The softer side of Rupert Murdoch

Is Rupert Murdoch scary? Not when I met him – he broke off our chat to obediently stoke the fire and throw on a new log (at his elderly mother’s bidding) grumbling at the way his nanny treated him when he was four,  Desmond Zwar recalls. (This story first appeared in Press Gazette - Journalism Quarterly. Click here to subsribe for less than £20 a year)

Our relationship began in 1978 when I flew to Melbourne to discuss the promotion of my recent book. Over coffee in his office, my editor pushed a thick manuscript across to me. He asked if I’d ‘like to write’ the life of Sir Keith Murdoch, Rupert’s father. The bulky tome he handed across had been commissioned by Rupert, but he had turned it down.

What’s here,” he said, leafing through some 500 pages, “is a record of Sir Keith Murdoch’s business dealings and his newspaper acquisitions. But it’s without colour and we can’t publish it. If you’re interested, I’ll arrange for you to meet Rupert, see if he approves of you doing his father’s biography.”

It was a big ask. I would be dealing with the world’s most powerful media personality, who I had never met; a much more precarious undertaking than any other book I had done. With his huge battery of journalists and authors, it would be unlikely that he would agree to me writing his father’s story.

I flew home to Cairns, in the far north of Queensland, and began reading what was a detailed record of Sir Keith Murdoch’s power; his business battles and the minutiae of dealings which almost sent him to the wall. But it was, as the publisher said, a skeleton without much flesh. Could a ‘warts-and-all’ biographer, which I happened to be, persuade the exacting Rupert to allow such a book to be written about his father?

Rupert Murdoch was due to arrive into Queensland from the United States to spend a few days with his family on Lizard Island, off the coast from Cairns. I had arranged to fly out on the small aircraft he’d chartered, to pick him up and connect with a flight to Darwin to inspect one of his newspapers. We were to talk at Cairns Airport while he waited for his plane.

The Zwars owned an elderly but elegant, Toyota Crown sedan, used as a family car; and an untidy little Moke runabout driven badly by the staff of the free newspaper we owned; at weekends it was used for carrying sacks of chicken manure for our garden.

Meeting the man himself

On the big day, my wife, Delphine, needed the Toyota, so I parked the Moke at an airport that was then only sheds and hangars. I climbed aboard a Bush Pilots

Airways Cessna for Lizard Island, sitting up front with the pilot. We touched down on the tiny resort runway and a wind-blown Rupert Murdoch was waiting, briefcase in hand, suitcase ready to be loaded.

He wore a suit and tie and a light tan from several days on a game boat. He had an uncanny resemblance to Sir Keith; challenging, shrewd eyes, a set firm mouth. He climbed aboard, sat across the aisle from me and we took off. “Hi!” he said. “Good to meet you. Thanks for coming.”

A polite man but I got the impression he was nervous. He smiled a lot, but I noticed that many of his smiles were shy grimaces; a man who talked and thought fast, adding drawn-out extensions to words, giving his listener a chance to catch up. An end-of-sentence purr. “It was a very big problemmmmm.”

A man not at ease, but seemingly trying to bridge an uncomfortable gap between powerful media baron and the last cadet reporter his father had hired for the Melbourne Herald before he died.

We shouted at each other over the noise of the twin engines for an hour, sharing the pilot’s Thermos of black coffee, and then bumped down on the Cairns tarmac. I had faxed him my CV and a list of books I had written, and he said he now knew ‘a fair bit’ about me. We had an hour for discussion before his Darwin plane took off and he parked his suitcase with an Ansett Airline desk clerk.

Then he said, in his light, American drawl, “Look, I haven’t seen a newspaper for days. Is there a newsagent nearby?” There wasn’t one at the small Cairns airport, but there was one five minutes up the road. I said I’d drive him there – then suddenly realised it meant travelling in the grubby little Moke.

Too late to worry. The billionaire, used to chauffeured limousines, climbed over the side, strapping himself into a dirty, doorless little runabout, with its flapping side-curtains, clouds of chicken poo swirling around us.

