Journalist Walter Marsh talks about his new book “Young Rupert: The Making of the Murdoch Empire.” Walter and show host Gene Tunny discuss Rupert Murdoch’s early years in Adelaide, South Australia and how they shaped his later career. From challenging established systems to becoming a globally influential media mogul, Murdoch’s career has been highly controversial.
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About this episode’s guest: Walter Marsh
Walter Marsh is a journalist based in Tarntanya/Adelaide with a background in history and culture. A former editor and staff writer at The Adelaide Review and Rip It Up, his writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Monthly, The Saturday Paper, and InDaily.
What’s covered in EP210
- Rupert Murdoch’s career and the making of the Murdoch empire. (0:00)
- Rupert Murdoch’s life and career. (3:09)
- The origins of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in Adelaide. (8:16)
- Newspaper circulation wars in Adelaide. (14:01)
- The business strategies of a successful entrepreneur. (20:28)
- A controversial murder case and its aftermath in Australia. (23:35)
- A historical libel trial involving Rupert Murdoch and his newspaper. (28:09)
- Media, power, and ethics in the Rupert Murdoch era. (33:20)
- Rupert Murdoch’s legacy. (38:15)
Links relevant to the conversation
You can purchase Young Rupert via Amazon:
Transcript: From Adelaide to Global Power: Young Rupert Murdoch w/ Walter Marsh – EP210
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Walter Marsh 00:00
I found it very telling that in this period where he is kind of the good guy challenging systems that were overdue for a challenge and these elite establishments that were kind of begging to be shaken up and undermined. You know, the variables were so different when he started but this kind of dynamic have always been the inside or outside of sticking it to these establishments kind of set the groundwork for everything that came afterwards.
Gene Tunny 00:32
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist and former Australian Treasury official. The aim of this show is to help you better understand the big economic issues affecting all our lives. We do this by considering the theory evidence and by hearing a wide range of views. I’m delighted that you can join me for this episode, please check out the show notes for relevant information. Now on to the show. Hello, thanks for tuning into the show. Last month in September 2023, it was announced that Rupert Murdoch would be stepping down as chairman of the Fox News corporations in November with the possible exception of William Knox, Darcy Murdoch’s been the Australian businessman who’s had the greatest impact on world affairs. He’s had an extraordinary and of course highly controversial career. And believe it or not at all began Adelaide, the city of churches in South Australia. Adelaide journalist Walter Marsh has written a great book about Murdoch’s defining years in Adelaide in the 1950s. The book is called Young Rupert, the making of the Murdoch empire. And I’m delighted to have been able to interview Walter for the show. You’ll learn about how the fear satellite newspaper circulation will set Murdoch on a path to domestic and then global expansion. And you’ll learn about how Murdoch figured out he needed to get close to the politically powerful if he was to succeed. Young Rupert’s a great book, so please consider buying it and supporting a really talented journalist. Details are in the shownotes Okay, let’s get into the episode. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Walter Marsh on young Rupert Walter Marsh, thanks for joining me on the programme.
Walter Marsh 02:18
Thanks for having me, Gene.
Gene Tunny 02:20
It’s a pleasure, Walter. I’ve really enjoyed reading your new book, young Rupert, the making of the Murdoch empire. So came out earlier this year, it’s become even more topical with with Rupert Murdoch stepping down as the head of News Corp the other week. So this is really good timing. So it’s good to have you on the show.
Walter Marsh 02:44
It’s been a pretty crazy to the books been out for two months, and it all the way through writing it. I you know, you’ve conscious when you’re writing a book about a 92 year old that there are certain inevitable deadlines, I guess that you’re on the playing in the back of your mind. But the fact that’s come out that this this resignation happened after the book came out, works pretty well. So I’ve been keeping very busy. So thanks for having me on.
Gene Tunny 03:09
Pleasure. Yeah, so just thinking he’s got good genes, I think because his mother lived until over 100 or nearly 200, if I remember correctly.
Walter Marsh 03:17
Yeah. And there’s a recurring thing in the book as well as people have observed and I didn’t want to, you know, body shame a young Rupert Murdoch. But a few people observed that he were on quite a bit of weight in his 20s. But then I was finding when I was researching the last chapter, which sort of takes the story full circle in the 80s. That these reports on these takeover attempts of the Hilda weekly times when he came back to to Australia in the 80s. And they often started with the sort of doorstop interviews that he was taking whilst going for his morning jog, in his, you know, running short shorts. And so clearly, either one of his co workers or one of his wives whispered in his ear, Hey, your dad died of a heart attack in his 60s and had many health problems got to really become a thing. Other people did describe him as a fitness freak later in life. So he got the memo.
