London, July 19th, 2011. Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful media proprietor the world has ever known, had been called to account for the actions of his tabloid News of the World. Public and politicians alike had been horrified at the revelation the newspaper had accessed the phone messages of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler.
As the committee of British MPs questioned the 80 year old about the hard facts of the phone-hacking scandal, viewers around the world saw a father with apparently shaky knowledge, defer to his son James again and again on detail.
Rupert’s resolve suddenly strengthened, however, as he defended the “family business” – a corporation that girdled the earth with 52,000 employees and nearly 200 newspapers. There was an exemplar, another father, a paragon who couldn’t be touched by questioning:
“I just want to say that I was brought up by a father who was not rich, but who was a great journalist, and he, just before he died, bought a small paper, specifically in his will saying that he was giving me the chance to do good.”
Books on Rupert Murdoch constitute whole shelves in libraries but his father Keith Murdoch (1885-1952) has until now escaped unauthorised scrutiny.
Solid Presbyterian stock
Keith’s father Patrick Murdoch was a minister in Scotland’s Presbyterian church who emigrated to Australia in 1884. Keith was born the following year.
The Murdochs were a family of solid Presbyterian stock with a Calvinistic dedication, propriety and diligence. Their standing in society was high, but Patrick’s clergyman’s stipend was low.
Keith grew up playing with the sons of the wealthy and influential, but did so in patched pants. The importance of capital – or at least access to and friendship with those who had it – was a lesson Keith absorbed early in life.
At 22, Keith left Australia and the security of his father’s manse in suburban Melbourne for the first time. He arrived in London hoping to find immediate success in Fleet Street. The success was slow to come, but come it did as Keith worked to overcome a childhood stammer and forged a career.
During the first World War he became a protégé of the press baron Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Times of London and founder of the Daily Mail. A particular piece of advice would stick with Keith: “Watch the sales during a big murder mystery”, Northcliffe had told him, “especially if there is a woman in it”.
In 1921 Keith returned to Australia as chief editor of the Melbourne Herald and set about an ambitious process of reinventing the newspaper.
Talk of the town
The “improved Herald” conceived by Keith was soon “the talk of the town”, though its circulation still needed to be higher. Keith was moulding the Melbourne Herald on the classic Daily Mail formula.
He had plans to run a crime fiction serial and mount a beauty competition, among other things. Three campaigns – on hospitals, police and the tramways – had been launched. However, actual news, the key driver of circulation, had “been dead”.
On the same day that Keith sat at his desk lamenting this fact, a Melbourne schoolgirl was due to deliver a parcel to an address a couple of blocks away. She never completed her task. Early the next morning she was found in a dead-end passage: Gun Alley. She had been raped and strangled – culprit unknown. Keith finally had his story.
The Herald’s front page on the last day of 1921 broke the news of the “Brutal Murder in the City – Girl of 12 Strangled and Left in Lane”. It was this treatment of the crime that would give the Herald a desperately needed circulation boost and help confirm Keith’s ascendancy. As with the Son of Sam case exploited by Keith’s son on taking the reins of the New York Post half a century later, it would also raise the spectre of media-driven moral panic and cynical “law and order” politics.
Keith sent the New Year’s Eve edition of the Herald that had first reported the murder of Alma Tirtschke to Northcliffe, his mentor in London, as an example of the changes he was making to the paper. In the chief’s detailed feedback the front page was “excellent”, the “news contrast” good. Now with “some big news . . . you will get all the new readers you want”.
An exclusive interview with a doctor "who has made a study of criminology" proposed that "one or more members of an alien race may be responsible"
The “big news” had arrived just in time. The narrative of the murder, the hunt for the killer and the trial would be skilfully broken down and teased out to fill page after page for the next four months. As Keith had recently learned, pictures were key. As no recent photograph of the victim was initially available, an artist was commissioned to bring her likeness up to date, complete with school uniform. A photograph of the grim alley was also published on the front page, an X marking the spot where her body had been found.
With no immediate leads to follow, the immigration and race agenda was poured into the vacuum, not least by the Herald. It claimed that “features in connection with the crime” suggested “the work of a foreigner”, revealing to its readers that detectives were tracking the movements “of certain men of foreign nationality – Chinese, Germans and Italians”.
