Keith Murdoch, the patriarch

  • Themes: History, Media

Decades before Rupert Murdoch ruled his news empire, his father, Keith Murdoch, was recognised and feared as a media and political powerbroker.

Keith Murdoch, left, in London in 1941.
Keith Murdoch, left, in London in 1941. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

There aren’t many 30-year olds who are credited with persuading a British cabinet to change its war strategy, and are seen to have humiliated one of the greatest men in British history. Yet that’s what happened to Keith Murdoch in 1915, and he became an Australian hero.

Keith Arthur Murdoch is arguably an even more interesting figure than his more famous son Rupert, and it is fascinating to spot many of the same traits – not least as a political creature. The term ‘the Murdoch Press’ first referred to Keith’s newspapers. Rupert’s father was recognised and feared as a maker and breaker of prime ministers several decades before his son.

Born in 1885 in Melbourne, then said to be the richest city in the world, Keith was the son of Patrick Murdoch, a presbyterian minister, who’d emigrated to Australia with his wife the year before, travelling from their home in the Scottish fishing village of Cruden, 26 miles north of Aberdeen.

One of Patrick Murdoch’s congregation was David Syme, another Scottish immigrant, who’d risen to become proprietor of The Age, Melbourne’s leading daily paper. When Keith Murdoch left school, Syme took him on as a non-staff correspondent in one of the Melbourne suburbs.

Keith quickly climbed the journalistic ladder, despite an unsuccessful year in London, where he arrived with a letter of introduction from another friend of his father, the Australian prime minister, Alfred Deakin. Keith studied part-time at the London School of Economics but failed to secure a job in Fleet Street. He returned to Melbourne to become a parliamentary reporter for The Age  and later political correspondent for The Sun  of Sydney. In these positions, Murdoch was brilliant in building relationships with senior politicians at a time when Melbourne was still the federal capital of Australia.

By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, Keith Murdoch was already one of the finest journalists of his generation, but he narrowly failed in his bid to get elected as the official war correspondent on the Western Front on behalf of the whole Australian press. Instead, he was appointed editor of the London bureau of the Melbourne Herald  just as Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was opening up a second front against the ailing Ottoman Empire over the Dardanelles – the narrow, 38-mile channel between Europe and Asia, which links the Aegean to the Black Sea. The idea was to seize Constantinople, and give Russia another sea link to the West. The campaign became known as Gallipoli after the peninsula on which Allied troops landed in April 1915, including about 25,000 soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – or Anzacs.

In time, the failed Gallipoli expedition would become one of the most important events in Australian history. In the summer of 1915, with reports of serious losses among the Anzacs, and dreadful conditions, the then Australian PM Andrew Fisher was keen to know what was really going on. So, he asked Murdoch to stop off during his voyage to London and find out.

Acting as part government envoy, part journalist, Murdoch approached the British general in charge, Sir Ian Hamilton, and promised that ‘any conditions you impose I should of course, faithfully observe’. Murdoch spent less than a week at Gallipoli, but there came under the influence of Elis Ashmead-Bartlett, a flamboyant British reporter who thought the whole operation had become a disaster. Murdoch persuaded Ashmead-Bartlett to write a letter detailing his concerns, and promised to take it to ministers in London. When the letter was seized from Murdoch in Marseille, he decided to write his own letter, addressed to Andrew Fisher. His 8,000 words would be based partly on his own observations and interviews, but largely derived from Ashmead-Bartlett’s complaints.

On arrival in London, Keith Murdoch was feted by much of the British establishment as an uncensored witness to the true picture in the Dardanelles. After a lunch with Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times , Dawson and his proprietor Lord Northcliffe helped Murdoch meet several members of the coalition cabinet. These included Sir Edward Carson, chair of the cabinet’s Dardanelles committee, followed by two future prime ministers – the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, and the munitions minister, David Lloyd George.