Gene Tunny 04:12
Yes, yes. And his father, of course, was Keith Murdoch, the famous newspaperman. So we might talk about him a bit a bit later, before we get into it. Walter, would you be able to tell me a bit about your, your work as a journalist? Are you a freelancer or your independent journalist at the moment?
Walter Marsh 04:29
Yeah, I’m a bit of freelance for the past three years. Before that I was. I worked as the digital editor of the Adelaide review, which was a long running sort of arts culture magazine, here in Adelaide, that shut down in 2020, sort of as a result of the pandemic. So that kind of was the big push that it took to get cracking on this book project that I’ve been thinking about for a few years. So I’ve kind of come from that culture and arts reporting background, but also In history as well, I’ve been working in the history space and studied at uni. And there was at uni when maybe 10 years ago now that I first started looking into this area as my honours thesis, right. So I did that kind of saw a lot of the sources, a lot of the the narratives that later inform the book, but then happily put on a shelf for the best part of 10 years and tried to work as a journalist. But you know, the way the industry was going, it led me inevitably to go back and think about writing this book. Yeah.
Gene Tunny 05:30
And where was your Where did you do your thesis? Which university? The University of Adelaide? Good one. Okay. All right. And that’s on. Is that on North Terrace? Yeah. And is that near? I mean, Adelaide. So it’s quite compact, isn’t it? So you’d be close to where a lot of the events in you would have been close to where a lot of the events in this book took place, wouldn’t you?
Walter Marsh 05:51
Well, we so much of the events of this book, the Adelaide stuff at least happened? Yeah, on North Terrace. It’s a long street, but they really crafted cram a lot in there.
Gene Tunny 05:58
Yeah. And lots of old, you know, the famous buildings, the parliament, the railway station, if I remember correctly, grand old colonial buildings. So yes, yes. Very good. And can I ask have you ever worked for the Murdoch? Corporation for News Corp?
Walter Marsh 06:18
Yeah, it’s a great question. I did. And I kind of touched upon it in the book, just at the end. But I, when my first big job in the media, editing this sort of street press music, magazine website called rip it up that close down. And one of the things I’ve found about being made redundant in the media and the publication closing down is it’s a very public way of saying I’m unemployed and solid, please hire me. So someone reached out and I did probably the things a month that most in 2016 of, of copyediting work as a freelancer for a food guide that the advertiser were publishing. So that was my little experience inside Keith Murdoch house, which was the launch of that magazine after I’d finished working there. That is the informs the opening scene of the book, and this rooftop party. So that was my experience. Really. Yeah. And that was an interesting time as well, because it was 2016. And even though I was in this very kind of inoffensive corner of the Murdoch for the Empire, it was you know, Trump was in the background debating Hillary and the 2016 blackout happened while I was in the office. So it was an interesting time.
Gene Tunny 07:30
Yes, yeah. Remember that now? Now you mentioned it. And that’s the that’s quite a striking building out in Adelaide. Is that the Keith Murdock house, if I remember correctly? Yeah. So
Walter Marsh 07:39
yeah, way mastery. It’s this big, big glass building that they built less than 20 years ago, and before that, they had this big 1960s building, which really got opened just at the end of the events that are focused on in the book as well. But yeah, it’s definitely looms large over over Adelaide, even though in the last couple of years, because, you know, News Corp has shed a lot of workers lately that I think, as of when I published the book, multiple floors were actually rented out to SA Health, the government health department, so that an E News Corp doesn’t even fill it up anymore.
Gene Tunny 08:14
Right? Oh, yeah, exactly. Given what’s happened with with media. We can chat about that a bit later. So, Walter, I’d like to begin by reading from your summary. I think this is terrific. How you’ve, you’ve summarised this so this is one of your this is a note from the author. For as long as I can remember, my hometown Adelaide, has been a one paper town, a capital city, whose sole daily newspapers been owned by Rupert Murdoch’s use limited for the past 30 years. As I grew up, I realised the company behind this press monopoly extended far beyond my city, was a vast and controversial media empire with global reach. From the cartoons. I watched to the tabloids and cable news networks raising the temperature of Western democracies. And Adelaide wasn’t just a piece of that story. It was ground zero. Although, can you explain how Adelaide was ground zero for the Murdoch empire, please?
