How a young Murdoch fought his early battles, and won

Rupert Murdoch
Image caption Murdoch in 1960, with the Sydney tabloid his rivals hoped would sink him

Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation is at the centre of the phone hacking scandal engulfing British politics. But how did the press baron go from inheriting an evening newspaper in a sleepy Australian city to becoming a global media titan?

By the middle of the 1960s Rupert Murdoch was on the cusp of his transformation from local press baron to owner of a national newspaper.

But before that was to happen, he had a newspaper to get out. And things were not going smoothly.

As the first issue of his new national daily paper, the Australian, rolled off the presses in Canberra, at a furious rate, a sharp-eyed colleague noticed errors on the front page. The paper was carrying the wrong date and a glaring spelling error.

Eric Walsh, who had noticed the mistakes, mentioned them to the paper's deputy editor, and suggested he "tell Rupert", who was standing over the presses in shirtsleeves.

But the deputy editor ignored the appeal, twice.

"I think they were all frightened of Rupert," says Mr Walsh, although he remembers the ambitious press baron as "a very with-the-mob, hands-on guy".

Mr Walsh decided to take matters into his own hands, telling the boss himself. Mr Murdoch immediately ordered the presses be halted and all the printed copies pulped.

It was perhaps that split image of Rupert Murdoch that was in evidence on Tuesday this week, when he faced a committee of British MPs, who wanted answers to questions about the phone hacking scandal at his News of the World paper in the UK.

Commentators observed a Wizard of Oz feel about the proceedings. Mr Murdoch, who for years had instilled fear in those British politicians who sought the patronage of his papers, appeared less intimidating than presumed.

Image caption Murdoch at the select committee hearing - commentators observed an unexpected fallibility

Indeed, as he announced to the watching world, he was "humbled" by the scandal.

But back in July 1964, Mr Murdoch's fallibility would have been hard to spot.

His new title, the Australian, was Australia's first broadsheet paper with a distribution spanning the entire country.

It was an ambitious plan, and a risky one, but it came to symbolise Mr Murdoch's approach to business.

By the time he embarked on the Australian, Mr Murdoch already owned newspapers in every state in the country. His reach had expanded far beyond the sleepy city of Adelaide, to which he had returned in the early 1950s on the death of his father, Keith.

Sir Keith Murdoch had owned an evening tabloid, the Adelaide News. Rupert assumed control of the paper only to find it under attack from the rival Adelaide Herald.

Image caption The sleepy city where Mr Murdoch's rise began - Adelaide in the 1950s

Rupert Murdoch went into overdrive to fight back. And through a now familiar combination of bigger headlines and brasher stories, his title swiftly came to dominate the market.

After his early success, Mr Murdoch moved quickly to expand his business, buying newspapers in Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory.

Then, in 1960, he bought a struggling Sydney paper, the Daily Mirror, from the Fairfax group, which owned the big-circulation Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

"Fairfax ran the Mirror down and tried to entice Rupert to buy it to put him out of business," remembers Mr Walsh, a journalist who worked for Mr Murdoch at the time.

Image caption The path to power - Murdoch meets President Kennedy in the early 1960s

"They got Rupert on the hook, he bought it. Then he brought in very good journalists from other papers, and within 18 months he was out-selling the Fairfax paper."

"Fairfax totally underestimated Rupert. They thought they'd get rid of him easily. They didn't."

Rupert Murdoch was barely in his 30s but the "boy publisher" - as he became known - was still not taken seriously by the media or political establishment. He was determined to have his voice heard in the political arena and saw a gap in the market that would get him there.

"He dreamed of the Australian," says Mr Walsh. "It would be a different broadsheet from the Age and the Herald which were the only other broadsheets which mattered in Australia in that it would be a national circulating paper, and that was Rupert's path to matter."

An interview recorded in the early 1960s captured the young Murdoch's desire for influence. "Of course one enjoys the feeling of power [of being a newspaper proprietor]," he says. "I get very involved in the newspapers themselves, and sometimes in public arguments that we're conducting."

At a time when newspaper production was still primitive, and the challenges of delivering a national paper across the vast continent of Australia was a massive undertaking.

The pages of the Australian were printed in Canberra and cardboard facsimiles had to be flown around to all the state capitals.

William Shawcross, one of Murdoch's biographers, explains the logistics behind the operation: "In the early days, very often there was fog in Canberra airport which stopped the planes taking off. Rupert would be driving out in his pyjamas very often begging the pilots to take off saying, 'it's not fog, it's just light mist'.

"Nine times out of 10 they did get there, but not always."

It was this determination and dogged persistence that would come to characterise Murdoch's enterprise.

Image caption Rupert Murdoch's paper today

Initially, the venture nearly bankrupted his company, News Limited.

"He was losing - in those days - a lot of money, over £25,000 a week which is over a million pounds a year," says Mr Walsh. "But because this was his avenue towards mattering politically he stuck with it. It [the Australian] is a very influential paper now, not universally popular politically but a very influential and very successful paper."

Mr Murdoch had established his pattern for success - spotting an opportunity, sticking with it until it made a profit, and gaining huge influence as a result.

It was the same recipe that saw him acquire his first foreign title in 1969 - the now defunct News of the World - and one he was to repeat again and again around the world.

"That's what he was good at," says Shawcross. "He always saw what was a good buy."

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