I only met Rupert Murdoch twice.
My first brief encounter with Rupert was when I worked at News Ltd.’s Surry Hills headquarters in the early 1980s.
I stepped into the lift on the 4th floor and the man next to me looked familiar.
It was the boss, Rupert Murdoch. Just the two of us in the lift.
I was a young cartoonist at the Daily Telegraph in the early 1980s.
I could have been a copy boy for all he knew.
“Is it raining?” he asked me after the lift doors closed. “I’ve been inside the office all day.”
Having found myself in a lift with one of the world’s most powerful men, asking about the weather, I was a bit dumbfounded and blurted out, “I’m not sure, I haven’t been outside.”
When the lift reached the ground floor, he ushered me out first. I walked out of the lobby thinking, “Pretty friendly for a media mogul.” At least he tried to be chatty.
The contrast between News Ltd then (now News Corporation) at Surry Hills and the Fairfax news print operation at Broadway where I started my journey as a cartoonist, was stark – never more obvious than that great equaliser – the lifts.
At the Fairfax building there was one ‘first class’ lift, exclusive to the Fairfax family and senior management.
God help you if you made the mistake of stepping into the Fairfax lift. It was an unwritten rule that you never associated with, or made eye contact with, the Fairfaxs.
At News Ltd, though, we all piled into the same two lifts. The copy boys were on the same level as the Murdochs, senior management and editors.
At the left-leaning Fairfax, every department was segmented. Some animals were more equal than others. The journos on the 5th floor were the superior species.
The artists’ room, where I started out, was on the 6th floor. Although one floor up, we were acutely aware of our place.
Across the hallway were the photographers. The Fairfaxs and management were on the 13th floor.
In contrast, News Ltd was open-planned, with everyone on an equal footing.
The artists, journos, photographers, management, cadets, copy boys and girls, all on the same floor.
The supposed right-wing Murdoch organisation ironically was more egalitarian than the socialists across the other side of the Devonshire Street Tunnel.
In those days, at News Ltd, I had a hallway cubicle to work from, opposite the newsroom, where the clatter, clatter ‘ding’ of the old 3-ply carbon paper typewriters rattled away, louder and more frenetically as deadlines loomed.
This was the early to mid-1980s.
Murdoch was now an international publisher, based in London and New York. Occasionally we’d hear that “Rupert was in the building” on his occasional visits home.
Ken Cowley was Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man in Australia. It was Cowley who took a punt on an 18 year-old kid in 1980 as the cartoonist at the Daily Telegraph. Talk about a leap of faith.
Larry Pickering was about to retire from cartooning at the ripe old age of 40 so he could concentrate on growing tomatoes and training horses. Larry recommended me to Cowley to take over at The Tele.
The Tele’s cartoonist, Bill Mitchell would move into Larry’s cartooning spot at The Australian.
So there I was, straight out of school, more or less, the cartoonist for the country’s biggest daily and Sunday papers.
By 1985 I’d won a Walkley Award for cartooning, was a regular guest on midday television and had a few books published.
Murdoch had expanded his global publishing empire, acquiring The New York Post, The News of The World, The London Sun, and The Times and Sunday Times (1981).
Most of the many London newspapers were headquartered and printed in Fleet Street. This concentration of newspapers in one location gifted enormous industrial muscle to the print unions.
Fleet Street was a hotbed of hot headed, hot-metal linotype print union members, a closed shop, meaning only union members could work at the newspapers.
The unions called the shots, a situation the ‘Dirty Digger’ from Down Under was not going to tolerate for long.
As technology and innovation opened up more cost efficiencies for news operations, Murdoch took the opportunity to innovate, sacking thousands of print workers to move to a more electronic method of publishing that required just 10% of workers for the same news output.
He had the backing of one important and critical ally – conservative British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher who had just stared down a year-long mining strike, crushing her political opponents along the way, and strengthening her electoral position.
Thatcher was spoiling for another union busting brawl, especially one that favoured powerful news print owners who controlled the front pages. Murdoch and Thatcher were on a unity ticket.
There was a buzz around that Murdoch was doing something over at Wapping, separate from Fleet Street. He had been building a new, high-tech printing plant in the London district of Wapping in East London, claiming he would be launching a new London evening newspaper, but was in fact a ruse to move his entire news printing operations out of Fleet Street to bust the unions’ stranglehold on the industry.