Walter Marsh 09:09
Yeah, I mean, it’s the sort of the starting point really, of the book. But in terms of the greater Murdoch story, it really, when piecing together the narrative, you can see that it could have gone a number of different ways. So it really the story starts. And the book starts with Rupert’s father, Sir Keith Murdock, who had spent his whole life his whole career building his name in journalism. He had started off as a freelancer as a reporter and sort of worked his way up over decades, to be the chairman of the Herald and weekly times and he really built that into a nation wide press Empire really. But he was sort of a manager really didn’t actually own that company. So the last few years of his life was spent really carefully trying to build stitch together this sort of separate Separate empire that he could hand over to his son Rupert. And sometimes that involves some, you know, some almost underhanded tactics of convincing the board of the Herald to sell off things like News Limited to him in a private capacity and used, I think it was there’s a, the British Parliament had a Royal Commission into monopoly. And he kind of used that as a as impetus to offload some of their Adelaide holdings. So they didn’t get accused of a press monopoly, but that played into a kid’s hands. So he had the Adelaide interests. He also had a magazine publisher Southdown press in Melbourne, which published new idea, this women’s magazine still going, I think, and there was also the Courier Mail and Queensland press, in Queensland, in Brisbane. And that was the kind of the crux of what Rupert was in line to inherit. But then, because the family itself, you know, Keith had been this a newspaper executive for his whole life. But he wasn’t necessarily a very rich, or at least a liquid sort of rich man himself. So it stretched himself very thin to build up this inheritance for Rupert took on a lot of debt. But when he died, quite suddenly, really, he had staged a border and coup at the Herald only, like 24 hours before he died. So he wasn’t expecting to die quite as suddenly as he did. But he left a lot of things hanging in the air with this inheritance. So Rupert, and his mother or Rupert’s Mother, you know, was very intent on not leaving the family in debt. So sold off a lot of the really key pieces of the furniture, the particularly the Brisbane papers, which left Rupert to basically go from Oxford, to Adelaide to sort of start start over again, you know, this wasn’t a small company, by any means. It had this afternoon newspaper. He also had the Sunday mail, which was the biggest circulation paper in Adelaide. So it was it was nothing to sneeze at. But it was, you know, if Keith had lived a little bit longer, and had managed to pull off what he was trying to work towards, maybe would have started off in Brisbane, maybe if Rupert had convinced his mother to hold on to Brisbane and get rid of News Limited, he would have started off in a different place. But it just so happened that in the circumstances, and this sort of economic pressures that were facing the family that he had to kind of bite the bullet and come to Adelaide, and I do think the circumstances in which he came to Adelaide and the environment he was working in, did have quite an impact in the kind of company that later became.
Gene Tunny 12:31
Yeah, absolutely. So Keith Murdoch had a really, I mean, even though he died in his 60s, I mean, he had a huge life, didn’t he? And he, he was a war correspondent. I think he was famous for highlighting just the some, you know, just the, you know, what was going on at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles campaign, just what a shambles. That was. I think he was famous for that, wasn’t he? If I remember correctly, yeah. Yeah. And so Murdoch, Rupert, Rupert Murdoch comes back to Adelaide. He’s from Oxford. And he was renowned as a Marxist at Oxford, wasn’t he? And he comes back, is he 22 years old, and he turns up in Adelaide is at 1953.
Walter Marsh 13:11
Yeah, 19, September 1953, is when he really touches down. So I’d been under a year after his father’s, his father died, he finished his studies at Oxford, you know, corresponded with his mother furiously, trying to convince her not to sell, unable to convince her at the end, but then eventually says, Yes, I’ll come to Adelaide and sort of start off, you know, take the reins of the company there. And the board in Adelaide of us limited were all much older men, and they were kind of content to let him have a go at it. And he had this very the title we have as publisher, which isn’t very common in Australian newspapers in the sort of hastily defined enough that he could get away with doing whatever he wanted, and poke his nose into a bit of everything and the money side, the editorial side and kind of ease himself into the company.
Gene Tunny 14:01
Yeah. And so what was the paper in Adelaide that he inherited? And its its rival was the advertiser is that right? That’s the famous paper in Adelaide. Is it? What’s that? Yeah, so
Walter Marsh 14:11
So the, the advertiser is the morning paper, and that was the biggest daily newspaper in the city. And it still is today, it’s the only one. But then it’s afternoon competitor in the time of afternoon newspapers when they still exist. It was the news, which was owned by this company News Limited, and actually the advertiser and these limited head since 1930, early 1930s. Keith Murdoch had actually come into Adelaide on behalf of the Herald and weekly times and sort of invaded and taken over both of these papers. So up for you know, the best part of 20 years the Herald weekly times had run Adelaide as a virtual press monopoly of their own it was only a few years before Keith’s death that he carved out the News Limited and the news as this sort of our sort of rival to the Herald and weekly times owned advertiser that was run by the chairman of the weekly time. So there’s a lot of conflicting interests. And then when Rupert comes into town, sort of the gloves are off and it’s just open competition between the two papers.
