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Sex, Lies & the Murdoch Succession
By Paul Barry
Allen & Unwin Copyright © 2013 Paul Barry
All rights reserved.
THE PAPER PRINCE
'She was an okay mother.'
Rupert Murdoch is half puritan, half gambler, and that's the way he has always behaved. His father was from a long line of Presbyterian preachers and moralists; his mother the daughter of a handsome rake who lost a fortune to the bookies.
But it's not quite as simple as that.
All his life he has railed against elites, yet his father Sir Keith was a newspaper baron, who rubbed shoulders with political leaders in Australia and Britain, and Rupert is now one of the world's richest and most powerful men.
All his life, he has railed against toffs and inherited wealth, yet he was born into privilege. His family had money and huge estates; he was educated at private school and Oxford; and he is now set to bequeath billions of dollars to his own children.
So how can this be? Does he care nothing for the truth? Or does he see no contradictions in the portrait he draws of himself as an ordinary man, an outsider, even a victim?
It is perhaps a part of the answer that his father was an outsider too, a shy man with a stammer, who had to elbow his way to the top. But it is also that Rupert has a remarkable capacity to believe what suits him. He's a man with a massive ego, an elephant hide and an extraordinary sense of entitlement. And despite an old-fashioned morality, he often behaves as if rules are for others but not for him.
Rupert's father Sir Keith Murdoch was a famous journalist who dominated Melbourne as an editor and proprietor, for almost 40 years. He is undoubtedly best known for his seminal 'Gallipoli Letter', which exposed the horror of the war in the Dardanelles in 1915. But his real claim to fame is that he brought modern journalism to Australia and created the first national newspaper chain, building the Herald and Weekly Times into a powerful media group, which controlled around 50 per cent of the national newspaper market, owned a dozen commercial radio stations, and would carve out a similar position in television after his death in 1952.
Sir Keith was a genius at packaging and selling news, like his famous son, but he also had a 'gift for financial wizardry, a talent for blunt and rough-hewn writing, an unjaded curiosity about the events of every day and an inexhaustible appetite for work.' According to one of his newspaper editors, he also showed 'boyish piratical tendencies' which 'failed to mask his desire to make the world a better place, especially for himself.'
That thumbnail sketch might just as easily have been penned about Rupert 50 years later, as might the warning that Sir Keith's charm concealed a man who was not to be trusted, a man who was 'no more than a paper mask, lifelike and ingenious but still a mask, hiding a calculating, undeviating, insatiable seeker after worldly riches and temporal power.'
But there are many ways in which father and son are alike, despite their different upbringings. The Scottish, Calvinist streak runs deep in Rupert, as it did with his father, and so does a profound distrust of all things British, which perhaps stems from a colonial resentment of a mother country that looked down on them. Both men believe in their right to make and break politicians and to bully them into changing their policies; both are workaholics who lack a sense of humour; both carry a large chip on their shoulders; and both are determined to perpetuate a dynasty by handing it on to the next generation, which the modern Murdoch believes in despite his repeated attacks on inherited privilege.
Rupert's father was born in Melbourne in 1885, almost 130 years ago, long before the 19th century drew to a close, and grew up 'in the stringent economy of a clergyman's family' as one of seven children. So, it's no wonder that his son has old-fashioned attitudes to women and is careful with money. Nor is it a surprise that Rupert is a prude at heart, with so little sympathy for the sexual antics of his tabloid victims, because the Murdochs come from a long line of churchmen with an abiding sense of sin.
Rupert's grandfather Patrick sailed from Aberdeenshire on the far north coast of Scotland to take up a living in East Melbourne in 1884, and went on to become head of the Presbyterian Church in Australia. Though far more liberal than his own fire-and-brimstone-breathing father, who believed in terrifying his flock with visions of hell and damnation, Patrick Murdoch was worried that his children might succumb to sexual temptation, and admonished them thus:
Never do anything with your hands or look at anything with your eyes that you'd be ashamed to tell your mother about. Turn away at once from any picture that you feel to be filthy or indecent ... You should get out of bed in the morning and as soon as you are awake, if possible, have a bath.
Taking heed of such warnings, Rupert's father Keith wrote home from England in his early twenties to express dismay at the moral depravity of London's streets, where prostitution was rife.
Unlike Rupert, who was born with a veritable mouthful of silverware, Keith had to make his own way in life, and was held back by a humiliating stammer which made school and work a torture. According to one biographer, 'his speech would collapse under stress; he sometimes could not even buy a railway ticket without scribbling a note.' As a result, he was shy, had great difficulty making friends and was doubly determined to succeed in his chosen profession.
Rupert's mother, Elisabeth, came from the opposite end of the social spectrum, with ancestors who included a governor of Hong Kong and an ambassador to the court of Versailles. Her father, Rupert Greene, was the official starter for the Melbourne Cup and a member of the Melbourne Club. An all-round sportsman, dashing man about town and Olympian charmer, he was a chronic and hopeless gambler, who lost whatever money he made on the horses or at cards.