But, the afternoon newspaper story made sense, right? So suspicion was allayed by the fact that the market was ripe for an afternoon alternative newspaper.
London had a plethora of morning daily newspapers – The Sun, The Mirror, The Telegraph, The Star, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Guardian, The Independent and The Times.
There was only one afternoon newspaper – The Evening Standard.
Murdoch had cut his teeth in the Sydney afternoon newspaper wars between the Fairfax ‘Sun’ and his own ‘Daily Mirror’.
So, it stood to reason that Murdoch, the world’s most aggressive and commercially savvy news publisher, would take on the monopolistic London afternoon newspaper market with a competing product.
One day, back in Sydney, late 1985, I got a call from Ken Cowley to see him in his office.
Cowley was a terrific man, an avuncular figure at News Ltd. He was the epitome of ‘tough but fair’. A thoughtful, gentle man, who ran the joint with an iron glove.
Cowley asked me if I’d be interested in working in London.
He told me Murdoch was setting up a new paper, The London Post, and they needed a cartoonist.
Murdoch had years earlier exported legendary Australian cartoonist, Paul Rigby, from his Sydney Daily Telegraph to London’s Sun, then later, The New York Post (where I had many fun days and nights hanging out with the Rigbys in NYC).
I was open to the idea of working in London, so Cowley made arrangements for me to fly to the UK.
He handed me a piece of paper with a phone number and a code that would get me in to see Murdoch.
When I arrived in London, I called the number, uttered the code and made an appointment via Dot, Murdoch’s life-long PA.
I was to see Murdcoh at his London Times office at 200 Old Gray’s Inn Road.
Then I switched on the television to catch the evening news.
Wapping was a war zone, leading the 6 o’clock bulletins.
The print unions, were as furious as a swarm of locusts, protesting violently at Murdoch’s new high-tech print plant.
Thatcher had assured Murdoch of full police support.
The evening news beamed footage across the screens of mounted bobbies being dragged from their horses. Violence was everywhere as unionists tried hopelessly to prevent the TNT lorries from delivering the news, despite the unions assurance of peaceful protesting.
Amongst this historic industrial revolution and consequent carnage, I had a meeting with its architect and strategist.
I arrived at The Times building in the late morning, followed my instructions up to Murdoch’s office, where I was greeted by Dot.
Dot’s room was decored in mahogany and was as big as an office that most company executive’s would occupy.
She showed me to a 3-seater lounge where I sat looking at a door, which I assumed was the entry to Rupert’s office.
After a few minutes I felt a hand on my shoulder. “G’day Paul, good to see you. Come on in.”
Bugger me, that was a neat trick. There was another door behind me, which was in fact Murdoch’s office door. His knack for surprising people even extended to greeting people at work.
We walked into his office where he showed me to the chair opposite his desk.
What struck me was his casual attire – top button open, loose tie and shirt sleeves semi-rolled. And a warm, beaming smile. Was I nervous? A little. I think he sensed it, and opened up about his favourite cartoons. I wasn’t expecting that. He used common ground as part of his disarming charm, most likely a key to his successes, even while running an industrial war.
When I’m asked what Murdoch is like, I have to concede in my experience, in one word, “charming.”
That may not be everyone’s experience, but it was in my fleeting time with him, and Murdoch is not a one dimensional character. Anyone who creates change will piss people off.
He was particularly a fan of Rigby, the superstar West Australian larrikin cartoonist who Murdoch enticed from Perth to Sydney with a lucrative contract.
Wherever Rigby cartooned, readership followed. His half-page cartoons were legendary around the pubs of Sydney. Rigby hid a little street kid with a hat and a little dog in his cartoons, somewhere amongst the immaculately detailed drawings.
Each afternoon, dozens of pubs around town would cut out the Rigby cartoon from the Daily Tele, then dissect the cartoon into thin strips, and place the strips into a hat or cardboard box.
Drinkers could buy a strip, then pull one from the hat. The drinker whose strip had the little kid or dog won a meat tray or case of beer.