Gene Tunny 15:16
Okay, right. Oh, so he’s he’s got a newspaper and obviously it gives up any any ideas of socialism or Marxism. That interesting little aspect of Murdoch. Yeah. So I like how you describe this. So I might read this other passage out because I’ve got a question about this. So in the synopsis for the book, it says led by Rupert’s friend Ally and editor in chief Rowan rivet, the fledgling Murdoch press began a seven year campaign of circulation, wars, expansion and courtroom battles that divided the city and would lay the foundations for a global empire if Rupert and Rowan didn’t end up in custody first. So okay, well, you’ve got to tell me more about that. What? How nasty did this circulation wall get? What were the courtroom battles about? And were they really at risk of doing in doing jail time?
Walter Marsh 16:12
Well, the circulation matters really start from even before Rupert touches down in Adelaide. So in an in amongst the the sort of aftermath of case death, there’s this guy sort of trying to convey in the book, there’s a scramble for control of these assets that he’d been building up. And all of his former colleagues at the Herald, his rivals, as well. They’re all sort of competing to sort of carve up Rupert’s inheritance. And they’re all telling each other vastly different stories. And they’re all saying, you know, Keith told me he wants to do this. Keith told me he wanted to do that. Keith is always playing people off against each other. So no one really knew what he what his true plans were. And in amongst that, once it became clear that that Rupert would have to come to Adelaide, to start over, the chairman of the advertisers to Lloyd dumar, who had been installed by Keith Murdoch, you know, 20 years earlier, when they came into Adelaide. He made this overtures to Rupert’s mother, Elizabeth, and kind of said, look, the News Limited sort of financial security depends on having this Sunday paper, which is the only Sunday paper it has this huge circulation, there’s no competition in that kind of market. It’s got its own little monopoly. We’re going to come in and we’re going to launch a Sunday paper, and we’re going to really put up a huge fight, you guys have limited resources. And, you know, there’s every is every likelihood that we’re going to just completely crush, crush this fledgling Murdoch press as it was at the time. But the alternative, the ultimatum he gave her was that you can sell the mail, and he’s limited all back to the health and weekly times and sort of restoring sort of a reset to what the status quo was three years earlier, before, you know, three or four years early before Keith had started carving it away for Rupert’s inheritance. And when Rupert found about about this, he was outraged. He was absolutely incensed. There were some really colourful letters that I was very pleased to find in the National Library of Australia. And so as soon as he’s made the decision, and he makes it very quickly that they’re not going to sell out he does want to have a go at making his life in newspapers. They said about the news news and his team, Ron Rivera, they all start secretly making plans about sort of battening down the hatches and preparing for the competition that’s about to happen when they launched, the advertiser launches this Sunday advertiser. And meanwhile, across town, the Sunday advertisers, you know, they’re they’re all doing these big research trips and criss crossing the world to find out the most modern advances in in sort of circulation building and newspapers and building up audiences. And so in, I think it’s August or September, the advertising the Sunday advertiser launches, and it’s immediately it’s a big threat to use them to them Rupert’s inheritance, and it’s not long after Rupert touches down that the mail, the news, limited paper, fires back and puts on the front page, accuses the advertiser of making a bid for press monopoly, and makes public this story of this kind of overtures to his mother, you know, the newly recently widowed recently bereaved wife of Sir Keith and kind of trying to strong arm, the Murdochs into selling them out, and they fret and it was framed in these terms where it wasn’t just a story of a family business, or, you know, the inheritance of a 22 year old, but it was this big, you know, this was a question of freedom press freedom in South Australia. And, you know, the the male and US Limited was going to stand up against this attempt to have, I guess, what was the quote something along the lines of all the states press in the communities press in the hands of one click, or group or group of businessmen, which is, of course deeply ironic now because the advertiser is the only paper in town and it’s been owned by Murdoch since the 80s. But that was really the start where the You know, the gloves were off, and they were really launching into this fight. And they thought they both papers threw everything at it for about two years until they eventually reached a kind of stalemate, they were kind of both speaking to the same audience both using all the same techniques, and haemorrhaging money in an unsustainable way. And so eventually, they, the advertiser kind of Rupert viewed as a capitulation, where they said, Actually, let’s merge the papers and publish one Sunday paper that’s co owned by the two companies. So it was kind of a draw, I guess. But for Rupert, when he’s coming up against this much better resourced paper and company that has ties to the Herald and weekly times, but also internationally as well. Now to have survived to your Onslaught was a pretty huge achievement, but also drove home to him that to really compete and to beat them, I guess that he had to expand it and match them in terms of the resources. So that kind of led to this treadmill of never ending expansion, I think that we see intake all around the world. And because, as Keith was, you know, he didn’t have a lot of capital, the family’s own capital to draw from the way he funded that was by taking out loans, he didn’t want to dilute the family’s control of the company by bringing in extra investors or shareholders. So a lot of borrowed money from banks. But that led him to this sort of cycle where the expansion is funded by borrowed money, he has to pay off the borrowed money. So in every town that he acquires something, in order to expand, he has to make that as profitable as possible as quickly as possible, as quickly as possible. So I think that goes a long way to explaining how, in a structural way, those early competitions kind of set him on this path of this sort of fight back siege mentality, which set him on the on this path of never ending expansion. And in every place, he went to, kind of pushing, pushing the bar, and maybe lowering the tone and pursuit of profit in every place that he went all around the world. And when you do that on a kind of industrial scale, it has, I think, a cumulative effect. I don’t think anyone would deny that.
