Keith Murdoch: A new book examines Rupert Murdoch's father, Gallipoli, and the birth of the media dynasty

The founding father of the Murdoch empire is lauded by many, including his son Rupert, as a 'fearless' war hero. Tom DC Roberts, author of a new biography, paints a different picture, with uncomfortable echoes in the present

Tuesday 20 October 2015 19:01
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Australian media baron Keith Murdoch, with his wife Elizabeth and son Rupert, who was to follow in his footsteps, pictured around 1950
Australian media baron Keith Murdoch, with his wife Elizabeth and son Rupert, who was to follow in his footsteps, pictured around 1950

On 19 July 2011, as the committee of MPs questioned Keith Rupert Murdoch, known to most simply as Rupert, about the hard facts of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, viewers around the world saw a father with an apparently shaky grasp defer to his son, James. This may have been his “most humble day” but Rupert suddenly strengthened as he interrupted the flow of questioning to invoke the memory of his own father, Keith, “a great journalist”; a paragon who couldn't be touched today. Rupert said he remained “very, very proud” of his father for “exposing the scandal at Gallipoli”, an action “for which he was hated in this country by many people for many, many years”.

A useful myth had been employed again. Popular history views Sir Keith Arthur Murdoch as a fearless war correspondent, author of the brave, censor-evading letter that led to the evacuation of the Anzac force from Gallipoli at the end of 1915, and, later, as a successful media magnate. The wave of centenary commemoration coverage this year has only served to reinforce this view. However, the truth of Keith's career and dealings was more closely linked to the next question the committee asked Rupert and his answer: how frequent were Rupert's meetings with prime ministers during his career? “I wish they would leave me alone!” he quipped.

Keith had his own humble line, insisting the tens of newspapers and radio stations under his control describe him as a “working journalist” when they reported his knighthood in 1933. But by his death in 1952, Keith had been both friend and foe to a series of prime ministers. Following the example of his mentor Lord Northcliffe, he had fashioned himself as Australia's own media titan, earning the nickname “Lord Southcliffe”, while navigating a network of connections and ruthlessly exploiting the hidden intersections of press and politics.

Keith's famous Gallipoli letter, addressed to the Australian prime minister, had marked the start of his rise. Far from cementing his anti-establishment position, as Rupert would have it, the letter served as his entrée to the most powerful circles in London.

It was the letter that made his career and it has been woven into a myth that Rupert has deployed more than once to deflect criticism of the sharper edges of his own career. He cited it, for example, in the personal letter he wrote to the Bancroft family during his takeover attempt of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal in 2007. But, above all, it has served to deflect attention from Keith's darker actions during the rest of the First World War.

Following the outbreak of war, the British government had invited Australia to appoint an official war correspondent to accompany the troops it was soon to send north. Keith, then an ambitious parliamentary reporter still in his twenties, put himself forward for the role but lost out to the more experienced Charles Bean.

Sir Keith Murdoch at Rose Bay Air Base in Sydney, Australia on 10 August 1951

Though disappointed, Keith, already a consummate networker, could still rely on support from his political contacts. He soon put his own brand of war service into action. In early 1915, Keith was offered the plum position of managing editor of the United Cable Service, the news feed for Australian newspapers housed in The Times' office in London. This was Keith's great chance. He was keenly aware of the potential power inherent in the cable role – “the mainstay of hundreds of thousands of Australian readers” – as he privately told the prime minister, Andrew Fisher, a fellow Scots Australian and family friend.

One insider claimed Keith was already effectively serving as publicity agent for Australia's defence minister, George Pearce, “no doubt getting much in return”. He cranked up a production line of puff pieces and glowing profiles of Pearce and his “War Machine”.

He also contributed publicity strategies for the Department of Defence, aiding its drive to secure the recruits Australia had promised to contribute to the Imperial Force. In an unofficial letter, Pearce thanked Keith for rallying the public to the cause. The blurring of the line between reporter and government operative had well and truly begun.

In 1915, as the lines of communication and control were centred in London, even Australia's prime minister and his minister for defence had been kept in the dark about the plan to land at Gallipoli on 25 April. Fisher and Pearce wanted an inside account of the campaign's management and a realistic assessment of its prospects. Keith saw his chance to oblige, suggesting that, under the guise of investigating postal problems and provisions, he could detour to Gallipoli on his way to London.