From time to time, when their creditors drew near, the Greenes rented out their house and moved into digs in a poorer part of town. But, with the help of friends, they still managed to equip their daughter for a good marriage, sending her to Clyde, a top private school at the foot of the Dandenongs, where she made all the right social connections. In 1927, at the age of eighteen, Elisabeth made her debut in Melbourne society at a party attended by the Duchess of York, and it was soon after this that Keith Murdoch spotted a picture of her in one of his magazines, Table Talk, and fell in love.
Having engineered an introduction to her at a charity ball, he was too shy or too worried about his stutter to ask her to dance, but he phoned her the next day and whisked her off in his Sunbeam sports car for a trip to Portsea. Her mother was horrified: he was 24 years her senior and old enough to be her father. But Elisabeth was swept off her feet, and the family found Keith's money and power hard to resist.
The newly wedded couple bought one of the best mansions in Toorak, Heathfield, which was grand enough to go with the knighthood Keith soon received for helping to make Joe Lyons Australia's Prime Minister. Built in 1884 in the Italianate style, it had 30 rooms, a ballroom, balconies and a tower, and came complete with coach-house, stables, tennis court and a wonderful kitchen garden on four acres of land. Inside were chandeliers, carved antique mirrors and silk and satin wall hangings. Previously, it had belonged to one of the richest men in Australia, WL Baillieu, the chairman of BHP, and, before that, to the father of another prime minister, Stanley Bruce. It was the grandest in a district full of stately homes, on the crown of the hill, with a fine panorama of the city of Melbourne.
During Rupert's formative years, this swell abode would form the backdrop to a parade of charity balls, bridge tournaments, tennis matches and fabulous parties, like the one reported in Sir Keith's rival paper the Argus, in July 1934, shortly after the couple moved in with their three-year-old son:
Like a scene from an opera pageant, with the throngs of guests passing and re-passing from one reception-room to another, was the late afternoon party given after the races on Saturday by Lady Murdoch, at her home, Heathfield, Toorak. Sir Keith and Lady Murdoch received in the drawing-room, where pale gold lamps shone above the crystal chandeliers ... In the dining-room, deep rose red blossoms and hothouse ferns adorned the polished table, while candles — like starry sentinels — twinkled on the sideboards, the flickering beams dancing over the antique silver sconces and quaint glass shades.
Australia was still struggling to escape the grip of the Depression, with one in four of the workforce unemployed, but Rupert's Mama, Lady Murdoch, was resplendent in 'a frock of the new georgette-surfaced crepe, its deep ebon black relieved by a belt of glimmering silver tissue braiding, matching the ebon and silver medallions on the bodice'.
Back from the brink of financial ruin, Rupert's grandfather Rupert Greene was also there with his wife, sporting a black velvet coat with deep fur collar, amid a crowd of lords, ladies, knights, hons, admirals, generals, judges and the merely rich. Among the guests of honour was the Victorian Governor's sister, Mrs Helme Pott, her daughter, the Hon. Sara Vanneck, and Melbourne's Lord Mayor, Sir Harold Gengoult Smith.
One can almost imagine young Rupert on the stairs, with his nanny, peering through the bannisters at the glittering throng. But perhaps he had already tired of doing so, for such gatherings were a regular feature of his childhood.
Rupert grew up at Heathfield surrounded by staff — at least ten and some say more — who served, cooked, cleaned, dressed, drove and gardened for the family. And if the future scourge of toffs and elites ever tired of exploring the house's long corridors and ample grounds, there were other homes to go to, including two large cattle properties near Gundagai in New South Wales. Best of all was the family's country retreat, Cruden Farm, with its 35 hectares and lovely gardens, 50 kilometres south of Melbourne, which Sir Keith had given to Elisabeth as a wedding present. Rupert's parents added Palladian porticos and fluted columns to the facade, and built new stables, transforming it into something like Tara, from Gone with the Wind. Here, his mother had another four staff on retainer.
Those were formal days, especially in the Murdochs' social milieu, and most of the family photographs of Rupert show the young boy in a suit and tie — at five, at twelve, and in his teens — looking dutifully at his mother or father. But when his parents weren't there, it must have been a glorious life for a child, riding in the fields, hiding in the gardens, fishing in the lake, or playing tennis and cricket on the lawns. And an even better one for the only boy, the chosen one, whose three sisters all adored him.
Rupert was 'naughty, daring, a terrific tease', according to his sister Janet, and forever playing pranks, like putting snakes in Nanny's bed, or pulling his sisters' pigtails, for which he would be spanked. Naturally, he is said to have showed early signs of entrepreneurial skill, buying rabbits for a penny off his siblings, who would skin them for him, so he could sell them for sixpence.
