Inside Story

Shaping the Herald: Sir Keith Murdoch seen through his confidential memoranda

As managing editor of the Melbourne Herald, Keith Murdoch battled employers, sensation-mongering and overly large headlines in a remarkable series of notes to his senior executives, writes Michael Cannon in this essay first published in Nation in June 1963

Michael Cannon 29 June 2013 5181 words

“A hero of Gallipoli”: Keith Murdoch in uniform, probably during the first world war.
Photo: National Library of Australia MS 2823. Papers of Sir Keith Arthur Murdoch, 1908–67

AMONG the papers left by the late Sydney Deamer, who died last October, is a set of the confidential Managing Editor’s Notes which were issued daily to a few senior executives of the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd by the managing director, Keith Murdoch, between March and August of 1929. So far as is known, no other copies of these daily notes are in existence, at least outside the Melbourne Herald’s own archives.

Other newspaper chiefs in other places, though hardly ever in Australia, have adopted the practice of circulating memoranda to the staff containing comments on that day’s production with due mixtures of praise, criticism and exhortation. A special feature of this series of notes by Keith Murdoch was their strictly limited circulation and the curious fact that he had copies printed each day on good quality quarto notepaper. Murdoch’s reason for this was not stated, but it may be possible to guess at it. Besides being printed, the Notes were prepared in crisp, direct language and short, newspaper-like paragraphs, suggesting that Murdoch wished to identify himself with the men he was addressing and set them the more effective an example of the virtues of clarity and precision that he preached. Early each morning, the “Managing Editor’s Notes” (it is significant that he chose that title and had retained it long after he became managing director) were set up in the rather stylish type of the day, and half a dozen copies were struck off for the top executives before they started work on that day’s issue. They were one of the means by which he instructed, challenged and inspired his executives to build for him one of the most remarkable newspaper empires in the world.

Six evenings a week the young chief executive (forty-three at the time) scrutinised line by line the newspaper of which he was most proud, the Herald, and wrote down his penetrating and illuminating comments. (By comparison, the Sun News Pictorial, the morning tabloid, received only passing notice.) In communication with such a small group of his peers, Murdoch felt free on occasions to give expression to his aspirations and his philosophy of journalism, especially evening journalism.

The first issue of the Notes, dated 26 March 1929, began quietly:

The object of these notes is to help our hard-working executive, and their circulation will be restricted to “The Heads.”

Our papers are doing well, but an increasing effort is called for to make them better.

“The Herald” needs more good reading and more space for it, better arrangement of advertising, and more condensation and variety of minor items.

Page 1 last night will be well read. We lose in contrast by publishing two cricketers’ brides in the same page, but have something for everybody…

The headings on the Lloyd George item will rightly anger many thousands of readers. They make us appear to have emphasised the item gleefully in the hope of “dishing” Labor…

I think the heading types are too big…

THE last two themes, headline types and the paper’s tone towards Labor, were to occupy Murdoch’s attention for some time. The modern reader, looking back through the slowly decaying newspaper files of thirty-four years ago on which Murdoch was commenting, might be surprised that these old-fashioned newspapers could ever have influenced anyone. The Herald, then in its ninetieth year, was a big broadsheet of twenty-four to thirty-six pages, with eight wide columns across the page. Headings were all single-column, except for the occasional major sensation, and were set in 18 or 24 point type, which means the letters were about a quarter of an inch deep. Body matter was set solid, so that every column carried some 1500 words of reading matter.

Most news pictures were kept for a regular section on the back page, while the front page might occasionally include a picture as big as two columns wide by six inches deep. Yet even this presentation was condemned as “sensationalism” by many readers who were still used to seeing classified advertisements on Page 1, and Murdoch himself waged a continuous, finally unsuccessful campaign to keep down the size of heading types.

Since type display was comparatively unimportant, newspapers succeeded in those days on the quality of their newsgathering and writing – the two factors which get most attention in Murdoch’s Notes. The reporting staffs were large (about fifty on the “Herald”) and they had what we would regard today as an enormous amount of space to fill, though Murdoch was always worried that the drapers’ advertisements (which in any case were “far too black”) were encroaching on his precious news space.

