This year’s Boyer lecturer is Keith Rupert Murdoch, 77, MA (Oxon), Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great (1998).
The Pontiff may be mildly embarrassed by the fact that another distinguished recipient of the KCSG, “Lord” Conrad Black, 64, is doing six-and-a-half years for thieving from his own newspaper company.
While my devotion to Rupie is total, the title of his lectures, A Golden Age of a High Order Abstraction, is a bit obscure, and I incline to the view that the only remotely interesting thing about the old coot is his relations with politicians of any political persuasion, or none.
For example, Tom Playford, Jack Gorton, Black Jack McEwen, Gough Whitlam, Jimmy Carter, Ronnie Reagan, Maggie Thatcher, Tony Blair, sundry Chinese Communist politicians, George Bush Jnr, and now Mr Barack Obama.
I think I’ll wait for his memoir: Stringed Instruments I Have Played.
Meanwhile, his editors are wise to have an ear cocked for the bat’s shriek of his current posture on some politician or other.
His first editor at the Adelaide News, Rohan Rivett, got the bullet in 1960 when he refused to accept that Rupie’s relations with Premier Tom Playford (seen here) had changed.
I am terribly fond of Rupie because in 1966 he gave me the honour and privilege of working at Melbourne Truth.
Well, actually I was hired by Sol Chandler (1911-69), a former managing editor of The Daily Express.
Rupie had sent him to Truth in 1965 to get some money to offset the losses incurred by the invention of The Australian in 1964.
Sol modestly said he knew all there was to know about the techniques of journalism to that moment.
That was true, up to a point. Rupie certainly learned from him.
Sol doubled the price and the circulation. His formula was a hard spine of fact, all the insignificant details he could get, and an outer wrapping of sex.
When the circulation got to 400,000 in May 1967, Gerald Lyons asked Sol on This Day Tonight if he was ashamed of the sex. Sol said:
“I understand it’s here to stay.”
As for the hard spine of fact, ace reporter Richard L’Estrange virtually forced the second Voyager Royal Commission, and his disclosure that the Prime Minister had lied about VIP aircraft sank – if that’s the right word – Harold Holt.
After Holt’s graceful exit in December 1967, a Liberal faction fed Sol details of an old court case that showed Jack Gorton (pic) had stiffed his late father’s mistress of her share of the estate.
After Sol ran the stuff, he said:
“I’m out, boys. I made Murdoch a million and he’s sacked me.”
A year later, Rupie used the profits of Truth as part of the deal that got him The Screws of the World.
In September 1969 he picked up The Sun at the knockdown price of £800,000. The Sun used Sol’s invention, the page three topless girl, to revive its fortunes.
Truth ran a two-track campaign on abortion throughout 1969.
It was nominally about the need to decriminalise the medical practice in some circumstances. The subtext was that some homicide cops were extorting from aborters.
Sol’s replacement, a nice New Zealand guy named Neal Travis, was now in Sydney in charge of all the Australian tabloids. Rupie told him to tell Truth to get off that abortion stuff.
Luckily for Rupie, Travis (pic) stuck the memo in his bottom drawer, and the campaign reached a crescendo in December 1969 with the splash: WE PAID OFF THE COPS.
By way of flexing his Boyer muscles, Rupie delivered the 1972 University of Melbourne Arthur Norman Smith Memorial Lecture in Journalism.
He planned to bang the drum a bit for tabloid journalism and got someone to list all the great things The Daily Mirror had done, but it emerged that the average shelf life of a Mirror campaign was 48 hours, and he had to fall back on The Ho of Latrobe Street, as I fondly called Truth.
“As a result of Truth campaigns, the practice of Scientology has been legislated against [!]. The cult of the Exclusive Brethren, similarly, is in disrepute and no longer ruining family life [!!]”
Bring back The Ho, I say.
“And”, he said, “we all know what came from the famous revelations about the abortion racket in Melbourne.”
Rupie asked himself: “Do I intervene?”
“Yes, of course I intervene. I intervene because I am the one who is responsible – not only for the paper that is produced, not only to the law, not only to the shareholders and to the banks that have staked us, or the mortgagees, or whatever, but also to the people working for the newspaper – and that means everyone depending on it for a living.”
