It’s just a footnote in Australian history now – the moment Rupert Murdoch went beyond scandals, scurrilous headlines and topless babes on Page 3 and embraced “fake news” as part of his repertoire for power and profits.
On Nov. 11, 1975, the Queen’s surrogate, Gov. General John Kerr, a Labor appointee, sacked the Gough Whitlam’s Labor government after months of incessant attacks from the nation’s conservative press and Murdoch and conservative stonewalling critical appropriations bills in the upper house, the Senate.
Whitlam’s government was replaced by the Liberal Party Malcolm Fraser’s conservatives for the interim period before the election that would be scheduled for Dec. 13.
The country was thrown into crisis – the worst constitutional ever in Australian history. Unions representing just over half of the work force took to streets, thousands rallied for Whitlam whose last hope came down to whether the final economic report would be favorable and show inflation falling and employment rising.
Murdoch, who by 1975 was a publishing magnate with newspapers in London and the U.S., flew into Sydney as the crisis unfolded to take charge of the Australian, his national daily.
Several times a year Murdoch would sit on the News Desk of the Australian and display his brilliance as a journalist. His insight into the news, what made stories important and what would attract readers and stick in their heads was legendary.
His news moxie enabled him to turn a failing newspaper he inherited in Adelaide into a global news network.
I was a reporter at the Australian and Sunday morning assignment editor at the Australian where I had worked since mid-1974 when I emigrated from the U.S. and was fascinated by Murdoch’s virtuoso performances on the News Desk.
This election was a big deal for Murdoch who had helped Labor win power in 1972 for the first time in a quarter century but had turned against them with sustained editorial attacks.
Sitting as the news editor during the campaign period, he created a big stir in the Australian newsroom with his slanted editing and rewriting of copy from reporters covering the election, once throwing a political reporter’s copy in the waste basket and writing his story himself – with the reporter’s byline.
Tensions came to a climax on a Friday afternoon barely a week before voters went to the polls when the interim government was set to release the latest economic data.
Murdoch exploded when he saw the numbers: inflation down, employment up. He immediately got interim Labor Minister, Anthony Street on the phone and told him loudly and in no uncertain terms to get him the “right’’ numbers in half an hour.
Surely enough, revised numbers arrived: So, the Australian reported exclusively the economic numbers were bad, the nail in the coffin to Labor’s hopes.
On Sunday morning, several reporters talked of nothing else and decided to do something about it. We reached out to the leadership of the journalists union but they wanted no part of it.
Our last hope was a provision that allowed members to petition for a meeting so we rounded up support from several dozen and started enough people talking about what happened that union leaders called a meeting for 6 p.m. Monday
About 600 journalists from the Australian and Murdoch’s Sydney tabloids, the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror showed up.
When I started speaking maybe 40 or 50 supported striking in protest to Murdoch’s “fake news” assault on our profession.
I rambled on about ethics and freedom and ideals and the disgrace of Murdoch’s journalism when a drunken columnist for the Mirror stood up and denounced me as a Yank, a septic tank, who shouldn’t be telling them what to do. The more he ranted and screamed, the more people seemed to change their minds.
A majority voted to strike. Nobody went back to work that night or in the morning. Monday night a second union meeting was held and we agreed to end the strike, our point was made – Murdoch was exposed.
He spent the last days of the campaign explaining himself on television and when the votes were counted Labor was routed.
As for me, I was fired three months later and went to work for Newsweek and the Guardian as Australian correspondent and Murdoch went on to prove himself the greatest news baron of all time.
Kaye, now retired, is a former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News. Kaye worked for newspapers from Alaska to Australia and several other news organizations, including the Associated Press. He lives in Orange CT.
This story was originally published in the Winsted Citizen