Keith wrote to Sir Ian Hamilton, the British general in command of the Gallipoli campaign, requesting permission to visit the Anzac force on the peninsula. He stressed he would be visiting “in only a semi-official capacity”, so that he may “record censored impressions in the London and Australian newspapers” he represented. Hamilton hesitated, but was persuaded by Keith's insistence that he would abide by the military censorship. Hamilton remembered Keith as “a sensible, well-spoken man with dark eyes, who said his mind was a blank about soldiers and soldiering” before entering into “an elaborate explanation of why his duty to Australia could be better done with a pen than a rifle”.

When Keith landed at Gallipoli in early September, morale was desperately low following the disastrous August Offensive. He walked through the trenches and spoke with soldiers and what officers he could find. But it was Keith's meeting with the English correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett at the press camp on Imbros that proved crucial. Ashmead-Bartlett had initially supported the second-front strategy but was now disillusioned and believed Hamilton should be removed from command. (Indeed, Ashmead-Bartlett had a £5 bet riding on this happening before the end of the month.)

The two men shared their grave concerns about the campaign. At this point Keith felt his own word would not “carry sufficient weight with the authorities” in London, and so they agreed Ashmead-Bartlett would write a letter to Herbert Asquith, the British prime minister, “telling the plain truth”. In it, Ashmead-Bartlett railed against this “most ghastly and costly fiasco” with its “muddles and mismanagement”.

Keith was to carry this letter back to London, so evading the censorship restrictions, before writing his own report to Fisher back in Australia. But following his departure, Hamilton, having got wind of the plot, cabled ahead so that at Marseilles the envelope was seized from Keith by military police. Even though Ashmead-Bartlett's letter never made it to Downing Street, Keith had absorbed the pessimistic outlook and bitter criticisms. Combining the English correspondents' views with his own brief observations, Keith started to compose his own letter, to his own prime minister.

Arriving in London with rare, first-hand information from Gallipoli, Keith was a man in demand. He was whisked off for lunch with The Times' powerful editor Geoffrey Dawson who was “moved by the sincerity and vividness” of the “word pictures” Keith painted of appalling conditions and mismanagement. The paper's proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, was agitating to expose the futility of the Gallipoli campaign and concentrate the fight on the Western Front. In a flurry of letters and meetings, the cogs started to bite. The young reporter found himself at the centre of the action.

In his private letter to Fisher, Keith was now able to include reactions and views of Cabinet ministers. And anyone else reading it would realise his closeness to the Australian prime minister. He began: “I shall talk as if you were by my side, as in the good days.” Over the 25 pages that followed he delivered an emotive case bringing issues of class to the fore. “Australians now loathe and detest any Englishman wearing red,” he wrote; the “countless high officers and conceited young cubs” were “plainly only playing at War”. Although Keith disclaimed any military knowledge, he described Hamilton as having completely failed as a strategist. The prescription was straightforward: Hamilton should be recalled and replaced.

Despite the myth built since, Keith did not suggest abandoning the campaign and evacuating the peninsula. The Australian divisions would “strongly resent” the confession of failure that a withdrawal would entail. Instead, he hoped the Cabinet would decide to hang on through the winter for another offensive, or for peace. Echoing his recruitment drive work, he told Fisher: “The new offensive must be made with a huge army of new troops. Can we get them?”

Keith's overriding priority was the protection of the Anzac force both in strength and reputation. He assured Fisher that although they were “dispirited”, having “been through such warfare as no army has seen in any part of the world”, they were “game to the end”. Keith was placing the Australians on the highest of pedestals. Charles Bean, in his official history of the war, argued that “Murdoch's admiration of the Australian soldiery rose almost to worship”. Keith told Fisher how stirring it was to see the “magnificent manhood, swinging their fine limbs”. By contrast, the lowly Tommies were for Keith simply “toy soldiers”, “childlike youths without strength to endure or brains to improve their conditions”.

The old British colonial masters had failed, but in his later reports Keith held aloft the banner of a new religion: Australianism. Gallipoli was “sacred soil”; the Australian army “a sacred institution”. Keith claimed the campaign had produced “a new nationalism, stiffened backs, and renewed determination to see the war through” while Australia's leaders “began to move Londonwards, in a determination to take a greater part in Empire control”.

Keith later wrote that the “most pregnant interviews” he had around this time “were with Mr Lloyd George and Mr Bonar Law” – two ambitious figures unhappy with Asquith. At Lloyd George's suggestion, Keith sent a copy of his letter to the British prime minister and it was circulated among the War Cabinet as an official paper. Within a week, however, Asquith was backing away from a letter that he now regarded as “largely composed of gossip and second-hand statements”. Keith himself would concede he had put his case with “perhaps excessive frankness” but he had “lived long enough in the world to know that reforms are secured only after heavy jottings”.

