Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: The political assassination of Prime Minister John Gorton – Part 5

Rupert Murdoch storms Fleet Street with help of old schoolmate John Gorton

London, Monday, 4 December 1968 – Rupert Murdoch was the enfant terrible of media owners when he arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport three weeks before Christmas. Cashed up and burning with ambition, Murdoch was on the acquisition trail. He wanted to achieve what no colonial from the antipodes had ever done before – buy his way into Fleet Street, the newspaper capital of the world. Following a few weeks of hustling merchant bankers and gratuitously brown-nosing media barons, politicians and editors Murdoch succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Rupert Murdoch arrives at London Airport on 4 December 1968 with second wife, Anna and their baby daughter, Elisabeth

The “Boy from Oz” stuck it up the “Mother Country” to become the proud owner of two Fleet Street papers: the fiercely pro-Labour daily The Sun and a salacious Sunday paper The News of the World, the world’s biggest selling English language newspaper, founded in 1843. The News of the Screws, as it was known in “the Street”, carried the cheeky masthead: “All human life is there”. It specialised in “stories of randy vicars, homosexual housemasters, threesomes in bed and stolen knickers”, according to journalist William Shawcross.

Initially, Murdoch was blocked from buying the crown jewels of Fleet Street – newspapers such as The Times, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and The Financial Times – because they were titles jealously held by media barons like the Rothermeres, Northcliffes, Camroses and Kemsleys. He hid any bitterness he felt towards their lordships because he knew that once inside the closed shop he would be able to pick his way forward. He would have to wait a decade until the arrival of Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher before swooping from the gutter press to the pavement press and buying The Times and The Sunday Times.

Murdoch on Fleet Street during 1969 talks to acquire The Sun

In executing his London raid, a pattern of corporate behaviour became starkly evident. It was a modus operandi that Australians had seen before. Taking his first step from being a provincial Adelaide-based publisher to becoming a metropolitan Sydney-based publisher, Murdoch had acquired Sydney’s Daily Mirror, Melbourne’s weekly Truth and the national racing paper and form guide, The Sportsman, once edited by Banjo Patterson.

Murdoch’s ultimate success depended on a clear strategy: operating behind the scenes, he secretly duchessed Deputy Prime Minister John McEwen and John Fairfax & Sons managing director Rupert Henderson. “Black Jack” McEwen, Trade Minister and leader of the National Party, was the source of granite-like political power in the Coalition government led by Prime Minister Robert Menzies while “Rags” Henderson was the austere powerhouse behind the remarkable transformation of John Fairfax into a multi-media group through the acquisition of TV and radio licences.

All three men, Murdoch, McEwen and Henderson, held dearly to their Scottish heritage and their Protestant upbringing. Murdoch switched to Roman Catholicism in the 1980s in deference to his devout Catholic wife, Anna, and accepted a Papal knighthood in 1998 when he was pursuing commercial interests in Britain with New Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In my view, searching for Murdoch’s religiosity is futile. He does not believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the heavenly after-life through the pearly gates, the infallibility of the Pope, celibacy, or the Ten Commandments. He may be photographed outside a church, but his only true religion is focused on two things: Power and Wealth.

Rupert “Rags” Henderson

In 1960 Rupert Henderson took the decision to sell the Daily Mirror, Truth and Sportsman to Murdoch without telling his boss, Sir Warwick Fairfax, chairman of the board of directors, who was holidaying on a luxury yacht off Mexico. Henderson’s primary intention was to stop the titles falling into the hands of Sir Frank Packer, but the sale to News Ltd had the unforeseen consequence of propelling Murdoch into the big league of Australian media ownership.

Instead of going broke as Henderson had expected (and hoped), Murdoch flourished. The circulation of the three papers flew up and soon the brash young newspaperman was making a tidy fortune from cash sales of his raunchy tabloids at railway stations, bus stops, pubs and newsagents. Murdoch had cynically used Deputy Prime Minister McEwen for his publishing ambitions; now in London he was about to use Prime Minister John Gorton for a similar goal.

When Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared in the roiling surf of Cheviot Beach on Sunday, 17 December 1967, Senator John Gorton’s life dramatically altered. Three weeks later, on 10 January 1968, a politician completely unknown to voters was sworn in as Australia’s 19th Prime Minister, the first senator to hold that office.