Gene Tunny 22:10
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Gene Tunny 22:45
Now back to the show. I was gonna ask you about that I was going to ask you about how his time in Adelaide set him up for later expansion. And I was wondering whether it was because he, it was super profitable. And then that gave them the capital, but it sounds like no, actually. I mean, it did provide some earnings, obviously. But they went and expanded. They needed, they needed to borrow the money. And then that set them on that on that growth path. And they just because
Walter Marsh 23:14
he and because he’s a real opportunist as well, like he worked, he didn’t have so much money and resources that he could pick and choose. He’d always just buy whatever was available, whatever got his foot in the door of the market, whatever he could convince someone to sell to him who whoever underestimated him enough to sell something to him. He took it and then turn it into something profitable, which you saw repeated. But to go back to your question about the whether they were going to end up in jail along the way. Alongside this, this sort of economic competitions, there was this political aspect as well where South Australia in the 1950s. And the decade before it had been run by this sort of conservative establishment, the liberal country league party had been in power for over two decades. And they were kept in power by a gerrymander where country voters had twice the electoral power of those in the city. And so even though they were losing the popular vote, this party kept getting returned to power and that party and that establishment was backed in hard by the advertiser. So So Rupert, and this comes back to the sort of left wing aspect of Rupert and rounder of it. They were both quite left wing at the start politically, their personal politics, but they also saw that there was, you know, if more than the the majority of voting for labour, but they’re not getting in. Clearly, that is a huge potential readership, if they made a concerted attempt to speak to this disenfranchised market that isn’t being spoken to by the advertiser, then they know they’ve got a lot of ground to gain and a lot of money to make. And I think that ties into this challenging of the establishment through legal challenges to the report. chewing through, you know, matters of good taste and things like that, that leads to them kind of raising the temperature in Adelaide and sort of pushing the boundaries of acceptability and challenging these systems in a way that over the seven year period, it gets to the point where when they get tied up in this case of ribbit, Max Stuart, and this royal commission, which is formed the crux of this book, and when they’re the libel trial, where the paper and Roland ribbit, the editor will on trial, that’s really the culmination of a lot of tensions that have been simmering and getting more tense over over a seven year period where it all comes, comes to bear.
Gene Tunny 25:38
Could you tell us a bit about that? Walter, what was the libel? What was the libel that it was about?