It would be half a century before the public at large could read Keith's letter. Through its select circulation at the end of 1915, however, he was becoming a central player in the upper echelons of the British Empire, in the press as well as the political world. The Canadian prime minister asked Max Aitken (who would, the following year, take the controlling interest in the Express, and later be ennobled as Lord Beaverbrook) to send a copy on to him. Lord Northcliffe was making liberal use of his own copy. Keith told his readers back home that Northcliffe was “sometimes called Emperor, so powerful is his influence”; privately he was soon able to claim him as a paternal champion to his career. On first hearing that Keith was on his way from Gallipoli, Northcliffe had exclaimed: “He may prove to be the lever we want.”

But Keith would turn their relationship to his own benefit, gaining the wisdom and investment backing of the genius of the popular press prior to his death. And before Keith's own death in 1952, he would choose Beaverbrook as the man under whom his son should be blooded into the newspaper world.

In the autumn of 1915, although investigations were already underway, Keith believed his letter had sealed General Hamilton's fate. On 16 October Hamilton was recalled. His replacement confirmed the dire prospects for success and recommended the full evacuation of the peninsula.

Keith had developed a taste for power but his further attempts to control who should or shouldn't lead the military forces reached a nadir in early 1918. Plotting with Bean, he tried to install Major-General Brudenell White as Australian commander against the Australian Cabinet's decision to appoint Major-General John Monash; this despite the fact that White had no experience of commanding in the field and had himself declared Monash the “abler man”. One of Monash's biographers described the action as “perhaps the outstanding case of sheer irresponsibility by pressmen in Australian history”; another claimed “Murdoch's case would have made Machiavelli proud”. This story is wholly absent from the two previously published biographies of Keith Murdoch.

Australia's governor-general during the war concluded that Keith was “one of the most ambitious of the pressmen who set themselves up to rule over us”. Keith fostered an exceptionally close relationship with the new Australian prime minister Billy Hughes. Acting as Hughes's unofficial publicist and advisor, Keith – unelected and unaccountable – made himself indispensable as the prime minister's mouthpiece in the corridors of power in London. He secretly directed the campaigns to encourage Australian soldiers to vote for the conscription of their compatriots into the Western Front action – a theatre of conflict that was to prove far deadlier than Gallipoli. Keith's further efforts to help re-elect Hughes and his “Win the War” party included spreading the propaganda tale of the German Corpse Factory – described since as the “master hoax” of the war.

Two weeks before polling day, Keith told Australian voters how the Germans had stooped to distilling oil from soldiers' bodies. His cable reports, revealing the apparent depravity of “The German Beast”, continued a drip-feed of horror for a week: “Margarine from Corpses”, “Prussian Cannibals”, “Dead Desecrated – Facts Undeniable”. Hughes immediately recognised the value of the sensational revelations to his campaign, but sensibly sought from Keith “very urgent” proof of their veracity. Keith assured the prime minister that his reports provided “authenticated details”, while giving further evocative descriptions of bodies being stripped for pig food. Hughes brandished this cable during at least one campaign address, declaring that he had received a “message from London amplifying earlier reports”.

Keith revelled in telling his readers how he had been “privileged these days to get far behind the scenes – to meet and talk frankly with the men in London whose decisions mean life and death to thousands”. He was now at the heart of the political establishment. In a remarkable development, another omitted entirely from the previous, family-commissioned biographies, Keith became engaged to the eldest daughter of the then chancellor of the exchequer and future prime minister, Bonar Law. Isabel Law lived at 11 Downing Street with her widowed father, for whom she acted as political hostess. Hughes, on learning of the “most awfully interesting” news, congratulated Keith with the hope that “you and the line live 10,000 years”.

That line was not to be – but Keith did fix another: the history of Gallipoli, the standing of the Australian soldier and his part in both. Northcliffe's commission to write a special chapter on the Anzacs for The Times' History of the War was used by Keith to take his career to a new level. After boasting to Pearce of the commission, stressing “you can bet that I mean to do justice to my country, its leaders, and my countrymen”, Keith laid out a request: “send me” to the Western Front. The British government would have no objection to him gaining the same privileged access as the official correspondents, he said: after all, several ministers had told him that the government “is under an obligation to me for what I was able to tell them about the Dardanelles”. Keith's request was granted and he never looked back. The pattern of politicians and governments finding themselves under “obligation” to Murdochs was set a century ago.

'Before Rupert: Keith Murdoch and the Birth of a Dynasty' by Tom DC Roberts ($34.95AUD) is published in Australia today and can be purchased online

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