An exclusive interview with a doctor “who has made a study of criminology” proposed that “one or more members of an alien race may be responsible” as they were “notorious for actions of this kind against white women, and even white children”; it was “hard to imagine white men sharing in such a vile business”.
Keith brought his readers into the hunt, with headlines declaring “Public Eager to Help Police”. Letters published on the front page gave voice to the demands of apparent correspondents, bearing everyman monikers such as “Father of One”, that a substantial reward be offered for the capture of the murderer.
As well as supporting this call, an editorial backed the “excellent” idea suggested by a former detective during a Herald interview that the full strength of the police should be focused on the crime with “minor matters . . . held over”.
The following day’s front page was dominated by a photograph of the three senior detectives, “Hot on Murderer’s Trail”, who had been “snapshotted as they were discussing the newest developments”.
Bowing to the Herald’s push, the government put up £250 as a reward. After 10 days with no arrests made, the Herald raised the stakes by announcing it was matching the government’s “miserly” reward. The front-page story directly underneath indicated the kind of fevered mania to which the populace had been stirred. “Australia’s Accusing Fingers – Use of Concentrated Will-Power Suggested” relayed one correspondent’s idea that if on a given signal everyone in the Commonwealth directed their attention to Melbourne, pointed their fingers and stated, “Give yourself up and confess”, the “irresistible tidal wave of energy directed toward the murderer” would be impossible to resist.
A very real and effective pressure was, however, being exerted by Keith through the Herald on the government, which was forced to increase the reward fourfold. “The first offer was utterly inadequate, and it was necessary to tell the authorities so,” an editorial declared. With developments drying up, Keith turned his fire on the initial conduct of the police and their treatment of the Tirtschke family.
Following two days of intense criticism, the police suddenly arrested a suspect: Colin Ross, licensee of the Australian Wine Cafe in the Eastern Arcade near where Tirtschke’s body had been found.
The Herald announced the breakthrough with a full-width headline. Its account of Ross’s arrest and questioning included a description of a photographer being frustrated in trying to take a picture by a “sympathetic” detective stepping in front of the suspect and waving his hand. (The police would not again attempt to shield Ross from the snappers.)
Not to be thwarted, the following day the Herald published a courtroom sketch of Ross at the inquest into the death, and the day after that the paper managed to present a “recent photograph” on its front page, unconcerned that this might compromise a fair trial.
As the inquest continued, Ross’s face would be juxtaposed with a blown-up and embellished image of Tirtschke taken from a recent school photograph the Herald had now managed to track down. Another prominently used Herald image would help frame the public’s perception of Ross: a shot of the suspect handcuffed, being led from the police van.
On February 20th, 1922 the trial began. The Herald split its front page between a light-hearted account of the “wild rush” of the thousands who had queued to gain the few places in the public gallery and a full “List of Jurymen”, together with their addresses and occupations. This unusual move would draw criticism from many quarters for the pressure it placed upon the jurors.
With perfectly planned timing by Keith, the bumper edition of the newspaper covering the first day of the trial also saw the launch of the new serial story secured from the Daily Mail. Filling a full page, The Vengeance of Henry Jarroman was ideally suited to Melbourne’s current obsession with crime.
The story opened with its protagonist, who had escaped the hangman’s noose after being sentenced to death, declaring, “I have been in prison for twenty years for a crime I did not commit.” Irony would be heaped on irony. As the deeply flawed trial of Ross proceeded, the Herald’s readers would also follow Jarroman’s exciting quest for natural justice.
It "was great luck getting the murder story, and I doubt if I would have had nearly as good a report to make on sales if some such thing had not happened along"
As the trial continued the cast of characters provided perfect news fodder, with aggrieved barmaids, mystery witnesses, and a fortune teller named Madam Gurkha who coincidentally advertised her services in the Herald’s classifieds every afternoon.
Ross presented a solid alibi backed by his family. His defence counsel George Maxwell took to task witnesses for the prosecution – including a barmaid Ross had sacked and a prison cellmate who claimed to have heard his confession – for changing their evidence after reading details in the newspapers.
Maxwell pointed to the “press and public insisting the crime must be sheeted home” to someone, combined with the rewards, as motivating the “disreputable quintette” of witnesses.
Even before his appointment and the start of the trial, Maxwell had been compelled to write to Keith complaining of the hate mail he was receiving following the Herald’s report that he might be Ross’s counsel. Keith chose to publish excerpts of the letters from Maxwell.