On Sundays at Cruden, the entire family would ride out en masse, to the delight and awe of their neighbours, who found it 'an unforgettable spectacle — a sort of medieval cavalcade of children, servants, outriders, horses and dogs'. Sir Keith would lead the way on a massive charger, 'immaculate in English tweed and riding boots', and the rest would follow on behind.
But it was not entirely an idyll. By many accounts, Rupert's father was distant, remote and reluctant to praise, while his son was desperate to please, yet never quite succeeded. Sir Keith complained to a family friend that he was a 'disobedient wild, sullen boy', and worried that his son didn't have the right stuff to succeed. Lady Murdoch was also concerned that Rupert was unworthy of his famous dad. She recalled that her husband had proclaimed joyfully, only hours before his death, 'Well, thank God; I think the boy's got it', suggesting that for 22 years he was not convinced he had.
Many years later, when camera crews and authors made the pilgrimage to Cruden to film her garden, celebrate her birthday, or ask her about her famous son, Dame Elisabeth (who was given a damehood for her charitable work) would scoff at the idea that Rupert had endured a difficult relationship with his father, whom she insisted he 'adored'. And she would dismiss as 'absolute nonsense' the suggestion that he had lacked a loving, happy family life. But she also avowed that her own parents had been 'very fond of each other', even though her drunken father had once threatened to cut her mother into pieces, as she lay sobbing, listening to them fight. Her attitude to hardship, she explained, was 'to pull yourself together and just get on with it'.
If anyone was tough on Rupert, said Dame Elisabeth, it was her. 'I was looked on as rather a disciplinarian. I had to be because his father wasn't,' she told the ABC. 'If Rupert wants to tease me, he says, "Of course, my mother used to beat me." I think there were two occasions when I used the slipper.'
Rupert's response to this was anything but teasing. 'She was an okay mother,' he let slip to his biographer, Michael Wolff, before acknowledging, 'that's a terrible thing for a son to say ... but my father came first.'
What is certainly clear is that Mama did not believe in spoiling him, as one can gather from Rupert's tale of learning to swim. With the family on the high seas, sailing back from a trip to England, the young Lady Murdoch tossed her five-year-old son into the deep end of the ship's swimming pool and forbade anyone to rescue him. A screaming, frightened Rupert gamely doggie-paddled to the side and safety as she watched.
On several occasions, she made him sleep in the garden shed at Cruden to 'toughen him up'. And in one version of this story, which has been told and retold down the years, she exiled him to the outhouse every summer holiday until he reached the age of sixteen. Worst of all, perhaps, in terms of leaving a mark on the child, Lady Murdoch sent Rupert away to boarding school at the tender age of nine, with the same toughening-up in mind. Rupert's grandparents were shocked at this decision, and his father was 'not so very keen'. But Elisabeth was not to be thwarted. 'I was very young, rather determined, and perhaps I wasn't always very wise,' she later admitted.
Geelong Grammar was one of the top private schools in Australia, but Rupert hated his eight years there, on the windswept Corio Peninsular, 100 kilometres from home. He was teased and not much liked. Or, as his cousin put it, 'He was unhappy and rebellious and he made few friends.' He was also angry to have been banished. 'I think perhaps his home was such a happy one. And he did of course adore being with his father,' his mother later confessed. 'I think perhaps there was a slight feeling of resentment that he'd been sent away.' Or, perhaps, more than slight.
James Darling, Geelong's famous headmaster, was not much happier to have the boy as his pupil: he regarded young Rupert as the nastiest of the rich boys he taught, worse even than Kerry and Clyde Packer, whose father was also a powerful media mogul and a notorious bully to boot. As the headmaster recalled, Rupert was a rude, arrogant boy who was not interested in working; he resented authority and hated sport (two traits that were guaranteed to make him stand out), and he was famous for cutting games to duck off to the races.
Darling's opinion may well have been seasoned by his later view of Rupert's newspapers, which he loathed, telling another of Murdoch's biographers, William Shawcross, 'What is vile they offer to gloating eyes, what is vindictive they applaud.' But he was by no means alone in disliking the boy, who was variously known by his mates as 'Bullo', for being a bullshit artist, or 'Commo', for being a Communist. 'He wasn't very subtle or gentle,' another schoolmate recalled, dubbing him 'rough as guts'.
Young Rupert was also unpopular with some executives at his father's office. Towards the end of his time at Geelong, he would be chauffeured home for weekends in the family Rolls-Royce, and would stop by at the paper's neoclassical headquarters in Melbourne's Flinders Street to wait for his father. According to one veteran, he 'spent Friday afternoons in the boardroom supposedly doing his homework, but more often arrogantly marching around the building giving orders to the staff. He was called "the brat".'
Excerpted from Breaking News by Paul Barry. Copyright © 2013 Paul Barry. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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