1931- | VIC | Publisher
The son of Sir Keith Murdoch, Rupert inherited the afternoon newspaper Adelaide News at age 21 and developed the News Limited business into the second-biggest media conglomerate in the world by the early 21st century. His empire included newspapers, television and movie production in the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia. His political influence was considered immense and controversial. In Australia, his newspapers covered more than 60 per cent of the daily metropolitan and national market. His induction to the Hall of Fame was primarily based on his introduction of the fresh innovative national daily The Australian, which lost money for many of its first 50 years but forced rival publishers to invest in quality journalism, thus lifting general standards.
Rupert Murdoch did not inherit great wealth when his father died. As managing director of the Herald and Weekly Times group Sir Keith Murdoch wielded great influence but, conscious that there was no legacy for his children through HWT, he spent his final years acquiring shares in Brisbane’s Courier Mail and Adelaide’s The News.
The Queensland interests were sold off – against the wishes of young Rupert – to pay death duties and retire debt and Rupert’s inheritance thus became a single, small afternoon daily that managed a profit of 1500 pounds in a good week.
From this Keith Rupert Murdoch, using guile, charm, daring and bet-the-company risk-taking, built a global empire. During his 60-year stewardship of News Corporation its value reached $100 billion as his interests expanded from newspapers into film production, television networks, cable and satellite services, book publishing, sporting teams, education services and digital platforms.
During his lifetime his achievements and mis-steps have been debated and dissected; his influence on popular culture has been the subject of books, movies and stage plays; he has been praised and pilloried in unequal measure and he will be remembered and argued about for decades when he is gone. But for all that he remains unquestionably Australia’s greatest businessman.
He took over The News in 1953 and immediately confronted his first corporate battle. His father’s colleagues at HWT launched a Sunday edition of the Adelaide broadsheet, The Advertiser, aimed at leaching revenue from Rupert’s Sunday Mail. Rupert’s reaction was instinctive and a pointer to his career. He wrote: “To hell with them. We’ll fight. Our balance sheet is going to be knocked to hell for a short time [but] it is going to be a great fight and I have complete confidence that we will win.”
In the end, it was a draw – after two years The Advertiser closed its Sunday edition in return for a half-share in The Sunday Mail. But Murdoch declared victory, saying: “we control, run, print and get management fees for” the surviving publication. He rubbed salt into The Advertiser’s wounds by offering to buy the company for 14 million pounds – an offer rejected amid shock at its audacity.
In 1956, Murdoch bought The Sunday Times in Perth, and during the second half of the '50s, added other titles such as New Idea magazine, The NT News, and The Barrier Miner in Broken Hill. He adopted the “expand or die” approach he has maintained to this day. Many of his acquisitions were in loss, and had to be turned around – a process that excited Murdoch. He was highly energetic, rolling up his sleeves in the newsroom, dirtying his hands with ink, helping with make-up, shouting orders and encouragement in the press room, while at the same time insisting on cost cuts and bold promotions to push up sales.
In 1960 he took over The Sydney Daily Mirror and started an era of competition so intense that Sydney became known as one of the toughest newspaper towns in the world. His rivals believed the Mirror would send him broke, but Murdoch prospered and in 1964 unveiled his most audacious move yet – the launch of a national daily called The Australian. This was a mammoth enterprise in the days before facsimile transmission, let alone computing and the internet, and Canberra airport fogs and the tyranny of distance across Australia nearly brought the project to its knees. But Murdoch persisted against all odds and forced change on his competitors. By insisting on the highest editorial standards and a national outlook he made the state-based dailies look tired and introspective. Their only response could be to fight on The Australian’s level, thus sparking a revolution in Australian journalism.
The Australian racked up losses of more than $100 million before it turned its first profit in 1983. During the 90s it was making $20 million in some years. But regardless of its financial position it held a vital place in the national conversation – and it still does.
In 1968 Murdoch ventured off shore, buying Britain’s News of the World, a Sunday scandal sheet given to reporting the activities of vicars in fishnet stockings. Soon after he acquired the ailing union-owned broadsheet, The Sun, for $100,000 down and $5000 a week and turned it into a racy tabloid selling four million and making $100 million a year.
In 1974 he crossed the Atlantic, buying newspapers in Texas, launching the National Star magazine, buying the venerable New York Post and the chic Village Voice. In Australia he fought for and won the Channel 10 network but was rebuffed in his first assault on his father’s old domain, HWT.
The ‘80s was a decade of incredible expansion – a debt-fuelled buying spree that included buying The Times and Sunday Times in London, the Boston Herald, the Chicago Times, the South China Morning Post and, finally, the Herald and Weekly Times group in Australia. In 1985 he snapped up the Hollywood movie studio 20th Century Fox and a chain of seven TV stations which he used as the basis for a fourth US TV network. In 1986 he caused a revolution by secretly establishing a print facility in the down-at-heel London docklands suburb of Wapping that broke the union stranglehold on British newspaper publishing. And to follow that he launched Sky Television in the UK in 1989 – another bet-the-company move.
In the early ‘90s the world economy trembled. Banks called in their loans and for many agonising days it appeared Murdoch, with too much debt and too many losses on too many fronts, would go under. It was a shattering, chastening time for Murdoch, who was forced to sell a large equity stake and dispose of many of his 400-odd businesses to repay debt. But by 1994 he was on his way again, buying the pan-Asian satellite platform Star TV in Hong Kong, establishing Fox News and expanding cable network operations in the US, buying into satellite TV in South America, Italy and, later, Germany and launching Foxtel in Australia.
By 2000, in the midst of the dot-com boom, News Corporation’s market capitalisation reached $100 billion. It was not to last, as the internet exerted its disruptive influence, but as publishing companies around the world pondered their digital future, Murdoch showed his faith in print in 2006 by bidding for the fabled Wall Street Journal, which he won for $5 billion after a marathon battle. Soon after the global financial crisis forced him to write off half the purchase price.
The same year, the seeds of Murdoch’s greatest crisis were sown when a reporter from the News of the World confessed to hacking the phone of a member of the royal family. In 2011 it became clear that what had been described as the act of a rogue reporter was not; it was part of an illegal activity regularly practiced by NoW journalists and, by some accounts, widespread among Fleet Street reporters. Murdoch closed the title, paid out millions in damages and appeared at a British Parliamentary inquiry to declare it “the most humble day of my life.” Fallout from the hacking scandal continues to cloud the political landscape and the role of the publishing industry in the UK as well as the personal future of dozens of News Corp employees. It also casts doubt on succession plans for the 82-year-old Murdoch and, ultimately, his entire his legacy. But no matter the outcome; whether students of 20th century media remember the hacking scandal first or as a final stain, the career of Keith Rupert Murdoch has been without peer.
Mark Day joined The News in 1960 as a copy boy, just in time to enjoy Rupert Murdoch's magic carpet ride. He was editor of the Sunday Mail, Truth and the Daily Mirror before being appointed publisher and editor-in-chief of The Australian in 1976. He has written a weekly column on media for The Australian since 1999.
Rupert Murdoch, above, inspecting the first edition of The Australian in July 1964.
Rupert Murdoch checking one of his first editions of The Sun, in London.
Murdoch, William Shawcross, Pan Books, 1992.
Breaking News – Sex, Lies and the Murdoch Succession, Paul Barry, Allen and Unwin, 2013.
The Man Who Owns The News – Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch, Michael Wolff, Knopf, 2008.