How to get ahead in publishing

When I chose sleaze over substance, Rupert Murdoch yelled my ear off and threw an armload of papers at me.

Published October 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I hadn't seen Rupert Murdoch for 30 years when he suddenly appeared at a New Year's Eve party in Hobart, Tasmania, the island state of Australia. In a global sense, this may be one of the most obscure places on the map, and, therefore, the least likely of places to see Murdoch celebrate the New Year. On the other hand, it isn't so obscure that he doesn't own the local newspaper. It also happens to be the final destination for one of the world's great ocean yacht races, and Murdoch has been competing in the Sydney-Hobart race for more than 30 years.

Hobart turns on a big welcome for a small city. Forty or 50 of the local restaurants take out space in a former waterside warehouse and produce a mixture of food from Turkish to Hmong, from barbecue to Pacific Rim. Friendly and charming it is, glamorous and exotic it ain't.

But that was where I saw Murdoch coming through the crowd. Of course, he had changed since I had seen him last, but television and newspaper pictures provide a certain continuity. I had expected him to be thinner and grayer, and he was. There was also a certain fragility about him. There he was, walking through the crowd carrying his biodegradable plate and biodegradable knife and fork and putting them in the correct bins. I realized that this was the average fragility of a 65-year-old among a crowd of robust carousers whose average age would be less than half his. Anonymity is not often his, and without the reinforcement of his acolytes he seemed almost humble -- quite different from the first time I met him.

In 1964, Murdoch was in his mid-30s, plumpish, cherubic, with curly hair that had still only receded as far as Julius Caesar's. He wore drip-dry white shirts with rolled up sleeves and red and blue paisley ties that revealed his affection for all things journalistic -- right down to the awful clothes.

He had gone from owning an inherited share in an Adelaide newspaper to trying to conquer Sydney, and Sydney's media establishment had decided to teach him a lesson by selling him the Daily Mirror, a newspaper they were convinced would sink him. (Surely, these were the first of many media magnates who would later file that strategy away under the heading "Mistakes, Big: Selling to Rupert Murdoch in Order to Choke Him on Debt.") For the first two years, it looked as if they might succeed in sending the young upstart back to Adelaide with his tail between his legs. The Daily Mirror had the lowest circulation of the four afternoon newspapers in a city of around 2 million.

In the beginning, Murdoch had some trouble getting the tone he was seeking for the Daily Mirror. There were plenty of hard-drinking pros among the journalists (this was the school that produced Steve Dunleavy, star of U.S. tabloid television), and their natural inclination was down-market. There was no ideological argument there, but they only seemed capable of producing their own tired formula version of a down-market paper. The Daily Mirror was still coming in second in the circulation war, and even further behind in demographics. Its image was irretrievably down-market, but the advertising dollars in Sydney came from the up-market department stores. So Murdoch looked around for a new editor, someone young and energetic, someone tabloid but with a bit of class. He chose Zell Rabin, an American, who had been the New York correspondent for the Daily Mirror.

Zell, 28, was working happily in New York when Murdoch lured him to Sydney. Zell took journalism seriously, and though few are privy to conversations between a recruiting newspaper owner and a prospective editor, it seems unimaginable that questions about editorial freedom wouldn't be raised.

When Zell arrived in Sydney he certainly seemed as though hed been promised some kind of editorial freedom. But, despite his swagger, the hardheads among the journalists were skeptical. Zell was responsible for what went in the paper, but Murdoch liked checks and balances built into the editorial system. So Zell had no jurisdiction over promotions.

That role fell to my boss, Graham King, the promotions manager. In the time before television existed in Australia, Graham was a draftsman in Adelaide. Once television started Graham wanted to get into it -- desperately. So as soon as Channel 9 Adelaide opened, Graham contacted them and stayed in contact until they gave in and let him work for nothing. With a wife and two young children, a salary of nothing made survival a tenuous business. Eventually, the station manager paid him something, and it led to Graham meeting Murdoch. Channel 9 Adelaide is the first television station Murdoch ever bought.

Soon after this meeting, Graham started his campaign to win a raise. Every day he sent Murdoch a dirty sock with a hole in it and a cover letter saying he couldn't afford to buy new socks. Finally Murdoch relented, gave Graham the raise and gained a loyal and able supporter for the next 30 years.

When Murdoch started the march of a thousand takeovers, Graham followed him to Sydney. Graham was the promotions manager for News Ltd., and he hired me, a 21-year-old, as assistant promotion manager. (Titles were lavishly offered, salaries less so.)