As for the “gleeful” anti-Labor headings of which he complained on the first day, they ran across one column in 18 point type, and read:


The affair was, after all, a considerable distance from Australia. But Murdoch’s concern for the susceptibilities of Labor again found expression in his Notes for the next day: “The disastrous note of ‘Dish Labor’ is again evident in the British election article. The whole article is too general for such a deep but open subject.”

In this case, the London correspondent’s offending article read: “Labor is at a disadvantage, owing to the weakness of its exchequer.” Murdoch returned to the battle on April I:

“…we dropped again into a ‘Dish Labor’ attitude (in report of Queensland election results). It MUST be realised that we are not a Nationalist organ. Scores of thousands of our readers are being encouraged to regard us as biased, and to discount all our political articles.

“The writer of this article bases his undisguised anti-Labor hopes upon Federal elections, ignoring the well known fact that numbers vote Labor in State po1itics who go Nationalist at other times.”

THE year 1929 was, of course, the onset of the great Depression. Whatever Murdoch’s policy may have been in later years, in 1929 he was anxious that the voice of Labor should find full expression in his columns. Some may feel that he did this to win extra circulation. But the further one reads through his Notes and sees how he gave instructions which could only antagonise the powerful and often malignant capitalists of the day, the more the conviction grows that in 1929 at least he was deeply committed to the public welfare. When he asked in his Notes for 23 April, “Are people really starving?” he was not playing the Bourbon (three weeks previously, he had written “We should think out ways of giving big help in the unemployment crisis. Good men are wandering every suburb in almost starving condition”). The question was intended to get his executives thinking about the problem of growing unemployment. That same day the Herald had published an item (“a remarkable story,” commented Murdoch):


One Walter Robertson, a forty-three-year-old AIF veteran, had shambled into Footscray (Victoria) police station clad in rags, and asked a constable to lock him up. “1 have not been able to get work for twelve months. I have had nothing to eat for three days,” he told the police. When they refused to put him in the cells, he staggered outside, picked up a rock, and smashed the police station window. They locked him up and fed him. “He ate like a wolf,” said the constable.

April Fools’ Day of 1929 had brought Herald readers the news that there were some 20,000 men unemployed in Melbourne. Commenting on plans for municipal relief, the Herald said: “If by some miracle the deserving unemployed could curb their hunger for another nine or ten weeks they could be assured of some relief by this date. This is poor solace to those men urgently wanting work now.”

The result of Murdoch’s request to his executive to “think out ways” of doing something constructive was seen on 16 May, when a long leading article outlined the newspaper’s ideas for a comprehensive system of charity throughout Melbourne “so that no case of want and distress will this winter go unrelieved.” The Herald’s annual Blanket Appeal, still in existence, is an odd survival of that era.

“I feel we miss a lot of the real life of the community and record too much of the trivial and bizarre,” Murdoch wrote as the Depression deepened. “We want constructive news – the facts of employment, factory output, railway running, new works, discussions in city and country – and all this from other States also.”

Late in April 1929, the economist Professor L.F. Giblin had suggested to a Constitutional Club luncheon that, among other things, all pleasure motor cars should be scrapped and employers should wear hair shirts to remind them of their responsibility to provide work. The Managing Editor was interested, and also had a technical point to make to his team:

“Professor Giblin’s address yesterday was of great importance. I wish we had done it thoroughly. We should never put a luncheon address under the last minute news heading. It suggests that our last-minute news is early afternoon.”

THIS sense of time and the place of time in readers’ receptivity is a recurring feature of the Notes, and nowhere else does Keith Murdoch bring out more clearly his conception of the essence of the evening newspaper. On 23 May, for instance, after warmly commending the staff for its follow-up of a story of a desecration of the Sydney Cenotaph that had broken on the previous night, he wrote: “We are naturally apt to miss late night events from other States, because our men think they have been covered by the morning papers.

“This No Man’s Time between morning and evening papers is worth a special study in itself.

“An analogous case tonight is the Master Builders’ statement in ‘Argus’ and ‘Age.’ It is a sensational statement.

