John Newfong at his Olivetti Dora portable typewriter.
In 1971 Rupert Murdoch's editors employed and then got rid of Newfong, the first Aboriginal journalist to work in this country's established print media.
Australians have struggled since Friday to come to terms with the fact that one of their own went to New Zealand, a peace loving country 2600 miles across the Tasman Sea, and as a craven coward committed mass murder. Since then many things have played on the minds of Australians. High among them is the question: What part did Australia’s politics and the nation’s media play in fuelling the sick mind of an Islamophobic psychopath? Has Australia, which blindly continues to consider itself a place of a “fair go for all”, become a breeding ground for white supremacist Fascists and killers?
In the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, Australian journalist Richard Glover raised such points in an article in Saturday’s Washington Post. He said the murderer was “acting on a toxic belief system - one that has been long nurtured by opportunists in politics and the media, in Australia and elsewhere. Those innocent victims … reaped what others had sowed.” Glover added, “there are also those at home who’ve created the soil to nourish violence.”
Glover pointed out that, “In its general programming, Sky News Australia has turned into our version of Fox News. (Both are controlled by the Australian-turned-American media baron Rupert Murdoch.) … In a Murdoch-owned tabloid in Melbourne [also in Sydney], prominent columnist Andrew Bolt has written of ‘us’ disappearing as ‘a tidal wave of immigrants sweeps away what’s left of our national identity’ … The Australian media and politicians … have form when it comes to flirting with racism.” He said “‘border control’ becomes code for keeping out Muslims, and ‘equality for all Australians’ means stripping services from indigenous communities.”
Earlier, the Washington Post quoted Ghassan Hage, a Lebanese Australian academic at the University of Melbourne, as saying anti-Muslim rhetoric had been normalised by mainstream right-wing news outlets, many of which are owned by Murdoch. Hage said these publications had fomented “the kind of Islamophobic culture which makes it easier for extremists to think that they are legitimised to enact their deadly fantasies.”
Outside a Queensland cafe.
Glover and Hage are far from being alone in pointing an accusing finger at Rupert Murdoch’s Australian news outlets and the unashamedly amateurish and biased columnists he overpays. In May 2011, John Pilger declared, “Australia is the world’s first murdochracy, in which smear by media is power.” Murdoch, 88 as of last week, has built a $US20 billion worldwide media empire since inheriting News Limited in Adelaide, South Australia, from his father in October 1952. Almost a year later Murdoch arrived in Adelaide from Oxford University to start directing operations, aged 22. Today he’s close to ruling the world.
Murdoch has long been recognised as one of the world’s most influential and wealthy people. His control over so much of the world’s media places him on a level with George Orwell’s vision of Big Brother, an omnipresent, manipulative figure. He now decides who governs, and who leads the ruling party, in the United States, Britain and Australia. Not only who, but what their policies should be. His pull in this country is insidious: for example, his Sky News Australia lackeys also wilfully ape their boss’s opinions in such moronic magazines as The Spectator Australia.
Murdoch has been known to switch sides in Australian Federal elections, directing his obedient minions to back either an increasingly right-wing conservative Liberal-National Coalition or the Labor Party. The submissiveness of his staff in discarding their professional ethics in order to please their master reached its lowest point before the 2013 elections, when under the direction of unhinged New York Post editor Col Allan they turned once serious tabloids such as Sydney’s Daily Telegraph into little than comic strips.
The campaign succeeded in ousting Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who last August described Murdoch as the “greatest cancer on the Australian democracy”. Rudd said Murdoch “operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view. While centre-left readers say Murdoch's influence is overrated because people refuse to read his papers, or because social media now dilutes his power, we should be careful about such judgments. Because the electronic media is so denuded of journalists these days, Murdoch's print media has a disproportionate impact on setting the day's overall agenda. The electronics often just ‘rip and read’ what Murdoch has put on the front page.
“Then there is Murdoch's masterful conflation of ‘opinion’ with ‘news’. The two had become one in Murdoch's own world of fake news well before ‘fake news’ became topical after the 2016 US elections. Murdoch is a political bully and a thug who for many years has hired bullies as his editors. The message to Australian politicians is clear: either toe the line on what Murdoch wants or he kills you politically.
“Murdoch saw a threat to his monopoly Foxtel cable entertainment empire - his cash cow cross-subsidising his loss-making print mastheads. The latter were critical as the pillars of his political power. Murdoch feared our [Labor's] NBN would make it easier for Netflix to become a real Foxtel competitor. Murdoch despatched his leading henchman from New York, Col Allan, to run the Murdoch campaign in the 2013 election to destroy the government. Murdoch and [Tony] Abbott's Liberals effectively ran a joint war room for the campaign. If anyone doubts this, just Google ABC Media Watch's conclusions about the monumental level of Murdoch bias. Abbott would go on to deliver what Murdoch wanted - the destruction of the NBN as fibre-optic to the home.”