As he did the ministerial rounds, Murdoch continued writing his letter to Fisher. ‘It is undoubtedly one of the most terrible chapters in our history,’ Murdoch told the Australian PM. ‘The slaughter of fine youths was appalling,’ Murdoch wrote of one battle, and he accused their commanders of ‘murder’. Beset by extreme weather, sickness and under attack from the Turks, Murdoch argued that, unless provisions for the coming winter arrived on time, Australian forces would not survive. ‘Morale is very severely shaken indeed… the men have no confidence in the staff.’ Australians had a low opinion of British soldiers. ‘They are merely a lot of childlike youths without strength to endure or brains to improve their conditions.’ Murdoch claimed, ‘an order had to be issued to officers to shoot without mercy any soldiers who lagged behind or loitered’, and he said Hamilton had ‘completely failed’ as a strategist and should be recalled ‘immediately’. ‘It is quite plain that when an army has lost faith in its general… only one thing can be done.’

After Murdoch met Herbert Asquith, the prime minister, the latter ordered that Murdoch’s letter be printed on official Committee of Imperial Defence paper and distributed to the war cabinet, while Dawson and Northcliffe ensured it received wider circulation among newspaper chiefs.

In October 1915 Sir Ian Hamilton was replaced and two months later the Dardanelles expedition was abandoned. Asquith’s reputation never recovered. Winston Churchill was made the scapegoat, however, and soon resigned from the cabinet to fight on the Western Front. He would be taunted with the Dardanelles disaster for decades.

Seventy-five years later, The Times , then owned by his son Rupert, described Keith Murdoch, with some hyperbole, as ‘the Journalist who Stopped a War’. In truth, the Asquith government was moving towards aborting the campaign before Murdoch even arrived in London.

To its credit, the government conducted a public inquiry into the Gallipoli fiasco and, remarkably, compared with modern war inquiries, it reported very quickly, well before the First World War had finished. Sir Ian Hamilton accused Keith Murdoch of breach of faith, ignorance and inaccuracy, and of ‘hitting him below the belt’.

Keith Murdoch was unrepentant: ‘I have a perfectly clear conscience as to what I did. I went to London and I hit Sir Ian Hamilton as hard as I possibly could. I thought the vital thing was to get a fresh mind on the spot. The British Cabinet confirmed this view…’

Aged just 30, Keith Murdoch was celebrated back home, and went on to acquire legendary status in Australian history, which would be increasingly embellished over the years. The Murdoch version was that naive and heroic colonial youths were sacrificed by incompetent, warmongering British generals. Yet Murdoch knew nothing of military affairs; he spent less than a week at Gallipoli and he placed too much reliance on the rantings of Elis Ashmead Bartlett.

Partly through his connection with Northcliffe, who became a father-figure, Murdoch was now astonishingly well-connected to the political establishment in Britain. He stayed on in Europe, working both in London and reporting form the Western Front, developing as a journalist the stark and punchy style which had marked his response to Hamilton. And he skilfully straddled the worlds of journalism and politics, sucking up to prime ministers and revelling in Whitehall intrigue. When the Welsh-born Billy Hughes, who had succeeded Andrew Fisher as Australian PM in 1915, visited London the following year, Murdoch acted as Hughes’ fixer, hagiographer, and chief confidant. Murdoch’s new role at the centre of imperial power was illustrated by a dinner party he gave at his London flat in honour of Hughes. The other guests included David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law, Lord Northcliffe, the chief of the imperial general staff, and the editor of The Times.

And in 1916, exactly a hundred years before Rupert Murdoch played a role in the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, his father Keith was at the heart of an attempt – barely credible today – to replace Asquith with his Australian counterpart.

With Asquith in personal decline and his government tottering, Keith Murdoch sent Billy Hughes on a speaking tour of Britain, which the Northcliffe papers called ‘A New Crusade’. Hughes struck a chord: here was a leader, in contrast to the ailing Asquith, who could provide dynamic, inspiring leadership. Keith Murdoch, part reporter, part spin-doctor, helped Hughes publish a volume of speeches, with an introduction from Lloyd George, and an editor’s note from Murdoch, who also assisted in the publication of two short biographies.