“I would have gone into the position fully tonight, because: (1) most readers would miss its import in their hurried reading of the morning papers, and (2) those who did read it would have liked to study it at their leisure.

“Some day the evening paper will take its place as the only journal that is read thoroughly.

“We will get there by finding space for salient facts of all sensational and important morning paper news, treating it in our own fresh way.

“Perhaps, some day we should become a complete newspaper, covering all the news of the 24 hours. Briefly, of course, but adequately.”

The same consciousness of time had made Murdoch say in his very first Note: “I doubt if Monday criticisms of Saturday night music are worthwhile, but they should be at 1east short and decently headed ‘By The Herald Music Critic’.’“ As usual, he was putting his views to his team as a suggestion rather than a command. And, as usual, if he thought the suggestion was not heeded, he would repeat the point more strongly. So we find him underlining and explaining the basis for his view two months later (21 May): “A Saturday concert is emphatically not worth three-quarters col. by Monday evening.

“A similar problem confronts us with first nights at theatres.

“We want critics who will say pungent, distinctive things in brief space. The public does not want repetition of the morning paper style of criticisms. The “Herald” criticisms should be distinctive.

“No other evening paper in the world carries our wordy, morning paper style of criticism.”

On most days, Murdoch’s Notes would begin with a general word of commendation and then settle into particular points of praise and blame. If one trait marked the older generation of newspaper proprietor, it was his fervent interest in and knowledge of every last complex process in newspaper production. No part of the Herald operation was excluded from the sweep of Murdoch’s eye. He took a fastidious interest in the quality of the inking and the paper, and would pick up several copies of the Herald in various suburban points on the way home to carry out spot checks. In his concern about a detail like House Advertisements (fill-up and other advertisements for the company’s other publications), he was in advance of some newspaper managers thirty-four years later. “Why are our House Advertisements the worst in the paper? They discount our advertising columns. One way to improve them would be to charge the journals full rates.” On 16 May, “Pages 4 and 5 good. Do we give Mr Frank Tait too many interviews?” The present Sir Frank Tait, a big advertiser in 1929, had got all of two inches near the bottom of a column to announce Nellie Stewart’s farewell performance in Sweet Nell of Old Drury at the King’s and to say that she would probably appear later in Trilby. And on 11 May, “Are we justified in ascribing Church Notes to Benson?” where the reference is to another surviving Melbourne knight.

Murdoch, a son of the manse, had to wrestle with a moral problem in the high proportion of advertising-to-news space in Thursday editions of the Herald which carried the big retail ads. Thursday after Thursday, the ratio brushed Murdoch’s conscience and he told himself that a return to more prosperous business conditions would permit a redress. On 16 May, he wrote in the Notes: “Tonight’s ‘Herald’ is a fine literary production, but advertisements dominate the news. A leading advertiser called recently to say that our Thursday paper was ‘disgraceful.’ I don’t think our issue today fair to the public.” He had a similar inner problem over the Saturday issues which, because of their sporting cover, were not planned on a similar basis to those of weekday numbers. Thus, on 11 May, “The Saturday paper is a ‘ramp’ on the public. We could not carry on like this for lang.” Today’s newspaper reader would not object to such a “ramp,” consisting of page after page of general news, kick-for-kick sporting reports, special articles on the week’s events, and a general feeling of creativity throughout the paper.

HARDLY less persistent were the moral problems created for Murdoch by the Herald serials, of which readers received a sustaining slab each night. A new serial, “The House of the Green Eyes,” by an Australian writer, Hilda Bridges, was engaging his attention at this time. “We should not advertise every serial as ‘thrilling,’” he wrote. “One of our faults, in many ways expressed, is lack of reserve.” Again: “I fear that the serial write-up cheapens us. It reads like a cheap shocker.” And three weeks later, “The blemish tonight is the dreadful illustration of the serial – crude, revolting and damaging.” (This episode of “The House of Green Eyes” had a tiny single-column drawing of two men finding a skeleton.) A month later Murdoch had reached the opinion that the job of selecting and preparing serials was too much for a busy sub-editor and would have to be treated as specialist work. “Do not unnecessarily cheapen the paper by ‘kiss photographs’,” he wrote on 4 April. “The latter are unprintable outside ‘Beckett’s Budget’ (a scandal sheet of the day).”

