Working for Rupert
1970s & 1980s “Without a doubt the most instructive, emotional, enlightening, and ironic biography on Murdoch” (Ignacio Crux Herrera, Washington correspondent)
First published: 2001
I worked for Rupert Murdoch for 17 years. In this book, written as a memoir of my time as a journalist on The Australian newspaper, I tell it like it is. That is why a Mexican reviewer said the book was “the most instructive, emotional, enlightening, and ironic”. Most newspapers in Australia ignored the book: no one knows what to do with the man whom Bill Gates called “the most influential man in the world”; the man who buys ink by the tonne. That’s me on the cover in a jail in King George Square in Brisbane in an Amnesty International demonstration with Peter Beattie and Jim Soorley.
But this, even this, didn’t hold as many terrors as Ron Richards’ phone call did that day back in 1979.
A statewide strike had put out the lights and Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen was threatening to sack striking electricity workers. Ron said Rupert Murdoch wanted to be briefed on what was going to happen. I explained on the phone to my old mate Ron that — while I knew a fair bit about politics – all I knew about the strike was what I’d read in the papers and heard on the radio. Our industrial roundsman, Max Jessop, and our political roundsman, Joe Begley, were in the city on the story at that very moment and would report back in a few hours.
“Rupert wants to know now. Rupert wants you to tell him,’’ said Ron, sounding troubled. “This is Rupert Murdoch I’ve got down here. And he wants to see you. Now. So stop arguing the toss and get down to the board room.’’
I tipped my typewriter over on its back, as reporters used to do back then to clear a space on the desk, put on a jacket, left a message in case my girlfriend rang back, straightened my tie, checked the mirror in the men’s room, and made my way to the set of black steel stairs which led down from the third floor to the second, emerging directly opposite the board room.
The spectre of Rupert seemed to hang over everything at News Ltd. Advertising staff operated not on the Gregorian calendar, not on the financial year calendar, but on what they called “Rupert’s Calendar” which numbered the weeks one to fifty-two. Sometimes Rupert’s year had fifty-three weeks. The look and body language of executives, Editors, and section editors changed at the mention of his name. When Rupert Murdoch hit town they became like a herd of wildebeest: first excited that they would be near him; then frightened that he wouldn’t like what they had been doing; and, finally, they were drawn into a controlled, instinctive panic leading occasionally to their own destruction. Rupert’s visit was a much, much bigger occasion for editors than if some other world figure, merely the Pope, say, came to appraise their work. The Pope might also have a large degree of infallibility, but he could only threaten their next life, not this one. The Queen might bestow an honour on an Editor, but not dishonour. Whereas Rupert would not hesitate to describe a paper as dull and boring, which meant the Editor and his editors were dull and boring. Rupert would even notice the technical errors and the small mistakes — if the pictures were taken from too far away, the feature was too long, the headline didn’t fit, the incorrect use of capital letters, the lack of explanation of acronyms, and the inevitable spelling mistakes – which was what made him frightening.
Thus Editors became much more critical when Rupert was around.
In April 1980, Rupert’s Ansett Airlines decided to try to break the Qantas monopoly on overseas flights. To openly challenge long-standing government policy of just one overseas airline. Rupert arrived for the one-off Ansett flight from Townsville to Singapore, and he flew to Townsville personally from the US for the historic event, which eventually led to scheduled Ansett flights overseas. Such a story would normally be covered by a finance writer, or a travel writer, or a general reporter, or even a local stringer; but because Rupert would be there – and I was bureau chief — I was sent north “to make sure nothing goes wrong’’, or, rather, to cop any blame if anything did go wrong.
At a Townsville Bulletin dinner several hundred locals were thrilled that Rupert himself had come to their city to connect them with the world. Rupert told them their Bulletin was a “great newspaper’’ and raised a nervous laugh when he said: “I see the Bulletin calls itself `totally independent’: I presume that means it is proud to have nothing to do with me!’’ (Within a decade Rupert owned it.)
The next day I interviewed Rupert and phoned a story through to Sydney. But it only got me into trouble with the Editor, who complained angrily that he’d wasted two hours rewriting it.
For another Rupert visit, my job was a major series on Vietnamese refugees. I wrote how a Vietnamese doctor was putting windscreens in cars at Ford in Melbourne; that they were making motor-mowers in Sydney; and fighting wharfies in the streets of Brisbane. But when Rupert saw my story in The Australian –Steady Editor complained — he said it was too long: that he didn’t like stories that continued on another page. I told Steady Editor that I couldn’t write it any shorter because I had been to so many places in several states and it was all so interesting. To which Steady Editor replied: “I told Rupert I’d tried to cut it myself, and I couldn’t.’’ Rupert had replied, he said, that the lay-out was terrible and the sub-editor’s stand-first (the write-in introducing the story at the top) was way, way too long, which was true.