Amid the frenzy and frustration of war, there was a brief spell when Hughes was almost a messianic figure. The country had to be ‘born again’, he argued, and the British Empire had to be saved from the Asquith government with new leadership. For a few weeks an extraordinary coalition of forces, partly led by Lord Northcliffe and his papers, and even backed by the suffragettes, tried to install Hughes in Downing Street. Hughes resisted and privately urged his fellow Welsh-speaker Lloyd George to bring down Asquith instead, a coup that occurred later in 1916.

Murdoch accompanied Billy Hughes to the Versailles peace conference in 1919 as a reporter, but fell out with his former mentor, and when he returned to Australia became chief editor of the Melbourne Herald . He soon acquired the name Lord Southcliffe for the forceful way he built a newspaper empire that extended to all but one of the Australian states. Like Northcliffe, on whom Murdoch modelled himself (and his papers on Northcliffe’s papers), he would exercise considerable influence in Australian politics, both through his newspapers and personal contacts, and he was never frightened to issue direct instructions to senior ministers. Murdoch’s favour was conferred on politicians of right and left.

When Keith’s son Rupert was born in March 1931, the family home, Cruden Farm, an hour’s drive from Melbourne, was the venue for a series of secret gatherings where Murdoch and others in the Melbourne establishment worked out how to topple the Labor prime minister James Scullin and replace him with one of his senior ministers Joe Lyons. They successfully encouraged Lyons to lead a right-wing breakaway from Labor, which merged with other parties to form the United Australia Party.

The Melbourne Herald  and other Murdoch papers promoted Lyons as ‘honest Joe’, and after winning an election he became prime minister at the start of 1932 – a victory attributed to the Herald group. When the two men held regular lunches during Lyons’ premiership, the PM would visit Keith Murdoch, not the other way round. Lyons gave Murdoch a knighthood, and Murdoch successfully urged Lyons to include Billy Hughes in his cabinet. After securing re-election in 1934 Lyons wrote to Murdoch to express ‘my very great appreciation of the generous assistance which was rendered to the [United Australia Party] and to me, by your paper… I recognise that the influence of the Herald  had an immeasurable bearing upon the verdict rendered by the people.’

A Herald group copyboy from that era, Duncan Clarke, who brought Sir Keith his afternoon tea every day, related how he’d heard Murdoch shout at his secretary, ‘Get Lyons down here at once. Tell him I want to see him.’ Lyons duly arrived, Clarke recalled years later, ‘and there, with his hat in his hand, like a man seeking a job, stood the prime minister before Murdoch’s desk. As I shut the door, I heard the leader of the nation say: “Yes, sir.”’

Many of the tensions were over issues of media monopoly. A 1935 cartoon in the Smith’s Weekly newspaper showed Murdoch operating a row of marionettes, as his newspaper group clashed with the Lyons government. Almost 80 years before David Cameron’s government in London faced pressure from the Murdoch family over their bid to acquire 100 per cent ownership of Sky Television, Sir Keith opposed proposed new rules to ban any company from owning more than five local radio licences – at a time when the Herald group held 11 licences across Australia. When Murdoch complained of cabinet hostility to himself, Joe Lyons backed down and grovelled that he and his ministers realised ‘only too well what the government party owe’ to Murdoch’s papers, and Murdoch had to make only minor concessions. Towards the end of the 1930s, however, Murdoch felt Lyons had become too isolationist in foreign policy, and threatened to overthrow him. ‘I put him there, and I’ll put him out’, Lyons’s wife reported Murdoch telling a dinner party.

