didn’t take long: a year after starting at The News, Hinton gained his cadetship alongside his best friend, Rex Jory, who would later become an Adelaide journalistic institution himself.
Having achieved their 120 words a minute of Pitman shorthand and finished their cadetships, Hinton and Jory boarded the SS Orcades in May 1965 for the excitement of London and the hope of a job at the global centre of the newspaper trade, Fleet Street.
It was a modest start in England for Hinton, who finally snared a job rewriting foreign copy for British United Press. The following year he got a six-month contract on The Sun, at that point a down-on-its-luck mid-market broadsheet.
While most journalists can name the “big break” that set up their careers, Hinton’s defining moment at The Sun was a “big miss”. Turning up late to a speech by the Duke of Edinburgh, he filed an inconsequential story, completely ignorant of a controversy that led competing mastheads the following morning. A furious editor told Hinton he would not be given the permanent job he craved, liberating Hinton to have fun and pursue stories about which he was passionate. The result? Four front page stories, including a “splash”, in the following few weeks.
His place on Fleet Street was secure.
Around this time, Hinton started supplementing his salary at The Sun by working Saturday shifts on the weekly News of the World.
Murdoch – in 1968 an unknown Australian newspaper proprietor – was about to buy the News of the World and, soon after, The Sun. At that point, Hinton was one of the few people in England who could claim to know Murdoch, even if only slightly. He parlayed his scant knowledge into a permanent job at The Sun.
Success followed. By the 1970s, Hinton became a correspondent in the growing New York bureau as Murdoch expanded his reach in the United States. By 1979, he was News Editor of the supermarket tabloid The Star, reluctantly accepting the role because he didn’t have the courage to say “no” to Murdoch’s offer.
And so began an incredible rise: deputy editor of The Boston Herald, editor-in-chief of The Star; executive vice president and then president of Murdoch Magazines; chief executive officer of News America Publishing and then Fox Television Stations, before returning to the UK as chairman of News International in 1995.
Hinton remained in that role until News Corporation bought the Dow Jones Company in 2007, at which point he returned to the US as chief executive officer of that storied publisher. Once again, it wasn’t a job he had particularly wanted, but Murdoch had asked him to do it.
Four years later, the world-beating run ended. Hinton resigned in the midst of the infamous UK phone hacking scandal in which News International mastheads had paid for information illegally taken from the phones of celebrities, royals and even ordinary Britons.
While Hinton was cleared of any wrongdoing, there was no way his replacement as CEO of News International – Murdoch’s youngest son, James – was going to take responsibility for the scandal and there was equally no chance Murdoch himself would take the blame.
Strategically placed leaks and unsourced stories regarding Hinton’s future started to appear and, seeing the writing on the wall, he resigned.
"I have watched with sorrow from New York as the News of the World story has unfolded,” Hinton said. “That I was ignorant of what apparently happened is irrelevant and in the circumstances I feel it is proper for me to resign from News Corp. and apologise to those hurt by the actions of News of the World."
Murdoch released a statement: “Les and I have been on a remarkable journey together for more than 52 years. That this passage has come to an unexpected end, professionally, not personally, is a matter of much sadness to me. News Corporation is not Rupert Murdoch. It is the collective creativity and effort of many thousands of people around the world, and few individuals have given and few individuals have given more to this company than Les Hinton.”
Andrew Butcher worked at News Corp for 20 years, starting as a copyboy in Melbourne and finishing up as the company’s New York-based senior vice president of communications and Rupert Murdoch’s primary spokesman. He is Joint Managing Partner of strategic consulting firm Bespoke Approach.
With John Lydon of the Sex Pistols
Les Hinton meets Paul McCartney. Courtesy of News Corp
Les Hinton as an executive in 1993. Courtesy of News Corp
Les Hinton meets the Queen. Courtesy of News Corp
Les Hinton and Rupert Murdoch
Les Hinton and Rupert Murdoch, courtesy of The Australian Financial Review
The Bootle Boy: An Untidy Life in News, Les Hinton, Scribe, 2018
Hack Attack, Nick Davies, Vintage, 2015
Les Hinton’s Vindication, Editorial, WSJ.com, September 16, 2016