John Gorton becomes Prime Minister. Left, a jaundiced William McMahon

The Victorian farmer turned politician was a mystery even to old hands in Canberra. Overseas diplomats were none the wiser either. They floundered as they tried to answer “TOP SECRET” cables asking, “Who is Australia’s new prime minister? What policy changes are expected? Please advise immediately.”

In the first months of his administration, Mr and Mrs Gorton became regular weekend guests at Rupert Murdoch’s rural property, Cavan, less than an hour’s drive from Canberra. Gorton loved the attention from the thrusting 37-year-old newspaper tycoon while Murdoch enjoyed his role as the PM’s media confidant, a position occupied during the Menzies and Holt eras by either a Packer or a Fairfax.

“Black Jack” McEwen

But the close rapport soon ended when Murdoch’s special advisers, led by Deputy Prime Minister John McEwen, economist Maxwell Newtown, editor of The Australian, and other “influencers” warned him that Gorton was “unreliable”, “impulsive” and likely to be replaced at The Lodge by Labor’s rising star, Gough Whitlam. Another key influencer was John Menadue who joined Murdoch’s senior executive staff in October 1967 after long and valuable service as Gough Whitlam’s principal policy adviser.

Before flying to London in December 1968 Murdoch needed permission to circumvent Australia’s tough foreign exchange controls to buy The News of the World. He reached for his old school tie and contacted Prime Minister Gorton, a fellow ex-student from Australia’s poshest private boarding school, Geelong Grammar. Would the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Federal Treasury let him take a sizeable number of Aussie dollars abroad with no questions asked? Murdoch knew only too well that if he was caught breaking the law it was a criminal offence and he could be handed a heavy fine or even a jail sentence. It would the end of his ambition to build a media empire.

Murdoch asked his trusted Daily Mirror bureau chief Eric Walsh to drive him to the Prime Minister’s official residence at Yarralumla in Canberra. On the way to The Lodge, Murdoch explained why he was depending on Gorton to waive the exchange controls. “EJ” Walsh drove through the security gates and waited in the visitor’s car park while Murdoch disappeared across the courtyard to be greeted by the Prime Minister. The private meeting took 30 minutes with only the two men present. “Murdoch came out of The Lodge beaming from ear to ear,” Walsh recalled. “He said, ‘Well, that wasn’t difficult’ and I drove him home.” Murdoch booked his flight to Europe. He was cashed up and on the acquisition trail.

Whether the timing was planned or not, Rupert Murdoch and John Gorton reached London within days of each other. In Gorton’s mind it was a golden opportunity to hold a joint press conference to announce the Australian’s takeover of The News of the World. After all, he had helped to facilitate the deal and a joint announcement fitted well with his strong views on Aussie nationalism and shaking off the backward-looking era of Robert Menzies. However, Murdoch wasn’t interested. His sources had already warned him that Gorton’s presence at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference would attract protesters against the Vietnam war, Ian Smith’s illegal rule in Rhodesia and the apartheid regime in South Africa. His rejection of Gorton was now complete and he had become a fully-paid up member of Gough Whitlam’s fan club.

Murdoch with one of the first copies of The Sun under his ownership, November 1969

In any case, Murdoch did not need the “star” value of the Prime Minister sitting alongside him to face the world’s press. His Fleet Street acquisition was given front-page coverage around the world and he was hailed as a “new Messiah” and a “breath of fresh air” in the stodgy world of conservative-minded media. The Australian media carried highly flattering accounts of Murdoch’s overseas expansion with editorials, photographs, cartoons and gushing commentary.

Under Murdoch’s control The News of the World fell into deeper prurience and sniggering. The Sun lost any pretension to be a popular but serious-minded paper for aspirational Brits. In an interview with The Sunday Times, journalist Godfrey Hodgson commented favourably on Mirrorscope, a supplement recently added by The Sun’s tabloid rival. Murdoch dropped a copy of the supplement in the waste paper basket saying: “If you think we’re going to have any of that upmarket shit in our paper, you’re very much mistaken.” Soon a topless girl started to appear on Page 3 and the “soaraway Sun” became Murdoch’s favourite paper.

Australians were “flavour of the month” in Swinging London when Murdoch carried out his buccaneering raid. “In the 1960s, London was the place to be,” wrote Albie Thoms, an Australian director and producer. At times it seemed that Aussies were drinking or serving in every pub in Soho, South Kensington, Notting Hill, Barons Court, Hammersmith, Chelsea and Fulham.

