Winning study isolating the 'Murdoch gene'

Five years ago when Rupert Murdoch was called by a House of Commons inquiry to give his account of the phone-hacking allegations against the News of the World, the media magnate referred to the integrity of his father, a journalist who had exposed the scandal of Gallipoli.

It was a clear example of family myth building, according to the historian Tom D.C. Roberts, whose unauthorised biography of Keith Murdoch, Before Rupert, Keith Murdoch and the Birth of A Dynasty has won Australia's richest biography prize.

The legend omits that Murdoch, the war correspondent, used his eyewitness account of the defeat to became a political player.

He campaigned to send Australian troops to the Western front, lobbied for conscription and unsuccessfully plotted against Major-General John Monash.

"Throughout the First World War he acts basically as a spin doctor, and a fixer with his own agenda that he rolls out," Roberts said. "This purist view of telling truth to power and the people? No, the main thing was he was using that letter to get his foot very firmly under the table there in London.

"Keith himself conceded the [Gallipoli] letter itself was full of exaggerations, errors. He over-coloured it as he later had to admit. He didn't even advocate ending the campaign in the letter, writing instead of his hope the cabinet would decide to hang on through the winter for another offensive.

"There were two things Keith wanted to promote: Australia's contribution to the war effort and himself."

Roberts' independent, scholarly study of Murdoch's journey from journalist to courtier successfully isolated what judge Peter Cochrane has called "Murdoch gene".

"The author draws on a remarkable range of sources, many for the first time, to show how the founding father succeeded in his boundless ambition," the judges said. "The life is richly contextualised, particularly with reference to war, high politics, modernism and modernity, and notably the advances that Murdoch was quick to add to his newsprint business - radio, newsreels and air travel.

"With the title as a clue, the full meaning of this legacy builds slowly as the masterly narrative reveals the template for corporate ambition that was handed to Rupert."

Roberts was presented with the $25,000 National Biography Award at the State Library of NSW on Monday.

The media historian first became interested in the Murdochs in 2008 while working as a researcher in London on a corporate history commemorating the 20th anniversary of Sky News.

He was fascinated by "this constant sense of apprehension or at least a need to feel that the family, in particular the then head of Sky, James Murdoch, would be happy with the outcome".

Roberts did not seek the assistance of the family, and an early approach to Dame Elisabeth went unanswered. Many Australian publishers he approached "shied away from the topic".

An interesting crunch point in the family's fortunes is looming with Fox News in America.

"Rupert's backing of Trump through Fox News is absolutely essential to keeping the President afloat and aligned with Republican support in America," Roberts said. "If he were to decide to pull the plug on Fox's blanket support and excuse-making for all the pretty awful stuff Trump is doing, that would be a very interesting moment."

The US President would do well to heed history. At the time of Rupert's birth, Roberts discloses Keith claimed he chose and made prime minister Joseph Lyons. When Lyons' usefulness to him ended, Keith Murdoch reportedly said: "I put him there ??? and I'll put him out."

From Before Rupert (University of Queensland Press):

The young Murdoch sought treatment from Lionel Logue, the same Australian expert featured in The King's Speech, for a stammer, "so bad that he often had to resort to drafting notes in order to communicate, even to buy a train ticket".

In 1924 Murdoch published an article on the "Problem of the Unfit" in society, advocating some "would be happier in a lethal chamber". After World War II, Murdoch remained a member of the Eugenics Society of Victoria.

Murdoch was engaged twice before he married, at age 43, the 18-year-old Elisabeth Greene, who was to become the Murdoch family matriarch. His first, secret fiance, was the daughter of a future British Prime Minister.

Before his death, Keith confided his deep concern about Rupert's "alarming left-wing views" and prospects: "I can assure him of a fine opportunity in the newspaper world, but it will be useless unless he has the right qualities and these are not easy to obtain."

This story Winning study isolating the 'Murdoch gene' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.