Keith Murdoch might have followed his father into the ministry of the Free Church of Scotland but the stammer that would dog him all his life put paid to a career in the pulpit. Instead he chose journalism, and thereby hangs a tale.
Prior to Tom D.C. Roberts’ independent scholarship there were three biographies of Keith Murdoch commissioned by the family — two of which were published, being more flattery than biography.
There was a book by John Avieson that was never published; there was a careful, pared-back entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography written by Geoffrey Serle; and there was not much else.
The myth spun around Murdoch held tight for a long time. He was the man who, by dint of hard work and talent, rose from lowly reporter to become a selfless journalist in the service of the public good and subsequently the head of the largest media group in Australia.
And Murdoch was the author of the “Gallipoli letter”. He was the Australian war correspondent who fearlessly exposed the debacle and tragedy of Gallipoli in a scathing exposé that brought about the evacuation of the Anzacs from the Gallipoli peninsula.
But Murdoch did not suggest evacuation in the famous letter. That was the myth holding tight. Roberts notes with some pleasure that: … critical engagement with a life otherwise accepted as written has the potential to yield rich new information and perspectives, most particularly on those who have sought to frame and protect a particular view of the past. This book busts that frame. It is a comprehensive biography, gifting to readers a new understanding of Murdoch and the genesis of his family dynasty.
The subject is thoroughly yet fairly interrogated and the life richly contextualised, particularly with reference to journalism, high politics and the technological advances that Murdoch was quick to add to his newsprint business – notably radio, newsreels and air travel.
The Gallipoli letter catapulted Murdoch into the high politics of wartime London.
At 30 he was hobnobbing with men of great power and influence, and was determined to be a power in his own right.
The book is a detailed account of how he did it, how he “ruthlessly exploited his networks to gain ultimate control over Australia’s media and political landscapes” and, contrary to the myth, bequeathed his son Rupert far more than a single provincial newspaper.
But riches can be intangible. What Keith left Rupert, apart from the wealth and a world of connections in high places, was a template for remorseless expansion.
The full meaning of this legacy builds slowly – step by step – as the narrative reveals what a clone is Rupert. The book could well have been called The Murdoch Gene.
The parallels between the Keith Murdoch press’s disgraceful coverage of the Gun Alley murder case (1921-22) and the News of the World phone-hacking scandal (2002-11) are utterly chilling. But that’s a mere fragment of a lifelong and still evolving pattern. -The conversation