Walter Marsh 25:44
Yeah, so in in 19, December 1958. in Sedona, which is a town on the far west coast of South Australia, it’s a coastal town, a nine year old white girl, called Mary all of Hatton disappeared, she was later found murdered. And within a couple of days, the police arrested 2627 year old Aaron demand called Rupert next to it. Within a few hours of them arresting him, they emerged with this time confession in the early hours of the morning. And he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. And the judge at the first trial basically said the all this other evidence they’ve got doesn’t really amount to much. It’s basically this confession or nothing. At the trial. Stuart and his lawyer said that the police choked him and beat the confession out of him. He was illiterate, didn’t speak particularly good English as well. He was signed, he signed the confession, which was typed by the police. But those to his name was the only thing he knew how to read or write really. And so there were appeals and appeals, nothing really worked. There was this growing community campaign, there were academics who became convinced that he was, you know, if not innocent, had certainly been wrongly convicted. Eventually, a Catholic priest called Tom Dixon goes to sort of attend to Stuart, in his cell, because he, you know, he’s facing death. And he, he speaks errand this priest does, because he’s worked in remote communities. And he becomes convinced that Stuart not only doesn’t really know anything about the day of the crime or the events, but doesn’t speak English in the way he doesn’t speak English competently enough that he would have been able to dictate this confession, which is very precise language, lays out how the crime, how he committed it, how he did so in a way that matched all the evidence that the police had put together. And so that kind of lit a fire under the campaign again, and people became convinced that he physically couldn’t have done this, given this confession, which the police at trial had sworn was verbatim. Anyway, so Dixon is introduced to Ron ribbit, this, the editor of the news, and he agrees to get behind the campaign and pay for Dixon to fly to Queensland to try and track down an alibi. But Stuart he does successfully. And then it just becomes this huge press campaign. Virtually, it’s reported all around the world and the Playford government facing this extraordinary pressure that they hadn’t in 20 years because they’ve enjoyed such a unchallenged power, eventually decided to hold a Royal Commission. And then it’s at the Royal Commission where this lawyer who’s come in to represent Stuart, he is questioning the police officer who first identified Stuart as a potential suspect. And he gets interrupted by one of the Royal commissioners who also happens to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in South Australia, who had previously heard one of Stewart’s appeals. So there was a lot of in a very, very Adelaide, sort of incestuous With tensions right away. And this idea of he wasn’t getting a fair go. So the lawyer, he walked out, essentially, and flew back to Sydney. And it was the news. The news is reportage of this event. It was perfectly time for the afternoon papers. And they basically said they sort of paraphrased quoted him on the front page and of these news posters saying, you won’t give Stuart a fair go these commissioners can’t do the job. And it was this coverage that incensed the state government because they weren’t just criticising the commissioners, but this was the chief justice as well, because Playford the premier has installed the chief justice as the Commissioner. So it’s a real challenge to the legitimacy of the entire judicial system in South Australia and the plaque the premier Tom Playford stood up in Parliament and waved these headlines and said it was the gravest libel ever levelled judge in South Australia. And so the Royal Commission eventually wraps up the verdict is upheld, but he his life sentence is commuted his death sentence sorry is committed to life so the campaign has managed to save Stewart’s liked one way or another. But then a few months after that at the start of 1960, some police officers and this is where I start the book off with the scene, some police officers walk into US Women’s headquarters to interview round rivet and later Rupert sort of interrogate them about these these headlines. And then within a couple of months, the report is basically the whole of these limited in the organisation they run is put on the witness stand and really forensic ly pulled apart by Crown lawyers as they face these charges of libel, including seditious libel, which is sort of the headline charge, which is basically just bringing the state of South Australia into kind of disrepute, I suppose. And that was the really finding that that case, the Stuart case has been talked about a lot. There are three books that go into it in quite a lot of detail. There’s a movie made about it, but it was this libel trial afterwards, and what the libel trial tells us about how Rupert ran his company, at that point, the relationships and his role in this coverage that’s very kind of not sensationalist. But it definitely was provocative. They got them in a lot of trouble. That was, that was the kind of the climax of what I thought hadn’t really been looked at in the book before. And sort of in this, you know, writing it today, with the backdrop of, you know, the libel cases against crikey and dominion, and all this stuff, and the Sedition is a big word with January 6, and all that it just felt like a much different set of stakes, a totally different era, but felt like it resonated a lot with the era that we’re living through now at the end of Rupert’s, if not life, sort of his tenure in the news. So, yeah, I really dig into that a lot.
Gene Tunny 31:50
Yeah, that’s fascinating. And so Murdoch, he successfully defended himself against that libel, is that correct?
Walter Marsh 31:58
Yeah. So it was it was the company News Limited. And Ron Roman, the editor that were on trial, so not Rupert himself. But the as the trial progresses, it basically becomes clear that Rupert had written at least two, I think of the headlines that had gotten them in hot water. And in addition to that, there was an editorial that was published a week or so afterwards, when it became clear that, you know, the play for government was absolutely outraged by the coverage. And it was kind of trying to, I guess, calm the farm a little bit and set the record straight. But that this editorial was held up by the by the prosecution as admission of guilt, essentially, by the newspaper, by admitting that those headlines were not quite accurate and shouldn’t have been printed. And it’s revealed that Rupert wrote that headline himself. So it shows a lot about the kind of proprietor he is and how he’s, you know, never too far away from the action, but it’s particularly in relation to the more modern day cases that are happening where he’s kind of recognised that they, you know, pushed the Fox News, sort of Trumpian base a bit too far, is a sign that even Rupert sometimes recognised as when the company has gone a little bit too far and and flying too close to the sun.
