Fatal obsessions

Rupert Murdoch thrust his way into the newspaper industry in 1960 when he bought Sydney afternoon tabloid the Daily Mirror from John Fairfax & Sons. The conservative publishing aristocracy sold the Mirror (and Truth) to the 29-year-old ‘boy publisher’ for the bargain basement price of £600 000, with another £1.6 million to be paid over six years. Murdoch was on his way, courtesy of Fairfax’s lofty arrogance.

The Mirror, launched in 1941 by Ezra Norton, had established its identity in the Sydney market with an editorial mix of crime, courts, racing and rugby league. Murdoch beefed up the coverage and added a Page 3 photograph of a young woman in a bikini, usually taken at Bondi Beach.

Sydney’s most flamboyant crime reporter between the 1950s and 1980s was the Mirror’s Bill Jenkings and he quickly formed a close bond with the new owner. In his autobiography, Jenkings, aka ‘Bondi Bill’ or ‘Jenko’, recorded Murdoch’s fascination with cops and the underworld:

Murdoch liked me because he liked the knockabout type of reporter. He used to say to me sometimes: ‘Bill, why don’t you go and talk to some of your criminal contacts and get a good story?’ He encouraged the staff and we responded.

And I know he liked to see how the other half lived. One night he wanted to visit the famous Thommo’s Two-Up School, which police and politicians claimed never existed. Actually, I’d been there on several occasions, but as a rule, I used to keep out of Thommo’s, and not because I was averse to a bet. The thing is, people at Thommo’s knew I had many police contacts. So if there was ever a raid at the place, some mug might think I was responsible.

The bosses at the Mirror were always going on at me to go there and then write a story about it, but I refused, using that argument.

Murdoch just wanted to take a few friends along and have a bet. So I fixed it up for him and sent his party along to Thommo’s with an escort. I never heard another word about it so I don’t know whether the boss won or lost.

Jenkings dedicated the book to his wife, family, professional contacts and to Murdoch ‘for being a terrific boss’. In return, Murdoch wrote a glowing foreword saying: ‘Bill Jenkings is the epitome of the hard-nosed, rough and ready journalist trained in Sydney in the fine art of scooping the opposition. In the early days, when the old Daily Mirror was locked in a fierce afternoon circulation battle with the Sun, Bill Jenkings was the king of Sydney’s crime reporters. Every policeman knew Bill and trusted him, though he was not above working the other side of the street for tips.’

Nor, as his own publishing history unfolded, was Murdoch.

At Thommo’s, the young publisher was kicking over the traces of his strict Presbyterian upbringing and rubbing shoulders with bent coppers, corrupt judges, crooked politicians and illegal gamblers – and he enjoyed it. The venue was notorious: it had received adverse mention in the royal commission into the illegal liquor industry conducted by Supreme Court Judge Allan Maxwell, and MPs in state parliament regularly asked why the police seemed so reluctant to close it down. In response, Police Commissioner Norman Allan declared that Thommo’s was ‘a myth’, thereby assuring that the nexus between illegal gambling, the cops, politicians and a compliant media continued to operate as usual.

Murdoch’s fascination with the police was essentially commercial: he saw ‘Naked City’ crime stories as a powerful ingredient to drive circulation. There was also a strong personal attraction to the crime beat, and his police reporters were always his closest confidants in the newsroom rather than, as you might suspect, the political correspondents (whom he treated more like errand boys).

Another of his favourites was the legendary Steve Dunleavy, a hard-drinking, wild-living journo whose arresting newsroom trick was to type stories on an old Remington with his penis. When Murdoch broke into New York with the acquisition of the Post in the 1970s, he hired Dunleavy, who quickly established himself as Manhattan’s top crime reporter with dozens of senior NYPD cops and Mafia figures in his contacts book. He developed close links with far-right Cuban exiles and was the only reporter I ever knew who carried a fully-loaded handgun (licensed by the police, of course).

Already an outline of Murdoch’s persona was taking shape: he stood apart from the stiff-necked and conservative end of town, and his brash editorial approach was supported by a posse of hard-nosed editors and eager journalists who would do anything and go anywhere for Rupert.

In 1966, the Fairfax-owned afternoon tabloid, the Sun, the Mirror’s cross-town rival, innovatively hired an ex-police detective as a journalist. It gave Murdoch an idea which he has pursued ever since: police officers as freelance or full-time informers.

On 10 February 1966, the Sun’s front page announced its new star reporter:

SPECIAL INVESTIGATOR – Ray Kelly on the job for Sun

Former Detective-Inspector Ray Kelly who retired in a blaze of glory earlier this month, has joined the staff of the Sun.