His answer can be parsed several different ways.
One is that the main person who depends on his papers for a living is Rupie himself.
At any rate, when I pompously said to his lieutenant, Neal Travis:
“The freedom of the press wasn’t fought for just to make proprietors rich.”
He replied gently:
“You’re wrong about that, you know.”
When I left Rupie’s employ in 1973, he generously gave me back the money I had put into his superannuation scheme, but hung on to the interest.
I didn’t mind; I knew he was short of the readies and had new worlds to conquer – he moved on the US that year – and the money was enough to buy a nice gramophone.
* * *
There is a US media phenomenon by which totally different accounts of Democrat candidates leave voters feeling it might be risky to vote for them.
Bob Parry (Consortium News, June 30, 2008) traced the origin of the phenomenon to 1983.
He quoted from a suppressed chapter of a 1987 Congressional report which said a public/private propaganda/disinformation network was run out of the National Security Council by a CIA operative, Walter Raymond.
Tantalisingly, the suppressed chapter mentioned a memo Raymond wrote on August 9, 1983.
It said Charles Wick, director of the US Information Agency, “via Murdock [sic] may be able to draw down added funds” to support pro-Reagan initiatives.
The “Murdock” may of course been somebody else, perhaps some pillar of the military-industrial complex.
In 1996, he started a “fair and balanced” channel variously called Fox News, Faux News, False Noise, and Farkxx News.
At the helm was Roger Ailes (pic), a media adviser to Nixon, Reagan and George Bush Snr.
A 2004 documentary, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, has some quotes from former Fox staffers on daily memos disseminated over the name of John Moody, Vice President of News:
Charlie Reina: The roots of Fox News Channel’s day-to-day on-air bias [against Democrats] are actual and direct. They come in the form of an executive memo distributed electronically each morning, addressing what stories will be covered and, often, suggesting how they should be covered.
Larry Johnson: [The memos are] talking points instructing us what the themes are supposed to be, and God help you if you stray.
It seems that bad journalism can drive out good: Bob Parry said:
“As President George W. Bush herded the nation toward war with Iraq in 2002-03, Fox News acted like his sheep dogs … The ‘Fox effect’ was so powerful that it convinced other networks to load up with pro-war military analysts and to silence voices that questioned the invasion.”
However, by 2006 it was clear that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Republican troika was hopelessly incompetent, except at making money for the military-industrial complex.
Good advice must give way to better. Murdoch-watchers began to look for signals that the great man might begin to describe a political parabola, i.e. start mending his fences with the Democrats.
In 2000, his New York Post had opposed Hillary Clinton when she ran for the Senate.
In May 2006, it was reported that Rupie would host a fundraiser for Mrs Clinton’s Senate re-election campaign.
In May 2008, Walt Mossberg, a veteran reporter at Rupie’s Wall Street Journal, asked him if he had “anything to do with The New York Post’s endorsement of Barack Obama” as the Democrat Presidential candidate. Rupie replied:
“Yeah. He is a rock star. It’s fantastic. I love what he is saying about education. I don’t think he will win Florida … but he will win in Ohio and the election. I am anxious to meet him. I want to see if he will walk the walk.”
Michael Wolff (pic), a Vanity Fair columnist, has written, with Rupie’s co-operation, a biography called The Man Who Owns the News.
Tim Arango reported in The New York Times of October 23, 2008, that Wolff had an article on Rupie and the forthcoming book in the October issue of Vanity Fair.
Wolff said Murdoch was making friends with liberals and had soured on Fox News and Ailes.
Arango quoted Wolff as saying that Murdch often shares “the general liberal apoplexy” toward Fox News and its “perceived conservative slant … now the embarrassment can’t be missed – he mumbles even more than usual when called on to justify it; he barely pretends to hide the way he feels about Bill O’Reilly”.
It was thus hilarious to watch, in the last days of the campaign, those clowns at Farkxx struggling to be, in some vague way, fair and balanced.
I hope Rupie was just as amused, and that he will tell us all about it in the Boyer lectures.