July 18, 2011
From Flat Earth News by Nick Davies (yes, that Nick Davies):
In his highly revealing biography, The Murdoch Archipelago, the former Sunday Times journalist Bruce Page goes back to January 1968 to provide an early and vivid example of how the man works. Murdoch then was still in the early stages of building his empire from his base in Adelaide and, in search of a political ally, he had started dealing with the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, 'Black Jack' McEwen. In January 1968, Black Jack found himself at the centre of a crisis.Given this story is extracted in its entirety from the Bruce Page book cited, which I also own, I should probably have quoted Mr Page, but it's the book by Mr Davies I'm reading at present, and thus the one available to scan. I should also use this as an opportunity to review Mr Davies' book but so far I'm only eighteen pages in. Up to now it's been a bit of a curate's egg but I expect it to improve.
The Prime Minister, Harold Holt, had drowned while swimming from a beach near Melbourne. Black Jack was suddenly elevated to the post of Acting Prime Minister. However, he knew he couldn't keep the job, because he led the Country Party, which was the minority partner in a coalition government. The bigger party, the Liberals, would choose a new leader, on 9 January. The choice was between two men: John Gorton and Billy McMahon. Black Jack wanted Gorton, a weak boozer of a man. So he had to stop Billy McMahon.
Black Jack publicly declared that his Country Party would refuse to serve under Billy McMahon but mysteriously refused to explain why. Secretly, in his role as Acting Prime Minister, he called in the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and urged him to investigate a close associate of Billy McMahon, named Max Newton. Black Jack claimed that Newton was a subversive, secretly working to sabotage the Australian economy on behalf of the Japanese. It was a lie, but the head of ASIO agreed to open a file and see what he could find. He found nothing. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the ASIO file was enough for Black Jack.
Four days before the leadership vote, on the evening of 5 January, as Bruce Page recounts, Black Jack called Rupert Murdoch to his suite in the Kurrajong Hotel in Canberra and handed him a dossier on Max Newton's supposed treachery on behalf of the Japanese. This was a double delight for the young media proprietor. It was not only a chance to do a favour for his political ally. It was also a chance to hurt Newton, who had formerly been one of Murdoch's editors and had made the bad mistake of publicly describing him as 'a whippersnapper from Adelaide'.
Later that evening, Murdoch phoned Newton, and said simply: 'This is the whippersnapper from Adelaide. I suggest you read my paper tomorrow.' The paper was the Australian. The next day's story did everything that Black Jack McEwen had wanted, destroying the reputation of Max Newton and, with it, the chances of Billy McMahon winning the vote to become Prime Minister. The headline read: 'WHY MCEWEN VETOES MCMAHON: FOREIGN AGENT IS THE MAN BETWEEN THE LEADERS'. And it told the story of Max Newton, the supposed secret agent of Japanese subversion. It was entirely false, though it is always possible that Murdoch himself believed it. There was no reporter's byline on the story. It was the owner's own work, dictated by the politician who was his ally. Four days later, with the rest of the Australian media crawling all over Murdoch's exclusive, Billy McMahon lost the election, and, just as Black Jack wanted, John Gorton became Prime Minister.
A year later, in January 1969, Murdoch tried to make his first big move out of Australia, bidding to buy the News of the World in London. But he was trapped by Australian currency regulations, which prevented him exporting his money to the UK. Black Jack McEwen came to his rescue, summoning the servile John Gorton to his hotel suite to sign an authority which would allow Murdoch to get his cash out of the country. Gorton asked if he had any whisky. As McEwen later recalled: 'The papers were signed. Rupert and I were out in the garden. Gorton went off with his Scotch. Rupert went off to buy his newspaper.'