A new job as a special investigator has been found for him. The job will enable Mr Kelly to continue to use his unrivalled skill in investigation for the good of the community.

The Sun portrayed its new writer as a public-spirited crusader:

In his new job, Mr Kelly will not restrict his activities to the many things which, in a city as large as Sydney, demand investigation and exposure. Mr Kelly will also be prepared to fight for the little man who considers he has a grievance. This could be a legitimate complaint against a government body, a local council or even a private institution.

The Sun is proud to be able to employ him in a job which will enable his great ability and tremendous experience to be still at the service of the public.

Kelly’s first assignment was a trip to Adelaide to cover the unfolding drama of the missing Beaumont children (Jane 9, Arnna, 7, and Grant, 4) who disappeared from Glenelg Beach on Australia Day 1966 and have never been seen since. The Beaumont tragedy had readers spellbound and Kelly’s despatches, carefully written and subedited by hardened newsmen, added thousands to the circulation of the Sun.

Not to be outdone, Murdoch’s Mirror cheekily produced a poster which was displayed outside train stations and newsagents across Sydney declaring: ‘KIDDIES DEAD – KELLY’S THEORY.’ Murdoch had ‘borrowed’ Kelly’s exclusive Sun story to promote his Mirror. The Sun angrily pointed out that the poster was twenty-four hours out of date: Kelly had made his prediction that the three children were dead on the previous day in the Sun.

At his own headquarters in Surry Hills, Murdoch asked Bill Jenkings and his news executives to counteract the Sun’s Kelly caper with something similar. On 7 March 1966, the front page of the Mirror announced: ‘Caught! Twenty killers – detective’s own story.’

In the arresting, stabbing, eight-word sentences that were straight from the 1960s Mirror style-book, the unsigned story ran:

If murder shocks you, prepare to be shocked.

If criminology intrigues you, prepare to be fascinated.

Tomorrow we begin a remarkable series by a remarkable man: Ex-Det-Sgt Jack Bateman, probably the greatest detective Australia has ever known; a man famed for a record probably unequalled in any police force in the world.

For the next fortnight, Mirror readers were regaled with cases of murder, rape, robbery, prison escapes, manhunts, ransoms and kidnaps from Bateman’s thirty-five years in the police force. They were ghosted by senior feature writer and brilliant penman Oliver Hogue, a former Canberra correspondent for the Sydney Sunday Sun and Commonwealth government press officer for Queen Elizabeth II’s royal tour in 1954.

Bateman, known as the ‘Father Confessor’ for his ability to persuade criminals to confess to their crimes, remained on Murdoch’s books contributing commentaries on major criminal investigations.

Meanwhile, the Sun’s involvement with Ray Kelly proved a scandalous embarrassment as stories of his corrupt and violent police career began to surface. Known variously as ‘The Gunner’ – because of his predisposition to shoot first and ask questions afterwards – or ‘Verbal’ – for inventing incriminating statements and forcing arrested suspects to sign them – Kelly belonged to the ‘hard school’ in the NSW police. Far from being a civic ombudsman dedicated to helping ‘the little man’, Kelly was infamous for protecting Sydney’s number one underworld figure, Lennie McPherson, from prosecution.

In Mr Sin, a biography of Kings Cross crime tsar Abe Saffron, investigative journalist Tony Reeves described Kelly as ‘one of the main players in organised crime during his 36 years in the force until his retirement’. He detailed Kelly’s involvement in the city’s lucrative abortion racket, saying Kelly and his corrupt associates ‘were paid large and regular sums to persuade them to turn a blind eye’.

Kelly left the Sun shortly after the Beaumont assignment, saying that his job had been ‘a media stunt’. He resumed contact with his old friend Bill Jenkings and the two became inseparable, speaking on the telephone twice a day, sometimes more often. In retirement, Kelly became a security consultant, a part-owner of an illegal casino on the Central Coast, and a Mirror informer.

A few years later Murdoch hired another former Sydney detective, Frank ‘Bumper’ Farrell, a legendary rugby league player who built a formidable reputation as one of the force’s toughest cops. His men-only retirement party was held at the Chevron Hotel in Kings Cross on Saturday, 18 September 1976, and on the following Monday he started at Murdoch’s headquarters at the corner of Kippax and Holt Streets, Surry Hills, as head of security.

