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Posted on 1 Aug 2023 in Non-Fiction |

WALTER MARSH Young Rupert: The making of the Murdoch empire. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

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Walter Marsh charts the origins of Murdoch’s media playbook and political connections in 1950s Adelaide.

Walter Marsh is a journalist based in Adelaide, the city where Rupert Murdoch’s empire began when he took control of Adelaide’s afternoon daily paper The News in the early 1950s. It was in Adelaide that Rupert Murdoch mastered the arts that propelled him to being arguably the most successful and powerful media owner the world has ever seen.

While Marsh’s focus is on the ‘making of young Rupert’, he also provides valuable information on the history of publishing – in South Australia in particular, and other parts of Australia more generally. He also provides interesting historical information on the operation of elites in Adelaide and the important role of the Adelaide Club, a place where leading business persons, politicians, media owners, legal figures and others with power and influence worked out ways to fix whatever needed to be fixed. Marsh portrays Murdoch as an outsider – his family was based in Melbourne – who came into conflict with the Adelaide establishment on a number of occasions as he sought to advance his media interests.

Murdoch was born in March 1931, the son of media mogul Sir Keith Murdoch, and educated at Geelong Grammar before heading off to Oxford University. At both school and university, he affected a fey commitment to left-wing causes and enjoyed being contrary. He spent much of his early twenties on the ‘grand tour’ of Europe, as would befit someone of his class and wealth. When Sir Keith died in October 1952, his estate had to be sold off to pay off his debts and probate. The only asset remaining of the family empire was The News in Adelaide, and in September 1953 Rupert Murdoch took up residence in Adelaide and became its publisher. Contemporaries later commented on ‘the metamorphosis of the young left-winger, in the space of just four weeks, to a right-wing, hungry, self-seeking conservative’.

Most of Young Rupert is concerned with unpacking the major events associated with The News during the 1950s. However, Murdoch’s behaviour as an entrepreneur does not appear to be exceptional. As a media entrepreneur he was innovative and prepared to experiment in the way news was presented. In seeking to expand via acquiring other newspapers and a television licence, he would borrow funds while maintaining control of the business, running a lean operation to accumulate funds for future acquisitions. In the process, he learned how to interact with politicians to advance his media and business interests.

Marsh identifies six major issues associated with Murdoch’s years in Adelaide, all of them standard fare for an ambitious media owner finding his way. The News was an afternoon daily. It also published a Sunday paper, The Mail. There was another major weekly paper, The Advertiser, a morning paper. Following Murdoch’s arrival in Adelaide, the proprietors of The Advertiser sought to produce a Sunday paper in opposition to The Mail. The venture was linked to chasing advertising revenue (with seven-day deals being more favourable) and the powerbrokers of The Advertiser saw a chance to deliver a devastating blow to The News and its ‘boy publisher’. Marsh takes readers through the details of the battle, which ended in a stalemate: the two Sunday papers merged, managed jointly by the two organisations.

During 1956 The News and Rupert Murdoch became involved in a number of controversies. One involved The News criticising a magistrate for handing down what it regraded as heavy-handed decisions to persons in straitened circumstances. A case was initiated against The News over the criticism and a fine was imposed. A second controversy was associated with the treatment, or mistreatment, of Aboriginal people in relation to the British atomic tests at Maralinga during the 1950s. A Western Australian politician, Bill Grayden, visited the area and complained about the poor treatment and destitution of the Aboriginal people there. Murdoch hired a plane, conducted his own tour, spoke to a few Aboriginal people and reached the opposite conclusion. Grayden and Murdoch then spent a period ‘slanging off’ at each other, with Grayden making threats he ultimately never acted upon to initiate inquiries.

Much of Young Rupert is devoted to a cause celebre of South Australia, if not Australia, in the latter half of the 1950s: the alleged rape and murder of a nine-year-old White girl by an Aboriginal man, Rupert Max Stuart. The case was complicated by allegations that Stuart’s confession was concocted by the arresting officers and claims that Stuart had a perfect alibi. The legal manoeuvrings took the case to the Supreme Court of South Australia, the Full Court of the Supreme Court of South Australia, the High Court of Australia and the Privy Council in England. On each occasion Stuart was found guilty and sentenced to death.

The hue and cry associated with this case led the South Australian government to establish a Royal Commission. Two of the three royal commissioners had presided in the appeal before the Full Court of the Supreme Court. Presumably they should have recused themselves. At one stage during the hearing, Jack Shand, the barrister representing Stuart, accused the commissioners of bias, a claim that was backed up in The News.


Mr Shand QC, indicts Sir Mellis Napier [Chair of Royal Commission] – ‘THESE COMMISSIONERS CANNOT DO THEIR JOB.’

The News was accused of being in contempt of court and had to defend itself over its alleged slurs against the Royal Commission. It successfully defended most of them. The Crown decided not to pursue the final charge and Stuart’s death penalty was commuted to a life sentence. He was paroled in 1973.

Marsh also examines Murdoch’s applications for capital city television licences in the early to mid-1950s. He provides details of how, following a request by Prime Minister Robert Menzies, Murdoch and The News spiked a story for a number of weeks (until it emerged elsewhere) about a spy scandal that would have embarrassed the Australian and English governments. Marsh sees this as ‘the first of many secret and not-so-secret meetings with prime ministers [that Murdoch had] over the decades’.

When he was in Adelaide, Murdoch developed contacts with Labor Party luminaries such as Clyde Cameron, who subsequently became a minister in the Whitlam government of 1972 to 1975, and Don Dunstan, who became Labor premier of South Australia from 1970 to 1979. In 1956, Murdoch and The News offered Dunstan their support if he would form a South Australian branch of the Democratic Labor Party following the split in the Australian Labor Party on sectarian lines in the eastern states. Marsh reports Dunstan’s ‘bemused horror’ at the proposal:

Despite South Australia’s famous religious plurality, the state simply lacked the Catholic population that had underscored the divisions on the east coast … Faced with a choice between the status quo … and mounting an insurgence against his party that would likely confine him to a lifetime of obscurity [Dunstan] rebuffed [the] offer.

The final two chapters recount Murdoch’s entry into the Sydney media market in the early 1960s, and a brief overview of the growth of his media empire in subsequent decades.

Marsh sees Murdoch’s time in Adelaide as crucial to understanding his subsequent success.

Adelaide had shown him how an afternoon newspaper could be turned into a high-circulation profit-maker … It was in Adelaide, a city seemingly predisposed to press monopolies on a cyclical basis, that he gained a vivid lesson about the limits of outsider-hood … Adelaide is where Rupert Murdoch first asserted absolute control over News Limited.

Walter Marsh’s Young Rupert: The making of the Murdoch empire not only provides useful insights into Rupert Murdoch learning the ropes as a media operator, but also on the history and evolution of the media in Australia.

Walter Marsh Young Rupert: The making of the Murdoch empire Scribe Publications 2023 PB 352pp $35.00

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.

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