One of my jobs was to go down to the editorial floor each morning around 9, find out what stories were around, select the most promotable, write a couple of 30-second radio commercials and phone them through to the radio station. When the paper hit the streets around 11 a.m., people would buy the Daily Mirror on the basis of a specific story.

On what would become the day of my first meeting with Murdoch, my choices were "Arms Buildup in the Middle East," "Coal Miners to Strike" or "Model Murdered in Love Nest." No question which one was most important in global terms, no question which one was most important in terms of its local impact and there was also no question which one would sell the most newspapers.

Naturally, Zell favored promoting the "Arms Build-Up in the Middle East" story. My mission was to sell papers, however, so I disregarded his directive and went for "Model Murdered in Love Nest." There were a lot of love nests in Sydney in the days before no-fault divorce, and I guessed -- correctly, it turned out -- that the story would be of great interest to lawyers and executives.

When, that afternoon, I heard a voice on the phone saying, "Rupert here. Get down to my office. Now." I first thought Murdoch might want to congratulate me on the day's increased sales -- but from the tone of his voice I sensed he was having difficulty expressing gratitude.

His office was very large and timber-lined, but seemed somehow impermanent, as though it were designed to be enlarged, reduced or moved at a moment's notice if the need arose. But I wasn't thinking about that as I made the long walk from the door to Murdoch's desk.

Zell was sitting on one side, Graham on the other. Graham winked at me behind his hand like Groucho Marx. Zell had the air of a man who had fought the good fight and emerged triumphant. Murdoch was on the phone.

I stood before him, feeling as though I were suspended in time and space. After a burst of staccato monosyllables, he hung up and, without skipping a beat, turned to me and launched into a mighty tirade about the value of good editors and the integrity of the Daily Mirror. Around News Ltd., these words had rarely been uttered together, and I was surprised. I was at the center of a hurricane that filled my ears and my brain. Just as I thought it couldn't possibly get any louder, it did. As his low, grating tone moved up the register, the pressure on the vocal cords was so great that words started to break up.

Tall and skinny as I was, I could feel my body bending like a coconut palm in the onslaught of a great force. Finally, when I thought that only crying could save me, I blurted out the only words I said to him that day: "But sales have gone up."

There was a flicker in his eyes, a momentary pause, a slight loss of rhythm in his desk-pounding -- and then he swept up a pile of Daily Mirrors from his desk and flung them at me. Newspaper fluttered all over the room. I wasn't sure about the protocol. Should I ignore the tabloid sheets fluttering around my ears? Should I pick up the papers as if he had accidentally dropped them? One sheet wrapped itself around my leg. The strength and volume of his last statement -- "Don't argue with the editor again" -- persuaded me simply to leave. I walked out with leg flapping, kicking away the newspaper.

I walked downstairs in shock. I had thought my father a master of abuse,
but Murdoch was a virtuoso. His attack had an operatic quality that I
almost admired. Perhaps most bizarrely, as I withstood this violent
assault, I also detected a note of impartiality in his voice. If he had
added "nothing personal" to his diatribe, I would have believed it. At
that moment, I had been simply someone standing between Murdoch and
where he wanted to go. But my ears were burning, my eyes stinging and
my sense of injustice raging.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- -

The share price of Murdoch's company was at the time going up and down
like a bride's nightdress, and at one point, it was so low that $10,000
Australian would have bought something like 1 percent of News Ltd. Rumor
was the Murdoch family company was buying the shares in the face of a
skeptical market.

Of course, he was right. Within a couple of years, the Daily Mirror
surpassed the Sun in circulation, and a couple of years after that, he
bought the other morning paper, the Daily Telegraph. The Sun folded and
Murdoch combined the Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph. He soon had
the largest circulation newspaper in a two-newspaper city of 4 million
and makes some serious money out of Sydney.

This was back when Murdoch was just getting started: He now is the
world's most powerful controlling owner of an international media
megacorporation. The $10 billion-a-year News Corp., as it's now called,
owns newspapers, TV stations, book publishing companies, cable networks,
20th Century Fox, the Fox TV network and sports teams.

Whenever I think of Murdoch I think of that day in Sydney. As I sat in
my office stinging, Graham dropped in a few minutes later.

"Rupert said you did well down there and wants to offer you a salary

"Christ," I said. "I thought he was going to fire me."

"Nah! Set-up for Zell's benefit. You said the magic words -- sales have
increased. And he also said you picked the right story. Keep it up."

By Keith Bashford

Keith Bashford is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Australian newspapers and magazines. He also has written documentaries shown on U.S. television. He lives in Tasmania, Australia.

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