His sense of propriety was also pricked by a well-intentioned cartoon of Will Dyson, “The Death of Death – An Easter Vision,” which appeared in the “Herald” on the day before Good Friday: “We had a rule some years ago never to put the crucifixion or even THE cross in a cartoon. It is a debatable rule, but personally I favour the old rule.” Still, Murdoch found it necessary to remind his colleagues on 25 June that “Pretty girls always make better pictures for the Woman’s page than plain ones.” He also advanced an assessment, on behalf of women readers, that “One fashion picture is enough for any one day. Many women don’t like fashion photographs. They prefer line drawings. They want to see how things are made.” And he posed a couple of curly questions for his sub-editors on another household matter: “Should we give such free publicity to the Housewives’ Association vegetable growers? Only if thoroughly satisfied as to quality, value, and the need for the effort. Who gets the profits?”

Such a master of the newspaperman’s craft had little need or desire to draw on examples from other papers in order to beat his own colleagues over the heads. In the quality of photographic reproduction and printing, however, he continually drew attention to the successes of the Argus and with a dry sense of fairness he once observed, on 24 April: “Today’s best pictures are, strange to say, those in the ‘Age’.” On another occasion he confided: “Our advertising people seem to have the ‘Argus’ and ‘Age’ well down today. The Heads in Collins Street and Elizabeth Street have been most tearful at our meetings recently.”

Murdoch equally shunned the Sydney–Melbourne rivalries of his day. “I particularly dislike slurs on Sydney, especially when only half-deserved,” he wrote on 6 April. “We had a very bad one the other day, when we spoke of Sydney’s newspapers as the world’s worst.” (He was no less offended a few days later when the Herald printed a letter from a defender of Sydney who coined the word Smelbourne.) In May of 1929, Murdoch paid a visit to Sydney, and the report he put down in his Managing Editor’s Notes on that occasion, some six years after the final rout of Hugh Denison’s attempt to lead his Associated Newspapers Ltd in an invasion of the Melbourne evening field, is worth quoting in full. It is dated 31 May:

My impressions on coming back from Sydney are:

(l) Melbourne people are as much behind Sydney people as news-givers as Adelaide people (according to Mr Deamer’s experience) are behind Melbourne people.

This is not because there is more activity in Sydney, but because competition makes the reporter and the sub-editor more alert, and more determined to get good matter.

(2) Sydney papers are more sharply pointed, and have less waste of words.

“It is estimated,” “it is expected,” and other bad phrases to be found in the Herald tonight are not in Sydney papers. Competition has brought definiteness and sharpness.

(3) We have something to learn in the make-up of early pages in a thirty-six-page paper. Light streamer heads over the principal item are preferable to a weak display of news endeavouring vainly to stand up against big black advertising.

(4) There is less black advertising, and it is handled better.

(5) Our Leader Page is the best in Australia. Its fault is occasional dullness.

(6) I wish we could have a daily commercial column like that of the [Sydney] Sun. The compression and fullness of the market and company news is also admirable.

The Herald is a fuller newspaper than anything in Sydney, and our Sun is the best tabloid in Australia.

IN THE period covered by the Notes, two industrial disputes were setting the stage for the full horror of the Depression – the timber workers’ strike and the mine owners’ lockout. In both cases Murdoch fought the employers and the Bruce–Page government through his newspapers.

The timber workers’ strike, involving 20,000 men throughout Australia, started after the timber merchants persuaded Judge Lukin, of the Arbitration Court, to increase working hours from forty-four to forty-eight (which meant Saturday work again), and to reduce their average wages by 19 shillings a week. The entire trade union movement and ACTU backed the timber workers’ decision to strike. The union was fined the maximum £1000 by Judge Lukin for taking part in an “illegal strike.” The strike being illegal, the dole was not payable, and there was soon widespread hardship.