Germaine Greer in 1972

The list of Australians who were interviewed, profiled and turned into celebrities was quite astonishing. Barry Humphries, as Dame Edna, became more famous than the Queen; Germaine Greer, author of the Female Eunuch, was hailed as the most important scholar to come out of Oz; Bruce Beresford, director of Breaker Morant, began his career at the British Film Institute; Clive James became the UK’s foremost TV critic and chat show host; Judith Durham and The Seekers topped the charts with World of Our Own; The Easybeats turned Friday On My Mind into a pop music classic; artist Sidney Nolan made bushranger Ned Kelly into a colonial hero; Carmen Callil and Marsha Rowe put feminist publishing on the world map with Virago Press and Spare Rib Books.

Rolf Harris recalled nostalgically: “To me (at 22) London seemed the hub of the universe.” He made pocket money playing his wobble board and singing in pubs but his real ambition was to be an artist. He painted the Queen, received a knighthood from her and a made a TV series teaching beginners how to paint. His world fell apart when he was convicted and jailed for historic crimes of sexual abuse. In January 2019 he made fresh headlines when he was seen near a school and waved at children as he walked past.

Richard Neville of Oz

Richard Neville, co-editor of Oz magazine and advocate of the hippie culture, disliked London as he found it in the 1960s: “In 1966 Martin Sharp and I skipped town. In a reverse cycle of the ‘black sheep being sent to the colonies’, we headed for London, lured by reports of it ‘swinging like a pendulum’. By the time we arrived the clock had stopped. The streets were drab. The mood sombre. Even the BBC, despite Beatlemania, was deaf to the music of youth. Riding the Central Line was to be whisked back to the Great Depression. Where were the swingers? Huddled around hookahs in Notting Hill, poncing on King’s Road in satirical military garb, organising anti-war demos outside Australia House, flocking to the Albert Hall to hear beat poets howl against the machine.”

Neville and his compatriots far preferred London in the 1970s and he said so. They drew up a plan for a new magazine “to take the piss out of the Poms”. Neville was tried at the Old Bailey in 1971, briefly went to jail and then returned to Sydney to start a promising career as a TV commentator and writer.

I had worked for Murdoch on his Mount Isa Mail in Western Queensland in 1959 and then in Sydney and Canberra for his Daily Mirror where Anna Torv, destined to become the second Mrs Murdoch, was a cadet journalist. In those days, Murdoch was a campaigning, hands-on publisher who opposed the Vietnam war, supported Aboriginal rights, favoured Australia becoming a republic and was known as “Red Rupe” at Oxford because of the bust of Lenin in his college room. He knew most of the staff by their first names and that included copy takers, photographers, drivers and linotype operators. My impression was that inside the publisher there was a frustrated editor trying to get out.

Murdoch acquires Sydney’s Daily Mirror from Fairfax in 1960

Bill Jenkings, the Daily Mirror’s chief crime reporter for three decades, remembers Murdoch’s arrival at the paper’s Surry Hills headquarters in 1960. “Fairfax jumped at the chance to offload what it thought was ‘a lemon’. I think Fairfax really believed Murdoch would fail and that the Mirror would fade into obscurity against the Fairfax-owned Sun. But they were in for a rude shock. They didn’t count on a young bloke from Adelaide adapting to Sydney tastes, rolling up his sleeves, getting his hands dirty with newsprint and instilling competition and loyalty in his staff.”

“Bondi Bill”, as he was known, rarely gave plaudits to anybody but he said of Murdoch: “It was nothing to see him down in the printing section wearing a dustcoat or answering a ringing telephone in the newsroom when everyone else was busy. He was a great worker and a brilliant tactician.”

I rarely saw eye-to-eye with “Jenko” but his description of Murdoch in the 1960s matches my recollection. Only after seeing Murdoch operate in London in the 1970s did I come to appreciate his baleful influence on journalism, society and people.

The dust had scarcely settled on his Fleet Street raid when a triumphant Murdoch told a reporter: “I am constantly amazed at the ease with which I entered British newspapers.” His smugness was shortlived. The phone-hacking scandal broke in 2008 and News International was exposed as a “criminal conspiracy” by a judicial inquiry. Murdoch probably wished he had never heard of The News of the World. His response was to shut it down.

Murdoch with son James at the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking, London 2012

Next week: Prime Minister Gorton’s London visit goes from triumph to tragedy

© Alex Mitchell

NB: These articles are covered by exclusive copyright with ownership belonging to the author. They can only be reproduced in full or in part by his written permission.

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