Wherever Murdoch bought a new paper, he brought Rigby with him, from Sydney, London to New York City.
So here I was in Murdoch’s office while he told me of his favourite Rigby cartoons, down to memorising the gag line. I was astonished at his recollection, word-for-word.
He told me he was planning to launch a new afternoon paper and invited me to speak to some of his editors while I was there.
He scribbled down some names and numbers and directions including David Montgomery, editor of The News of the World and The Sun’s legendary, bombastic editor, Kelvin McKenzie, responsible for some of that newspaper’s more notorious front pages.
What struck me most about Murdoch was his coolness under immense pressure. A man on a mission and in complete control of the situation. Murdoch had been plotting for this a very long time.
His plan to crush the print unions was coming to its fruition.
After I left Murdoch, I ventured to the Fleet Street offices of The Sun and the News of The World.
Both editors were aware I’d been brought from Australia to see Murdoch, but interestingly were in the dark about Murdoch’s plans.
I was asked if Murdoch had mentioned anything to me about the new London Post afternoon paper. Neither had a clue what was going on, deliberately on Murdoch’s part. Loose lips sink ships, especially when it comes to journos.
Next stop was ground zero – Wapping.
I arrived at the docklands operation in a black cab. There were literally thousands of protestors outside the barbed wire fences and gates. There was no way of getting past, as far as the hive of agitated print unionists were concerned.
Nobody was getting through.
I asked the driver to let me out there and I’d try to get past the gates as I contemplated a suicidal dash, smashing through the throng, the gate and the door. He advised me against it.
Suddenly a number of police appeared, bashing on the window, ushering me out.
As I opened the door, they threw a large black cloak over me and formed a sort of wedge, pushing their way through, as the angry, threatening throng shouted, “Scab!”…”Scum!!!”
I was shoved-and-shuffled to a door, at which point the cloak was lifted and there I was – inside the Wapping news room.
It was abuzz with staff, reporters and computer operators which looked for all intents and purposes like a fully functioning, daily newspaper operation.
If you asked me, yes, Murdoch was serious about launching his London Post evening newspaper. If he wasn’t this was a pretty expensive ruse.
I was shown to the office of the editor, who was also convinced The London Post was a happening thing. I can’t recall his name, but he asked me, “Has Rupert told you when he plans to launch the paper?”
Blimey. This question from the editor of the very paper.
Shortly after, Murdoch moved his entire London print operations to Wapping (The Sun, The Times and the News of the World) and shut down his Fleet Street plants entirely, breaking the union stranglehold.
He never did launch The London Post, and in hindsight, it’s clear he never intended to, which makes me wonder why I was sent from Sydney to London for a job that never existed.
Not long later, the other rival newspaper operations moved out of Fleet Street.
Whatever you think of Murdoch, as a one-time cartoonist who has worked inside and outside the News Ltd/Corporation I can only say I have immense admiration for an individual who has guts and the courage of his convictions.
Murdoch believes in freedom.
He gave me 100% freedom to draw whatever I liked as long as it wasn’t defamatory. This was embedded in my contract.
A few times my cartoons did have to go by the defamation lawyer, but were never deemed too risky to publish. It’s been more than 30 years since I worked at News Ltd.’s Surry Hills headquarters.
I regularly smile to myself at online comments by ignorant people who assume Murdoch dictates daily to his reporters, opinion writers and editors what to write.
In my case, while I was there, I drew cartoons that occasionally contradicted the editorial the cartoon was sitting beside.
People who have never worked for Murdoch or have never met the man, make a lot of uninformed, inexperienced assumptions.
Is he perfect? Of course not. Has he made mistakes? Yes, plenty. Name one person who has not.
On balance, though, Murdoch has done more good for the proliferation of facts, news and information than just about any other individual over the past 100 years.
He has certainly done more than the censorious tech giants of today with their support for cancelling culture and censoring opinion with maligned, so-called “fact checking”.
This week Murdoch, at age 92, has stepped down as Chairman of News Corporation to relinquish to son, Lachlan. Old habits will be hard to break.
Former Murdoch editor, Kelvin McKenzie said on learning of Murdoch step down, “There will be many journalists out there, me included, who will always be grateful for the opportunities he gave us. The media will never see another Rupert.”