Murdoch’s flexing of his media muscle in not just Australian political affairs, but on fundamental national policy issues, is nothing new. He’s been doing it for 62 years.
Bill Grayden in 1957.
In 1957 a member of the West Australian Legislative Assembly, Bill Grayden, called for Murdoch to be arraigned before the Bar of the West Australian Parliament to answer charges of being in contempt of the Parliament. It was one of the earliest signs of Murdoch’s determination to interfere in government policy regarding the welfare of Aborigines.
In 1953 Grayden had led an expedition to the Central Aboriginal Reserve, an area of 34 million acres of desert and semi-desert terrain where some Wongi, Pitjantjatjara and Ngaanatyara peoples continued to live as hunter-gatherers. Concerned about the precarious conditions of their life, made worse by drought and violations of the reserve for nuclear weapons testing, Grayden successfully pressed for a parliamentary inquiry. The Report of the Select Committee appointed “to inquire into Native Welfare Conditions in the Laverton-Warburton Range Area” received wide publicity and shocked those who found out about the starvation and extreme deprivation experienced by these people.
After flying over Central Australia, Murdoch, back in Adelaide, decided to declare the report “hopelessly exaggerated”. The statements in it, said Murdoch, were “so careless in their handling of the facts that at some points the truth disappeared altogether.” Murdoch claimed that the people he met in the desert were all happy and well fed. “These fine native people have never enjoyed better conditions”. Tellingly, Murdoch commented, “great companies like International Nickel of Canada are watching for and have prospects of finding some of the world's most valuable mineral deposits in this very area”. Murdoch's article was supported with a deceptive photograph of a plump, happy family group, but readers were not told that the photograph had been taken four years earlier, by Grayden, rather than recently, as Murdoch claimed.
In a News editorial, Murdoch wrote, “Communists and colour-conscious fanatics of several countries in our Near North and at the United Nations quickly used the Grayden report to smear the good name of this country and its people in areas where we are trying desperately to create firm friendship.” Friendship, that is, to fool the inhabitants and then kick them off their land. Writing on behalf of himself, he added, “Mr Murdoch’s report provided a complete refutation of the damaging Grayden allegations.”
Grayden responded by returning to the area armed with a movie camera and accompanied by the highly respected Aboriginal Pastor [later Sir] Doug Nicholls, along with other Western Australian parliamentarians. This film was used effectively by activists to alert other Australians to the injustices experienced by the dispossessed nomadic people and to press governments to take greater responsibility for all Aboriginal Australians. The Warburton Ranges controversy, as it became known, led to the formation of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League and, indirectly, to the formation a year later of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement.
A few days after Grayden’s initial response to Murdoch’s claims, Federal Opposition leader Doc Evatt called for Prime Minister Bob Menzies to form an all-party committee to examine the plight of West Australian Aboriginals. Evatt received a “cold refusal”. But Murdoch’s so-called “whitewashing” article in the Adelaide News was taken apart by the superintendent of the Warburton mission, who described the Select Committee’s report as the best, most faithful and thorough he had ever seen. A leaflet produced by the Women's Christian Temperance Union refuted Murdoch's “misrepresentation of conditions” and public reaction to Grayden’s film drew letters of protest to Menzies. Murdoch found no support whatsoever for his claims. And from the distance of 62 years, one has to wonder what had motivated him to become involved in the first place, and what he had hoped to achieve by trying to discredit Grayden.
In 1959 Murdoch changed tack and found an Aboriginal who could be useful to him, to lift the circulation of the Adelaide News. Rupert Maxwell Stuart had been given a death sentence, but Murdoch, convinced by editor Rohan Rivett to get involved, and threatened with seditious, malicious and criminal libel for doing so, succeeded in having that judgement overturned while making much needed profits from sales of his newspaper.
From left, Murdoch, Stuart and Playford.
A 2002 movie about the case, Black and White, apparently made with Murdoch backing, magnified the role of Murdoch. Critically, however, Murdoch himself believed Stuart was probably guilty. “There's no doubt that Stuart didn't get a totally fair trial. Although it's probable that he was guilty, I thought this at the time. In those days - although less so now - I was very much against the death penalty." Bruce Page, Murdoch's biographer, said the case was pivotal in his career. “It was the very brief period of Rupert's radicalism, which was a very good thing for Stuart, as it got him out of the hangman's noose. Murdoch galloped into action, but it was a bad fight for him. The truth is it scared him off from ever taking on governments again. He reverted to his father's pattern of toeing the line.”