Gene Tunny 33:20
Yes, exactly. Well, he had to sack Tucker Carlson, the noted commentator over there, which is one example of
Walter Marsh 33:28
an event and revenge gets sacked shortly after the final charges are dropped. So it’s, everything kind of comes to a head. And that’s a good way to bookend the book and wrong.
Gene Tunny 33:41
Yeah, it’s fascinating, because it sounds like he was probably on the right side in that on that issue. And yeah, years later, I mean, Murdoch would obviously come under intense criticism. And there have been some massive scandals that we don’t need to go into here. But what happened with News, News of the World and the UK and the phone hacking, just absolutely appalling stuff.
Walter Marsh 34:02
I mean, it’s all kind of sorry, it’s all it’s all very speculative when I’m just looking at this early period. But I do think that I found it very telling that in this period, where he is kind of the good guy challenging systems that were overdue for a challenge and these elite establishments that were kind of begging to be shaken up and undermined. And that’s kind of siege mentality. And, you know, he’s not the little guy by any means, because he’s still the inheritor of a newspaper company and the son of the press Baron that set up this whole empire, but it kind of shows what I’ve been discovered. This is sort of foundational contradictions that we see, you know, his his resignation letter, the other week, you know, he still tried to rail against the elite and collaborate and eliteserien co cahoots with the media whose you know, sacrifice truth for political agendas. I think it was in thing and it’s just that the cognitive dissonance on display when he talks about that kind of thing as the billionaire head of a hugely influential Empire that’s had a huge influence on politics. You know, how do you make sense of that, and then seeing it in the context of what he’s been fighting and fighting since day one. And when, you know, the variables were so different when he started, but this kind of dynamic have always been the inside or outside of sticking it to these establishments, kind of set the groundwork for everything that came afterwards.
Gene Tunny 35:27
Yeah, well, he’s no longer on the News Corp is no longer in its ascendancy, if that’s the right word. Because it’s been really battered by the internet and all social media, YouTube, etc. So it’s, it is struggling with Sky News, Australia seems to do it seems to do okay on YouTube. And I mean, there still is a, there’s a dedicated audience of some people out there for sky, but I know elsewhere around the world and the papers here, I mean, the Courier Mail in Queensland’s lead off a lot of people over the years, and they’re just not the force that they once were.
Walter Marsh 36:00
Well, even things like YouTube, like how Yes, Sky has found this huge, sort of secondary, you know, in Australia, it’s on pay TV, or it’s being beamed into airports or country TV free to air. But on YouTube, they found this quite lucrative secondary market where they put some insane videos, some rant on YouTube, and there’s gets 1000s and 1000s of views from America within minutes. And it just made me think that a lot of the things that I explored in this book in the 1950s, the media landscape today, and the one that I’ve navigated in my professional life, is in so many ways unrecognisable from the one Rupert inherited, you know, in, in Rupert’s days, you know, as a building, full of hundreds and hundreds of men and women and just hours and hours of labour. And it was a huge physical process to put together the news each day that everyone read, you know, on trains all at once in two distinct waves, completely. And today, it’s completely different in so many ways. But then at the same time, I kept being reminded that a lot of these arguments and questions that are being explored in that period, things like Monopoly, and ownership and the truth and sensationalism. They’re the same questions, the medium is completely different, the society looks a lot different, but they’re still the same questions. And to bring it back to what I was talking about with YouTube, and how that these algorithms, these online algorithms kind of favour content that provokes a strong reaction that kind of fuels conflict, and instead of moderation and sort of nuance, it’s in a lot of ways, it’s very similar to after the newspapers, because, you know, they had to, had to sell to sell papers, they had to put together headlines and stories that caught the eye and sort of captured the emotional feeling of just random communities passing by, that could be held out by newsboys on the corner, if they weren’t doing that they weren’t selling papers, and the company fell over. So is that these mediums, the mediums are totally different. But there again, and again, we see that they’re kind of structurally predisposed to things like sensationalism, which Yeah, is kind of defies the time period.
Gene Tunny 38:15
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Okay. And I think that’s a that’s a good point. I mean, he learned, I mean, Murdoch. I mean, he obviously cut his teeth in Adelaide, he, he learned a lot about what works in media, and then he managed to scale that up globally. So I think that’s and the other point about Adelaide, which I liked that you made in the book, is that in Adelaide, did he learn the importance of political influence, he learned that the, the people at the advertiser, they were politically connected, if I’m remembering this correctly, and he just learned how important that was. And then he called, he learned to cultivate politicians. And we saw that, you know, famously over the years, and he for a while he was making and breaking government’s Gough Whitlam in, in Australia. He backed him then he didn’t back in and then that was played some role. It wasn’t obviously the decisive factor, but it did play a role. So yeah, incredible. I just found I found that really interesting. I can see how his experience in Adelaide taught him that lesson.