Then climbing out at the newsagents, to buy an armful of papers and magazines, the assistant doing a double-take when she saw the Murdoch face on the cover of The Bulletin magazine she had just sold him. As we chugged back to the airport he said, matter-of-factly, “I’ve checked you out. Think you’ll do a good job. I’d like you to write father’s life.” I forced myself to keep the wandering Moke straight ahead on the road.

When he was again due back in Cairns a month later, he had put aside time for a personal interview about his own memories of his father. I planned a lengthy talk in my study. A bottle of good Riesling rested in the fridge; the Toyota Crown had been polished, its tank filled with petrol, sheepskin seat-covers vacuumed spotless. I set off to pick him up in style this time from the Ansett terminal.

I parked the Toyota in front of the arrivals gate of the airline (he then half-owned), and met him. Warm smile, small-talk about the trip as I opened the door for him. I hurried around to the driver’s seat as he strapped himself in. I turned the key. There was a sickening ‘rrrrrrr.rrr’ sound. And the motor died. (Dead battery).

I spotted a car leaving the airport being driven by a neighbour who had seen her husband off to Sydney. I ran to wave her down. She opened the front passenger door for Rupert. Her small daughter stood beside him in the front seat, hitting him over the head with her woollen doll all the way up the mountainside.

Could he use my phone, Murdoch asked? I offered to go outside, but with hair still ruffled, he waved at me to sit down. He made calls to several executives in Sydney and when he’d finished, he talked to me about the father he remembered, explaining Sir Keith’s determination to provide for his family; his shyness; his business gambles and his enemies in the Sydney newspaper world.

Rupert also began talking about himself and some of the newspaper stories he’d been involved in, several of them ‘exposés’ he’d worked on in the background and one he said he had even ‘broken’, (a fraudster loans affair). Also, he talked about Rupert Murdoch, reporter; and from the telling, it suddenly seemed that this time might have been when he was at his happiest.

Reminiscing about his father

“My father,” he said, staring out the window to a riot of tropical allamanda and bougainvillea, “was at times terribly badly advised financially. He only had about five per cent of The Herald shares, whereas if he had put his money into what he knew about  instead of pastoral properties he had invested in, and rather than trying to be a Collins Street (Melbourne) farmer, he would have died a very rich man.”

Rupert’s mother, Dame Elisabeth, had to me earlier touched on her own worries about Sir Keith’s borrowing. “In those days, bank overdrafts were much more frightening than they seem to be today,” said Dame Elisabeth. “The way people operate on overdrafts terrifies me, and I think it would have terrified Keith. I could not sleep in my bed knowing I owed anybody money.”

She wasn’t to know that her own son was to one day soon face his own terror of the banks when he, too, found himself at the edge of a financial abyss. But now the talk with Rupert was over, the bottle of Riesling finished. There remained only one way to get him back to the airport from our hilltop hideaway ... the Moke. He nimbly climbed into its tatty passenger-seat once more. “I’m beginning to think the Moke is compulsory,” he laughed.

I had on tape the memories of the men and women who had worked for Sir Keith, revealing the scary power that The Herald & Weekly Times chairman exerted over their lives.

Sir Keith probably knew few of our names, but to cadet reporters, starting off on the first rungs of a career in journalism, he was an awesome, greying figure, glimpsed only in the lift or on his way down the reporters’ room for one of his ‘getting to know you’ visits.

“Ah,” he would say, coming to a stop by your desk. “What are you on [writing about] at the moment? What books are you reading?” Young reporters enthusiastically answered “Hemingway.” or “Scott Fitzgerald.” And the last question as he got up from the desk.

“What are you driving these days?” as though a cadet earning the equivalent of £5 a week changed his car, even if he had one, as regularly as Sir Keith might change his Rolls Royce. “Still the old VW, Sir Keith.”

Some of the memories from the interviews I had with The Herald staff, past and present, created delicate decisions of inclusion in the book. Along with the anecdotes of Sir Keith’s forays into the newsroom, came still-surprised recollections of his behaviour that bordered on the eccentric.

He often seemed pre-occupied. Hearing about the business deals he was doing at the time, when he paid big money for newspaper shares he could ill afford, it was understandable that newsmen and women might have had the impression that while he was talking to them he was, to put it politely, thinking of something else.

I recalled one morning, when I was head down, typing, he strode through the reporters’ room with startled newsmen suddenly bashing at upright typewriters. He noticed the dumpy figure of The Herald’s social editor Miss Lois Lathlean, coming towards him.