Evan Whitton in 1975
A 2016 article by Evan Whitton, “Rupert Murdoch: Our Part in his Evil Upfall”, said, “The libel trial began in March 1960 and ran for 10 days. The jury threw out all charges except one. [South Australian Premier Thomas] Playford and Murdoch eventually made a deal: Playford would drop the last charge if the News stopped going on about Stuart [and thereafter back Playford]. The go-between was a News political reporter [later News Ltd’s Australian boss], Ken May. The last libel charge was withdrawn on June 6, 1960. That seems to have been Murdoch’s watershed: politicians could be used to his advantage. He dismissed Rivett later that month; I don’t know whether that was part of the deal.” Others say the sacking of Rivett was pivotal to Murdoch's cosy agreement with Playford. Whatever, the deal would be the first of many Murdoch would make with buyable and malleable politicians.
John Pilger wrote in 2011, “The most enduring and insidious Murdoch campaign has been against the Aboriginal people” – which he described as “Australia’s dirty secret”. Pilger pointed out that in 1988 an editorial in Murdoch’s London tabloid, the Sun, described “the Abos” as “treacherous and brutal”. This was condemned by the British Press Council as “unacceptably racist”.
Max Newton, from the highly deceitful 1964 prospectus for The Australian.
After his financial success from the Stuart campaign, Murdoch slowly began to extend his Australian media influence, and by 1964 he owned the Daily Mirror in Sydney (now merged into the Telegraph, which Murdoch bought from the Packers in 1972), the Sunday Times in Perth, WIN TV in Wollongong and The Australian, his national daily.
Walter Imam Kommer
Murdoch launched The Australian in Canberra on July 15, 1964, with first the maverick Maxwell Newton and later Dutch-born Walter Imam Kommer as editor. Kommer was succeeded in 1969 by Adrian Deamer, who in 1971 employed the first Aboriginal journalist to work in the established print media, John Newfong. Newfong, a descendant of the Ngugi people of Moreton Bay, Brisbane, was born in 1943. His mother Edna Crouch, played cricket for Australia in the 1930s. Deamer was sacked in 1971 and replaced by the unimaginative Bruce Rothwell, who in turn was replaced by Owen Thomson. In 1973 Jim Hall, like Thomson a "journalist's journalist" and a survivor at The Australian since it started in 1964, took over.
A young Jim Hall.
Last November Newfong was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame. David Armstrong, a former editor of The Canberra Times and editor-in-chief of The Australian, wrote “Newfong was a general reporter who also wrote about Indigenous affairs. Deamer advised him to develop all-round skills so he would not be pigeon-holed as writing only about being Black. At the end of July, however, it came to a sudden end when Rupert Murdoch sacked Deamer during a dispute over the direction of the newspaper. Newfong was to be a secondary casualty: he was typecast by the new editors as an ‘Aboriginal writer’ and there was no place for him in their plans. A senior editor told him: ‘John, I’m sorry but I don’t think there is going to be much here for you anymore.” That editor would tell this writer that the editor-in-chief ‘reckons Australians don’t want to read about Black people.’”
I was working for The Australian at the time Newfong was employed by Deamer. Wikipedia claims, “In 1971 Murdoch sacked Deamer for writing an editorial which criticised the Springbok [rugby] tour of Australia at a time when public opinion was quite heated about South Africa's regime of apartheid.” It was me who launched The Australian’s campaign questioning the advisably of the tour, and who publicised the impending demonstrations. At the time, I was under the impression Deamer had been sacked after an argument with Ken May regarding a Murdoch comment that The Australian had, under Deamer, become a “radical broadsheet” (despite higher daily sales than ever, it lacked subscriptions). Deamer was succeeded by Bruce Rothwell, who was already editor of the woeful and happily short-lived Sunday Australian. Rothwell’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography says, “From the outset, rivalry between Rothwell and Adrian Deamer, the editor of the weekday Australian, factionalised the staff”, which is an understatement: Deamer was popular, communicative and progressive; Rothwell was not. Rothwell didn’t last long – he was replaced by Owen Thomson. Based on my experience of working for all three editors, I would say it was more likely to have been Rothwell who got rid of Newfong, under instruction from Murdoch. The decision is not one the Thomson I knew so well would have made. However, opposition to Newfong’s employment – presumably seen as part of Deamer’s “radicalisation” of The Australian - very much fits into the pattern of Rupert Murdoch’s long-held attitude towards Australia’s Indigenous population.
DISCLAIMER: The author of this blog post worked for Rupert Murdoch at The Australian, 1969-72, the London Sunday Times, the Sunday Independent (Perth), Sunday Sun and Daily Sun (Brisbane), 1985-87, and the Townsville Bulletin, 1993-97.