Murdoch’s Setback in the Outback — Media Tycoon With Problems

Suddenly his global media empire is trembling. Scandals are rocking Rupert Murdoch’s mighty corporation, News Corporation, owner of everything from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal and The Times of London.

Revelations of sordid phone-hacking have forced the Australian tycoon to close the world’s biggest-selling English-language newspaper, the News of the World.

But the Dirty Digger, as he has been dubbed, has a way of bouncing back. He graduated in the rough-and-tumble Aussie newspaper business. Way back in the 1960s, before Murdoch set out to take over the world, he learned a useful lesson in Australia’s Outback: don’t start a circulation war in the wrong place.

The scene was Mount Isa, a mining town lost in the red rock desert of northwest Queensland. Murdoch ran the only newspaper in town, the Mail. When the Mail supported a disastrous miners’ strike, the mining company decided to start its own paper.

An innocent, fresh off the boat, I joined the new paper, the North-West Star, writes David Baird. Unknowingly, I stepped into a frontier war zone.

Mount Isa is a trifle isolated. The nearest town of any size is Townsville, 600 miles away on the Pacific coast. Since temperatures often rise to around 120 degrees F, most Aussies shunned the place. But, attracted by the high wages, more than 50 nationalities toiled in The Isa.

Thanks to the arid climate, The Isa claimed to have Australia’s highest beer consumption per head. Not hard to believe if you visited one of the pubs. There I encountered a gang of hard-faced individuals boasting Schwarzenegger physiques — and they were just the barmaids!

Scores of husky miners, in singlets and shorts, swigged and sweated. To keep up with demand the barmaids filled 30 glasses at a time, using a hose.

Getting wind of the new paper, Murdoch flew in by private aircraft to encourage his staff. “Don’t worry! We’re going to win,” he reportedly told them. “I’ll stand by you.”

Soon, The Isa had two daily papers, hitting the streets seven days a week. When the first Star came out, miners — egged on by Murdoch employees — ritually burned the paper in one of the pubs and our reporters were threatened.

The Star, a modern, clean-looking product, assured readers that theirs was “a good town”. Sometimes it gave the impression we were living in a sort of tropical paradise. Hard to credit when red dust storms blew in. It was so dusty, said locals, that the crows flew backwards to keep the stuff out of their eyes.

In contrast to the sober Star, Murdoch’s Mail headlined sensational stories, apparently evolved in the pub. Then it alleged that local schoolgirls were on the game. That was too much. Offended readers gave up the Mail in droves.

The battle was costing Murdoch a fortune. No problem for Mount Isa Mines. It made huge profits from copper, lead, silver and zinc.

Abruptly the Digger announced that he was “rationalising” news services. The Mail closed immediately and out on the street went the faithful staff — as has now happened in London with the closing of the News of the World.


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