Walter Marsh 39:15
Because he was kind of, even though he had this privileged upbringing in you know, I was raised, lived and breathed newspapers growing up the son of his father who was understood the power of influence in politics. But when he stopped when Rupert started out, he had Yeah, this six or seven year period when he was an outsider, and even though he was doing a lot to challenge the establishment, he also was finding really experiencing the limits of what you could achieve by just throwing rocks from the outside and I think yeah, by 1960 when we kind of leave Rupert it’s very clear that he you know, when he’s been hauled to court and you know, as editors sent him into custody and threatened with jail time is discovered the upper limits have that kind of approach and takes a different path?
Gene Tunny 40:04
Yeah, indeed. Okay, so just two quick questions for the just at the end. Because when you mentioned those a movie about the Stuart case, I wanted to know what that movie was. And then second, if your book is optioned, which it may well be given, it tells a it’s a riveting rollicking tale as Jenny hocking has described it, who do you think could play young Rupert in a Netflix series or a movie? You thought about that?
Walter Marsh 40:37
I haven’t know. But it’s a good question. I haven’t I should say I haven’t thought of anyone off the top of my head. It’s kind of a bit of a backhanded compliment. I think for any very young actors. We I think you could perfectly embody young Rupert Murdoch. But the movie is called black and white. It was made in I think, 2001 I think it’s on Netflix. It kind of comes in and out of the streaming services, but the young Rupert plays a small role in that story, and he’s actually played by a young Ben Mendelsohn. So maybe they can get Ben Ben back to play. Stick Keith Murdock.
Gene Tunny 41:17
Yeah, absolutely. I’m gonna have to watch that. That sounds fascinating. Okay, Walter Mosh well done and well done on the book. I hope it sells well. And I’m sure you’ll be getting lots of media in the future on Rupert Murdoch, his legacy. I mean, he’s still alive. He’s still chairman emeritus of News Corp. And I expect they will. Lachlan Murdoch. I mean, you’ll have a tough time, but I expect they’ll still be important in the media landscape for at least the next decade or so. If you have any final thoughts on that on the legacy where they’re going? Please let me know. Otherwise, you’re happier to wrap up.
Walter Marsh 41:57
Yeah, I mean, the one thing that, that reading that letter, and I mentioned this in a column I did for the guardian. But reading Rupert’s resignation letter did make me think of another resignation letter I’ve found in my research from his father, Keith Murdoch from 1949, where he was having some health issues. And he’d been sort of compelled in late 1949, to announce that he was handing over the day to day running of the Herald weekly times as managing director to his successor, Jack Willett, John Jack Williams, and Keith Hill to remain chairman. But clearly, this was intended as a kind of changing of the guard, you know, getting into semi retirement. Within the next three years, I was going through all these letters were keep spend all that time, you know, coming into the office whenever he could, just white anting Williams eroding his influence, asking all these questions at meetings. And then finally, the last six months, he’s incredible letters where, you know, he’s back and forth with executives that are on his side, about this disintegration across the company. And finally, 24 hours before Keith dies, he launches this, I guess, boardroom purge, where he gets gets Williams turfed out of the company and sort of reassert his control over the company in this really defined way. And then dies within 24 hours, which, you know, in the context of Rupert and whether or not he can really, you know, sit the out of office and go and relax while Lachlan takes over. I feel like the whole 70 year arc has been about control and the whole company being built around his decision making. So I think that that will you know, that would be a tough one to relinquish. But then interestingly, and this is just a little fun tidbit for you. But I was it was fascinating to read about in the aftermath of Keith’s death when they when the call came in, obviously, Williams went straight back into the office and got someone to drill open, keep safe, and they found all these papers which kind of expose his sort of all these tactics he had to build up Rupert’s inheritance. So by the time kids funeral had come around, on Thursday of that week before Robert had even gotten back to the country, the minutes had been the decision to get rid of Williams had been scrubbed from the minutes. He’d been reinstated, and he ended up one of the pallbearers for Keith, just a few less than a week after keep that down, tipped him out of the company. So it’s hard to relinquish control when you’re a Murdoch is my take home.
Gene Tunny 44:26
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Okay. Well, Tomas, thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Walter Marsh 44:32
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Gene Tunny 44:35
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