Jack Lang, who served two spells in this period as premier of New South Wales, said Murdoch wanted to be the most powerful man in Australia. ‘If he could make the prime minister and then boss him around, then he was the Big Boss. It was as simple as that.’ Smith’s Weekly  called Murdoch ‘The would-be press and radio dictator’, adding that ‘Sir Keith Murdoch has the Northcliffe complex in journalism… his proximity to national developments through Lyons whetted his thirst for power, and each week shows him more eager for political power.’

Leaders of the Australian Labor Party became highly critical of the ‘Murdoch press’. The downfalls of Billy Hughes and Joseph Lyons would be attributed to Keith Murdoch, just as his son Rupert would be blamed for the demise of their successors Gough Whitlam in 1975 (‘Kill Whitlam!’ Rupert reportedly ordered his editors) and Malcolm Turnbull, in 2018.The lawyer and politician Sir Frederic Eggleston described Murdoch as a ‘vindictive populist’ and ‘the major cause of the deterioration of Australian politics’ in his lifetime. One of Murdoch’s colleagues described him as a ‘calculating, undeviating, insatiable seeker after worldly riches and temporal power’.

The Australian Dictionary of National Biography  concludes, however, that ‘Murdoch’s “kingmaker” role is largely a myth’. The late Bruce Page, author of The Murdoch Archipelago, thought the idea of the ‘Murdoch press’ in 1930s Australia was an ‘illusion’. When Rupert Murdoch’s leading British tabloid newspaper claimed credit for Labour’s defeat in the 1992 general election with the notorious headline ‘IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT’, it was another exaggeration, but it suited both father and son for such exaggerations and myths to gain currency, of course, just as it suited their left-wing critics.

Both Murdochs have displayed extraordinary energy, and an ability to keep an eye on numerous projects at once. They shared a rare sense of what the public wanted, and both were instinctive political creatures who loved hearing the latest gossip and revelled in their ability to get immediate access to political leaders and to terrify them. Both Keith and Rupert were essentially right-wing, but were never frightened to back the left if they felt they were onto a winner.

In his will, written in 1948, Keith expressed the wish that Rupert would one day have the ‘great opportunity’ of ‘ultimately occupying a position of high responsibility’ in the media business. By Rupert’s account, though, his elderly father considered him to be a ‘chump’, and a gambler who spent too much time at the racetrack. Yet Rupert got into Oxford and shocked visitors to his college room with an image of Lenin on display. ‘I’m worried about my son Rupert,’ Keith reportedly told a friend. ‘He’s at Oxford and developing the most alarming left-wing views.’ But in 1952 Rupert was disqualified from a Labour Club election when a tribunal found he’d breached the strict rules on canvassing. ‘Rupert has been expelled from the Labour Club!’ Keith wrote to a colleague with obvious glee.

Keith was further reassured that autumn when Rupert sent him a long letter about the Labour Party conference in Morecambe – one of the most tempestuous gatherings in party history. Rupert explained the intricacies of Labour politics, and the growing civil war between supporters of Nye Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell in the battle to succeed Clement Attlee. ‘Thank God, the boy’s got it!’ Sir Keith exclaimed when his dispatch arrived in Melbourne. Lady Elisabeth Murdoch later said the letter was ‘heaven sent’, and that it convinced her husband that Rupert was, after all, ‘going to develop into the useful sort of person [his father] hoped he would be’.

Two days later Sir Keith Murdoch died in his sleep. Keith’s widow Elisabeth never remarried, and lived for another six decades until her death at the age of 103 in 2012.

Unlike Rupert Murdoch, Keith was only really a newspaper editor and manager, never hugely rich or a great media tycoon in terms of ownership. The only title he owned was the News in Adelaide which he persuaded the Herald board to sell to him.

But from the Adelaide News, Rupert would fulfil Keith Murdoch’s legacy, and establish the most powerful and profitable empire in media history. And now it’s bequeathed to a third generation in Sir Keith’s grandson Lachlan.


Michael Crick