Murdoch and his men fought quite bitterly in swinging public support behind the unions. On 6 April, for instance, the following story described a timber striker’s family: “Minnie is a little girl not yet six years old… Daddy is on strike and Mummy hasn’t got any breakfast. So Minnie comes to school hungry, her big, pathetic-looking brown eyes staring out of a white, pinched face.”

Yes, it is the Melbourne Herald talking… not the local Communist sheet! By 1 May the timber strike was in its thirteenth week, and Murdoch wrote:

“Our box on the cause of the strike is not fair to the men. We cannot be too careful in such matters when thousands of men are feeling sore, and suspicious of their critics’ motives.

“People want to know exactly what the Vic. Master Builders’ Association is; who are its members, and why it takes up its attitude. We should not accept official statements.”

And on 18 May: “Could we with more firmness induce interviewed people to give their names? The statements of ‘employers,’ Col. 7, are of doubtful value. They even suggest that we allow employers to use us as their doormat. Anonymity should be fought in all sections of the paper in interviews, statements, and letters.”

One Nationalist rebel who did much to bring down the Bruce–Page government was W.M. Hughes, then member for North Sydney. Hughes had enjoyed passing favour from Murdoch, and was writing an interminable series of polemics in the Herald when Murdoch suddenly lost faith in him. “The whole community is relieved that Mr Hughes is finishing his series,” Murdoch wrote on 28 March. “We should have cut this long ago.” Poor Billy Hughes had only reached his twenty-eighth instalment, each of two columns – some 3000 words – and was just getting warmed up to his theme that British traders were a scurvy lot. “Britain must set her own house in order,” he thundered as Murdoch, on behalf of the whole community, applied the gag.

“We should be careful of W.M. Hughes,” one of Murdoch’s Notes warned in April. “His motives are ugly vindictiveness, jealousy and self-interest. His dominating idea is not to help the country, but to destroy Bruce.

“Our Sydney [newspaper] friends are not in line with us on this, their reports should be discounted 80 per cent. Walker should be instructed accordingly.”

SIMULTANEOUSLY with the political crisis there was breaking what Murdoch soon described as “one of the newspaper stories of the decade.” The Herald and the Sydney Sun had backed Kingsford Smith’s and Ulm’s attempt to fly from Sydney to London.

On 30 March 1929 the Southern Cross left Richmond (NSW) airport for Wyndham en route to London. The departure was a big news event, but straightforward enough. Even a Murdoch could not foresee the sensational and tragic events which were to follow swiftly. His only comment in the day’s Notes was: “We should have announced that we hold with the Sydney Sun the Australasian rights of the Southern Cross flight news.”

NSW premier Bavin went up for a short spin with Smithy. The steadiness of the machine convinced him that interstate air travel would soon become popular. In London, a Herald representative watched an improved version of John Logie Baird’s television machine. The steadiness of the picture convinced him that public television services would soon become a reality.

The weekend of 30-31 March fell at quite the wrong time for the Hera1d-sponsored Smithy flight. No Murdoch paper was published on Sunday 31 March, to announce the dramatic news that the Southern Cross was missing, believed crashed. On the Sunday morning, Smithy had been lost for ten hours in blinding rain. The last radio message, at 12.45 pm, Sunday, said that he was about to attempt to land at a point which he thought was 150 miles west of Wyndham.

But by edition time on Monday 1 April a plane had been chartered by the Herald from Port Hedland and was on its way to the rescue. The printers broke out their 36-point light italic type (about the size of the heading on a Nation leader) to announce “PLANE TO THE RESCUE OF SOUTHERN CROSS.”

“Page 1 excellent,” wrote Murdoch. “Heading type too big.”

It would be fair to say that if it had not been for the Herald’s promptness in chartering search planes, Kingsford Smith and Ulm may never have been found. The RAAF were in the middle of re-equipment and had no planes available in Western Australia. Next day Air Chief Williams was asked why the RAAF had no planes available to assist in the search. He replied: “Kingsford Smith made arrangements to supply certain newspapers with exclusive news, and to supply them he worked on a wavelength we are not working on… Up to the present we have no information on which we can act, and have not the faintest idea where to look.”

