The transformation of Rupert Murdoch into a tabloid tycoon began in September 1953 when he arrived in the quiet city of Adelaide to assume control of News Limited. At just 22 years old and with little newspaper experience, he inherited a majority stake in the company following the death of his father, the renowned journalist and media executive, Keith Murdoch.
Prior to this, Rupert had a brief stint as a cadet reporter at the Melbourne Herald, under his father’s watchful eye. He spent some time covering police courts before venturing to the United Kingdom in 1950, accompanied by Keith. In London, his father introduced him to influential figures in Fleet Street, securing a junior reporter position for him at the Birmingham Gazette for the summer. It was here that Rupert’s outspoken nature became evident when he criticized the editor’s competence.
Rupert furthered his education at Worcester College, Oxford, where he didn’t excel academically but showcased financial acumen, problem-solving skills, and a penchant for gambling and beer, traits reminiscent of his maternal grandfather, Rupert Greene. He also displayed an interest in left-wing politics, even keeping a bust of Lenin in his room.
Keith tolerated Rupert’s flirtation with left-wing politics, believing he would eventually outgrow his socialist ideals. After Oxford, Rupert worked as a subeditor at Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express, edited by the legendary Arthur Christiansen, which was a rigorous training ground for journalists.
When Rupert assumed control of News Limited, he had limited experience, having worked briefly at the Herald, the Birmingham Gazette, and the Daily Express, along with absorbing knowledge from his father’s conversations and letters over the years.
Although it’s often said that Rupert built his empire from a single Adelaide newspaper, News Limited had more holdings than just the News. It included the News, the (Sunday) Mail, the Barrier Miner, a stake in Southdown Press, radio station 2BH Broken Hill, and a minor holding in 5DN Adelaide. While not as significant as industry giants like the Herald and Weekly Times, it was still substantial for a 22-year-old inheritor.
Upon his arrival in Adelaide, Rupert didn’t play a passive role as owner; he gave himself the title of “publisher” and actively worked to rejuvenate the struggling News. He initially entrusted the editorial direction to Rohan Rivett, who had been the News’ editor for two years.
Rupert and Rivett’s friendship was established during Rivett’s reporting stint in London between 1949 and 1951, where he was also tasked with keeping an eye on Rupert. They shared a close bond, with Rivett being a favorite confidante of the Murdochs.
Rupert took bold steps to revitalize the News, which faced competition from Lloyd Dumas’ Sunday Advertiser. This rivalry resulted in a fierce circulation war that eventually ended in a merger between the two papers. Rupert considered this a victory and proof that he wouldn’t be pushed around.
Rupert allowed Rivett to mold the News into a more liberal and socially conscious publication compared to the establishment-oriented Advertiser.
While Rivett handled editorial matters, Rupert focused on boosting advertising revenue, circulation, cost-cutting, and streamlining production, significantly increasing News Limited’s profits.
He quickly expanded News Limited’s interests, first by acquiring Southdown Press and then Western Press Ltd, the publisher of the Sunday Times in Perth. It was in Perth that Rupert honed his tabloid techniques, transforming the paper into a more sensational publication, using bold headlines and promotions to boost sales.
Rupert’s acquisitions were funded through loans, with the Commonwealth Bank becoming his primary lender. This willingness to provide significant capital played a crucial role in the growth of his media empire.
During his time in Adelaide, Rupert was also preparing for his foray into television, with his Southern Television Corporation securing one of two commercial television licenses in Adelaide in 1958. Additionally, he launched TV-Radio Week (later TV Week), an Australian television magazine.
Rupert’s expansion continued with the acquisition of small papers in remote towns and the purchase of the NT News and the Mount Isa Mail in 1959, both of which he transformed into daily newspapers.
In 1958-59, Rupert made two significant moves in Adelaide. First, he took a strong stance on the trial of Rupert Max Stuart, an Indigenous man accused of rape and murder. The News campaigned for the case to be reopened, leading to a showdown with the Adelaide establishment. Although charges against the News and its employees were eventually dropped, this experience shaped Rupert’s evolving political views.
Second, he attempted to gain control of the Advertiser through a takeover bid backed by the Commonwealth Bank. While unsuccessful, this bid demonstrated his ambition and ability to muster substantial capital.
Despite his close friendship with Rohan Rivett, Rupert summarily dismissed him as editor in 1959, signaling a shift in priorities and a greater focus on business.
Rupert’s experiences in Adelaide were formative, and he emerged as a formidable force in the media industry, with a thirst for expansion and a willingness to challenge the status quo.