On February 24th, 1922, the day of the judge’s summing up, a photograph of the “jury being shepherded to a hotel for lunch”, their faces clearly visible, dominated the Herald’s front page. As they retired at 5.20pm Keith, fearing being trumped by the morning papers, primed the presses and advised his readers that “If the jury’s verdict in the Ross trial is given this evening a Special Edition of ‘The Herald’ will be published”.
But it was midday the next day when the verdict of “Wilful Murder” was returned and the sentence of death passed. Though Ross would proclaim his innocence to his end, the Herald declared that the tragic drama had “reached its sternly logical conclusion”. It reproduced the embellished photograph of Tirtschke under a single-word headline, “AVENGED”.
The story rumbled on for another couple of months as Ross mounted a desperate appeal. Some prominent figures already regarded the trial as a severe miscarriage of justice.
In a swiftly published book on the case, Ross’s barrister TC Brennan regarded the trial as “lynch law”. He warned that in future juries must be “reminded of the necessity of never being stampeded by newspaper or popular clamor into preconceived ideas of the guilt of any man”.
AJ Buchanan, a figure who straddled the legal and newspaper worlds, stated in the book’s preface that public opinion had been “inflamed as it has not been inflamed within the memory of this generation”.
On April 24th,1922 the Herald’s headline declared simply “Ross Executed – Statement on Scaffold – Protested His Innocence”. Its account that “death was instantaneous” glossed the grim truth. The drop from the scaffold had been neither quick nor quiet. Keith’s editorial on the day of the execution acknowledged that those opposed to capital punishment had rallied to Ross’s side, as they did for “every condemned criminal”.
However, the feeling of the “general public” in this case, that the sentence of death had been a “hateful but imperative duty”, was correct. Keith ended his editorial in unwavering terms: Ross had received “a fair and exhaustive trial” and “was rightfully convicted and condemned”.
But the man, who had been condemned by the Herald and received an excruciatingly slow death by strangulation, the hanging botched, was innocent. Ross’s family would have to wait 80 years before his name was cleared.
Kevin Morgan, a librarian, felt compelled to study not only the trial but the contemporary coverage of the crime. He soon realised that it would have been impossible for the jury not to have been swayed or influenced by the reports in the newspapers. Morgan argued that this was one of the first high-profile Australian cases in which it could rightly be said that trial by media had occurred.
Morgan’s diligence led to the remarkable discovery of surviving samples of hair from the actual murderer. A forensic analysis including DNA testing proved incontrovertibly that they were not Ross’s. For all the whipped-up public panic over immigrants, seedy bar owners and the danger of crazed strangers, the likely culprit was a relative of the victim.
In 2008, Colin Ross finally received an official pardon.
Keith found Northcliffe’s letters assessing the Herald during the period of the Gun Alley crime coverage to be a “Godsend”. He reported to his mentor that circulation had rocketed by nearly 40 per cent from the day he had taken the reins as editor.
The key reason for this was clear to Keith: “You remarked ‘When a sensation comes you will get all the new readers you want.’ Perfectly true. I had only put on about 8,000 when we got a mystery murder – an unprecedented one, leading to such scenes as mounted police having to be called out to check the crowds about the residence of the supposed murderer. That left us with a steady 125,000. Then came the trial, when we were averaging 230,000 or thereabouts, counting our sporting edition.
“I started the Jarroman serial. Unfortunately I was in Sydney and the serial was not sufficiently boomed. But here we are today with a steady 144,000 [despite] no murder news.”
He signed off this letter stressing how it “was great luck getting the murder story, and I doubt if I would have had nearly as good a report to make on sales if some such thing had not happened along”.
In his next letter to Northcliffe, Keith acknowledged that rival papers had attacked him for being a “Yellow Journalist”. The West Australian, at the very outset of the Gun Alley coverage, had described the “crude sensationalism” of the Herald: its pandering to “the morbid cravings of a section of its readers . . . an outrage of decent journalism”.
Another publication had charged him with bringing “Daily Mail journalism to Australia”. “I wish I had!” exclaimed Keith.
This is an edited extract from The Making of Murdoch – Power, Politics and What Shaped The Man Who Owns The Media, a biography of Keith Murdoch by Tom Roberts. It is published by IB Tauris