Bumper not only kept safe the News Ltd building, its payroll, executive and reporters, he also helped his boss break a shearers’ strike at the family sheep property at Boonoke in rural NSW in 1982–83. Kiwi shearers wanted to introduce their faster thirteen-tooth comb to the industry but the Australian Workers’ Union put a ban on the comb and ordered its members to refuse to use it. Brawling broke out between rival shearers, Murdoch’s property was locked down, and Bumper and some of his associates were sent from Sydney to bring order. They set up a 24-hour guard to keep union officials at bay and floodlit the woolsheds to guard against arson or other attack. When two union officials drove to Boonoke, between Hay and Narrandera, to hold talks with the shearers, they were met at the gate by Farrell who was wearing a .45 pistol on his hip.

‘In the end, Farrell took out his gun and tapped its handle on the front of our car and said, “You blokes, toddle along, there’s nothing for you to do at Boonoke,”’ the AWU president Bruce ‘Swampy’ McEvoy recalled later. He remained bitter about the stand-off and ultimate defeat. ‘They destroyed the awards for the union shearers,’ McEvoy said. ‘The industry has never recovered. I have nothing good to say about Frank Farrell.’

Murdoch celebrated his defeat of the shearers by giving Bumper a bonus.

In 1986–87, Murdoch took on the Fleet Street printing unions and opened ‘Fortress Wapping’ in London’s East End for non-union printers and journalists. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave him the unlimited use of the police force to protect scabs and violently crush picket lines. The police exercise cost taxpayers £5.5 million, or more than $10 million, and consumed more than 1.2 million hours of police time. To avoid the boycott by rail unions, Murdoch relied on trucks supplied by TNT, the freight firm owned by his business partner in Ansett Airlines, Sir Peter Abeles, who belonged to the ‘Hungarian Mafia’ which flourished in the era of NSW Liberal Premier Bob Askin (1965–75).

Powered by the commercial success of his Mirror and Truth newspapers, Murdoch sailed offshore in 1969, buying two London papers, the News of the World and the Sun. To outsmart rival bidder Robert Maxwell, Labour MP for Buckinghamshire, who was at the start of his career as a brazen corporate criminal, Murdoch required federal government permission to transfer money to the City of London to make a cash offer. But how was he going to get around federal Treasurer William McMahon, who was in the pocket of Sir Frank Packer, owner of the Sydney Telegraph? Murdoch knew that if McMahon asked Packer what he should do – which was a certainty – Packer would say unequivocally: ‘Don’t let him take the money abroad. Stop him.’ Murdoch turned to his only friend in the federal cabinet: Trade Minister John ‘Black Jack’ McEwen, leader of the Country Party, with whom he had almost a father-son relationship.

In sworn evidence to Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into phone-hacking in London in 2012, Murdoch said, ‘I take a particularly strong pride in the fact that we have never pushed our commercial interests in our newspaper.’ That prompted Canberra author and journalist Robert Macklin to write, ‘Truly, the mind boggles. The evidence is overwhelming that the Murdoch press has assiduously peddled their influence with politicians the world over to gain business advantage. Indeed, I was present when the young Murdoch courted my then boss, Deputy PM and Minister for Trade and Industry John McEwen, to change the rules to allow him to buy the News of the World.’

In my own memoir, Come The Revolution, published last year, I remarked on Murdoch’s behind-the-scenes lobbying to snatch the News of the World: ‘My former Mirror bureau boss Eric Walsh drove Murdoch to the Lodge, the Prime Minister’s official residence in Canberra, to negotiate a solution. “He came out of the Lodge beaming from ear to ear,” said Walsh. “He said, ‘Well, that wasn’t difficult’ and I drove him home.”’ Over a Scotch in the privacy of the Lodge, Murdoch and Prime Minister John Gorton, both old boys of Geelong Grammar, reached an arrangement allowing the publisher to swerve around stiff foreign exchange controls and become a Fleet Street player.

Murdoch’s corporate culture was set in place decades ago. It went global and acquired an all-pervasive, arrogant intensity. The culture is deeply embedded. For example, on 12 March this year the Herald Sun, Melbourne’s biggest selling daily, announced on its front page: ‘Former homicide squad detective Charlie Bezzina has joined the Herald Sun’s True Crime Scene to take you behind the police lines’ and ‘to provide his unique insight into crime and justice’. Haven’t we been here before?

Today Murdoch is facing the dividend of a lifetime’s deeds and his toxic UK operation is being exposed as a criminal enterprise. The story hasn’t finished yet.

Alex Mitchell

Alex Mitchell is former state political editor of Fairfax Media's Sunday newspaper in Sydney, The Sun-Herald, and author of Come The Revolution: A Memoir (NewSouth Books, 2011).

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