“Ahh,” said Sir Keith, coming to a halt. “Miss Lathlean! How’s your mother?”

“Well ... Sir Keith,” the diminutive Lois began, staring up through horn-rimmed spectacles at the tall figure towering over her. “Mother passed ...”

“Good. Good. Haven’t seen her for ages. Tell her to get in touch with Miss Demilo (his secretary) and we’ll have afternoon tea.”

“But Sir Keith, Mother d ...”

“Good morning to you! I look forward to seeing her.” And he went on his way.

I talked to Rupert’s nanny about her memories of the family. She told me that when Rupert was about four, he was naughty and so she’d had to put him over her knee.

One of Sir Keith’s former senior executives revealed to me that Sir Keith had serious political ambitions. The grand figure at the helm of arguably Australia’s greatest newspaper already wielded heavy political influence; state premiers and prime ministers made their way to The Herald building to see him. But it wasn’t quite enough.

One morning, said a former colleague, he’d heard Sir Keith talking to the editor of The Herald’s sister paper, The Sun News-Pictorial, mentioning that ‘some people were saying’ it was time he might think seriously about entering federal politics.

“Well, Keith,” said the editor, (one of the few close enough to the press giant to call him by his first name) “I don’t think so, yet. You are of course terribly well-known in the newspaper and business world, but not so well known among the ordinary people who would be asked to vote for you.”

“Ahh,” said Murdoch, having thought about it for two seconds, “you could be right. I know! We won’t go to the Melbourne Club for lunch today; we’ll go down to the Athenaeum.” A shift one notch down the social lunching ladder would fix everything.

I sent my finished manuscript to the Melbourne publisher and waited. Brian Stonier, managing director of Macmillan, had taken it on himself to be sure a copy was air-freighted to Rupert in New York and he would pass on to me his reaction.

It came back on fax: Mr Murdoch is ‘seriously worried’ about some aspects of the book and could you make yourself available at his mother’s home the following Sunday to go through it? I felt slightly ill.

I was bidden to the delightful Cruden Farm, 2,000 kms away, where Dame Elisabeth still lived. It lay vine-covered and white-chimneyed near Frankston, outside Melbourne, and was reached by a long, tree-lined avenue. Sir Keith’s widow had been charming and helpful when I had gone to see her and even loaned me some of her late husband’s letters.

Now, with apprehension, I flew down, and set off in a hire car for the meeting, getting lost twice on the way. I had brought with me two tape-recorders, one to place in front of Dame Elisabeth and the other near Rupert to record what each said as they made their way through the 150,000 words.

Rupert, at the time, had a strike on his hands at the New York Post which he now owned, and was in Melbourne to face an inquiry into television network ownership. In between these concerns he was to juggle the problems of ‘In Search of Keith Murdoch’.

Mother and son came to the front door and we went into the lounge-room with its old-fashioned furnishings, for coffee. Small talk over, I asked Rupert if he could begin by going through his worries about the book. He’d already said as we sat down, “You talked to Kimpo, my old nanny, did you?” I confessed I had.

“Well,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s just not true that she put me over her knee. But I guess I was rude to her ...”

“What did you say to her Rupert?” his alarmed mother wanted to know.

“I called her an old bitch, Mother.”

“Oh, you didn’t!”

“I did, because she was. But she didn’t spank me. Father actually took away my roller skates for four days as punishment. By the way,” he went on. “

That little story about going to the Athenaeum for lunch. Father would have meant that as a joke.” I nodded and made a note. It was now getting cold and the fire was dying a little. “Rupert, would you go out and get another log?” said his mother. Her son rattled the fire into life again.

He put down the poker and said: “Shall we go into the dining room and have some lunch? What’d you like to drink?”

I said I would enjoy a glass of wine, thanks. “But maybe we could we go over the problems you found with the book, first?”

He peered at me over his glasses, surprised. “We just have. Otherwise it’s fine.”

Desmond Zwar is a journalist who has written 16 non-fiction books, including In Search of Keith Murdoch and The Queen, Rupert and Me – A Reporter’s Extraordinary Life published by Sid Harta Publishing.

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