But now, right now, as I reached the bottom of that terrible descent down the black steel stairs, to my surprise, Ron Richards was waiting. A newspaperman who found confident humour facing all sorts of difficult deadlines, Ron grabbed my elbow and looked up into my eyes as we walked the seven paces across the newsroom from the stairs to the board room entrance. Slowly and deliberately, as if spelling a word, he said: “Don’t Say You Don’t Know.’’
A paper boy walked into the newsroom selling the afternoon Brisbane Telegraph. “Gimme that,’’ I said aggressively, ripping one from underneath his arm. Slamming it on a desk I ran a finger quickly down the front page splash on the power strike as if drawing a freehand line.
I handed the paper back, and walked in.
Rupert and his merry men filled up my former office. News executives from Sydney and Adelaide were working at the long table checking figures, and files, and accounts. But I couldn’t see them all for the man in front of me: Rupert Murdoch, who had just stood up from a chair in the corner of the crowded room. Unlike the others, he wasn’t reading anything, and wasn’t anywhere near a telephone; it was as if he were waiting for something to happen. Normally, Rupert was immaculate, but this time – on a hot Brisbane day — he appeared slightly ill at ease in a white shirt, tie and trousers: no jacket. As there was so little space in the room, Rupert asked me to sit down next to him in his tight corner, and, with all the other chairs taken, I found myself on a much lower chair than his: on his sinister side. It was a bit like being on your knees while the priest listened to your sins.
Rupert, exactly as Ron had predicted, asked what I thought would happen in the electricity strike. I looked across the room at Ron whose desperate words still rang in my ears: “Don’t … say … you … don’t … know!’’
“Oh, they’ll go back to work. It’ll be all over sometime today,’’ I said, with as much confidence as I could muster.
“What do you base this on?’’ asked Rupert quietly.
“On what ordinary people are saying about the blackouts … and union sources … and, and my own knowledge of things Queensland,’’ I said, smiling inappropriately.
I felt like I was lying in Confession: a sacrilege.
“Well that’s very strange,’’ said Rupert, causing me several ectopic heart beats. “I’ve just walked back down here from the Premier’s office and he tells me that he’s about to invoke a State of Emergency.’’
“Yes,’’ I gulped. “The unions realise that possibility.’’
Rupert changed tack and talked about what he saw as the likelihood of Bob Hawke becoming Prime Minister. Which was also news to me, since Hawke wasn’t even yet in Parliament. I gathered Rupert wasn’t particularly impressed with Hawke: not at all in fact. But he believed Hawke would one day get the top job.
Rupert then said something I found strange indeed. He asked if I thought Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal-National coalition government could survive an election if home loan interest rates hit 14 percent.
“Hell no,’’ I said, feeling on very safe ground while commenting on something that I knew could never happen. No one would put up with paying interest rates that high. Well, said Rupert, that’s what’s going to happen in the next few years. Here were Rupert and I talking politics, when I should have been asking him where to invest my savings now that I was 38 years old. If I’d only listened to him, I’d never have ended up almost going broke paying interest after investing with my solicitor in 1981.
We talked about Malcolm Fraser and about the in-fighting by Labor factions, an aspect of the ALP that seemed to annoy Rupert. As we talked, the suit of executives worked quietly away, mumbling to each other, not listening at all. Rupert’s concentration was total, and he was never at all arrogant or aggressive — which was a charming thing about him. He just seemed to want a chat. He had, I noticed from close up, perfect pale skin, as if it had been dipped in something: the texture of new mango leaves. For a man who spent most of his life in aeroplanes, presumably in first class, he was obviously not eating airline food. Over the last eight years, Rupert had been getting thinner rather than fatter. It seemed that the more success he had, the less he self-indulged; the more powerful he got, the less he needed to reward himself. I guess Rupert got his reward from expanding the company. But I couldn’t imagine how a beautiful female reporter friend saw him as “the sexiest man I’ve ever seen’’.
When we’d finished, we both stood up and Rupert said, “I enjoy reading your stories wherever I am in the world.’’ Being a writer, I recorded the words in my mind. I wanted to ask him which stories, and what parts of which stories he liked best, and what parts of which sentences, and make a few suggestions as to the possibilities. But I thought better of it. Though I did know that a few of my stories had been published in one of his American papers. Anyway, the good news was that, after all this chat, he’d forgotten about the electricity strike.
As I turned to leave, Rupert tucked both thumbs into the top of his trousers and tugged them back into the line they must have lost on his long hot walk from the other side of the city and said, slightly bemused: “So, you think the electricity workers will go back to work today?’’
“Well I certainly hope so, now that I’ve told you,’’ I said.
As luck would have it, the electricity workers went back to work later that night.
“Among the dozens of books written on the most influential Australian in history, at least a couple of biographies are instructive. That of Neil Chenoweth and William Shawcross. But without a doubt the most instructive, emotional, enlightening, and ironic is the Australian journalist Hugh Lunn’s Working for Rupert.” Ignacio Cruz Herrere, etcetera ( translated from Spanish)
“A revealing, funny read for anyone interested in how the media works.” Canberra Times
“Sharp and witty recollections.” Sydney Morning Herald