Wrote Murdoch tersely: “We should emphatically reply to Air Chief Williams today. He makes a nasty attempt to shift responsibility.”

By 5 April, three planes were searching for the lost fliers, missing now for five days.

“All over Australia people are talking about the flying men,” wrote Murdoch. “Our story is good, and we seem to be well covered for the big news coming.

“It is a pity we called our pilot Woods in one column and Wood in the next. How the public jumps on to these simple, easy mistakes, and how sweepingly they condemn the paper for them.”

Next day the Lord Mayor (Cr H.D. Luxton) opened a search fund and declared “The airmen must be found.” Black trackers and Herald correspondents started combing the bush near Wyndham. On Monday, 8 April, the printers again broke out their 36-point type for a streamer heading on the Tasmanian floods, in which twenty-seven had perished. “I would again say – we may be over-heading Page 1,” wrote Murdoch. “At least, do not increase the type.”

But on Friday 12 April the Southern Cross crew were found alive thirty miles south of Port George by Captain Les Holden and his crew. The Herald used for the first time its 48-point Caslon light italic type to announce the great news – and sold 270,000 copies that day. On 13 April, Murdoch wrote: “We have been living on the Southern Cross and the Tasmanian floods. This week will be difficult for the news staff. It must discover new topics.”

However, a new drama came quickly to hand. Lieutenant Keith Anderson and his mechanic, searching for the Southern Cross, were missing in Central Australia. This time the RAAF was able to help. “We should strike the note that Anderson must be found,” wrote Murdoch, on 15 April. “Two RAAF  planes are miserably inadequate.” On May 2 the Herald reported that Flight-Lieutenant Eaton and his ground party had reached the crashed plane of Anderson and his mechanic and buried their bodies. “We say Eaton’s horses were eighty hours without water,” commented Murdoch. “All other papers have said fifty.”

HOW did Murdoch achieve the results he did, at a time when even his successful company had far less financial resources than today’s newspaper empires? One answer is that even though he was basically a shy man, Murdoch had a rarely equalled facility of inspiring enormous enthusiasm in his staff, and a sense that they were doing something very important in the community. Some journalists finished up hating him but still reluctantly admiring his unique gifts.

Nor did he hesitate, on occasion, to impart his own sense of exhilaration to his senior men. We may leave him on 25 April 1929, when the Herald was almost completely an Anzac Day issue. Murdoch himself was indirectly a hero of Gallipoli, although his action in publishing the truth about the campaign when he reached London, after giving an undertaking not to do so, will always be debated. Anzac Day in 1929, being much closer to the event, was perhaps more deeply felt than today, and on 25 April Murdoch was moved to write:

“Tonight’s ‘Herald’ is a notable production… Such an effort impresses upon even a captious mind the fact that the staff is the greatest and best ever collected into an Australian newspaper office. We will be fortunate if we ever again have as many brilliant men at work for us.

“The organisation of the news shows great thoroughness and a good deal of initiative. Leader Page brilliant – quite beyond the power of any other staff. [It included a Will Dyson cartoon, “The Cenotaph – Midnight,” and a C.J. Dennis poem, “The Army of the West.”]

“The Advertising Department makes a fine show, and we must not forget the special efforts required on such an occasion by printers and publishers. They worked splendidly. The paper tonight does credit to the State, and is a public service of considerable value.”

Murdoch retained his interest in every aspect of newspaper production until he died on 4 October 1952, at the age of sixty-six. By that time, however, the “Murdoch empire” had undergone many mutations and extensions, and was too big for one man to control as intimately as Murdoch had controlled his favourite newspaper in 1929. Times change, and newspapers change, and the changes are not always for the better. •

This article first appeared in the 29 June 1963 edition ofNation. "After publication of this piece," Michael Cannon writes, "Rupert Murdoch sent a request through the editor of Nation Tom Fitzgerald (since Rupert and I were not on speaking terms) that he, Rupert, should be allowed to view the original Keith Murdoch memos.  I gladly agreed, and sent the valuable originals to Tom, fully expecting to get them back after Rupert had seen them.  But they never came back.  My guess is that Rupert regarded them as his property."