HE IS THE MEDIA TYCOON PERSONIFIED. He controls scores of newspapers and television channels from Tasmania to New York City. Indeed the Dirty Digger is not a man to tangle with. But he has not had it all his own way.
Way back in the 1960s, before Rupert Murdoch set out to conquer the world, he learned a useful lesson: before going into battle, carefully check the opposition.
He blundered by starting a circulation war in the wrong place: Australia’s Outback. And ended up making a humiliating retreat. The scene was Mount Isa, a tough mining town lost in the red rock desert of northwest Queensland.
Murdoch ran the only newspaper in town, the Mail, which came out twice a week. It had the field to itself — until the miners staged a disastrous strike and the Mail made a tactical error by supporting them.
That was too much for the mining company. After all, it was their town. They controlled pretty well everything that went on in The Isa. The company secretly decided to start its own paper and mounted an undercover operation fronted by Asher Joel, a dynamic Sydney PR man.
Fresh off the boat, this naive journalist joined Joel’s paper and stepped into a frontier war zone. Mount Isa, I soon learned, was a trifle isolated, a mere 1,000 miles from Brisbane and 600 miles away, over mainly dirt roads, from a town of any size.
The Isa was dubbed The Copper Crucible. And no wonder. Many a newcomer gasped in the scorching heat as he stepped off the plane – and booked the next flight out. Most Aussies shunned the place. But, attracted by the high wages, more than 50 nationalities toiled in The Isa.
Unlike the ramshackle Mail, the new paper – the North-West Star – was printed on the latest web offset in a brand-new airconditioned plant. Printers and journos were recruited from the Sydney Daily Telegraph at top pay.
Getting wind of this, Murdoch flew in by private aircraft to encourage his staff. “Don’t worry!” he reportedly told them. “We’re going to win. I’ll stand by you against the mines.”
Soon, to the bewilderment of many locals, The Isa had two daily papers, hitting the streets seven days a week. Their staffs were working 18 hours a day with no days off. For a while the Star’s journos and printers were the best paid in the country.
When the first Star came out, miners ritually burned the paper in one of the pubs. Reporters were threatened, scurrilous rumours were fabricated. But PR man Asher Joel knew his trade. The Star, a modern, clean-looking product, set out to assure readers that theirs was “a good town”. Sometimes the paper gave the impression we were living in a sort of tropical paradise.
This required a certain stretch of the imagination. There was the dust for one thing. Red and choking, it permeated everything. It was so dusty, said locals, that the crows flew backwards to keep the stuff out of their eyes.
The Isa was also subject to plagues. Gidgee bugs, for example. They arrived one evening, millions of squishy moths fluttering into your mouth, your eyes, your beer.
But worst was the heat. The Isa is in one of Australia’s hottest areas. The sun strikes your head like a hammer blow. At night the temperature is rarely below 90 degrees F and, just before The Wet, it soars to 120 degrees F.
This, plus the near-total aridity, produces a monumental thirst. The Isa claimed to have the highest beer consumption per head in the whole country. The worst thing you could do was get between a man and his “stubby”. Men had died for less.
There were three pubs. At mid-day semi-comatose Aborigines lazed on the sidewalk outside and inside it was the Wild West. Clients were faced by a gang of hard-faced individuals boasting Schwarzenegger physiques. And they were just the barmaids!
Fans whirled overhead as a hundred or so husky miners, in singlets and shorts, swigged, sweated and swore. To keep up with demand the barmaids filled 30 glasses at a time, using a hose. Now and again a drinker would slump to the floor, but nobody paid any attention. Eventually he would stagger to his feet, check that nobody had nobbled his cash piled on the counter and order another beer.
In contrast to the sober, reassuring Star, Murdoch’s Mail — with smudgy print, monster headlines and murky pictures — screamed at the readers. The stories, apparently evolved in the pub, became ever more strident and more hysterical.
It really came off the rails when it alleged that local schoolgirls were on the game. Offended readers gave up the Mail in droves. The battle was costing Murdoch a fortune. Costs were soaring. No problem for Mount Isa Mines. It made huge profits from the tons of copper, lead, silver and zinc harvested from the red rock, and its owners, a New York corporation, had vast resources.
Then, after two months, Asher Joel let it be known that he was thinking of starting a second paper, in Darwin where another Murdoch publication ruled the roost.
This was too much for the Digger. Abruptly he announced that he was “rationalising” news services. The Mail closed immediately and out on the street went the faithful staff.
Asher Joel went on to conquer fresh fields, even acquiring a knighthood.
And Murdoch? Some say that he ended up peddling pizzas on Bondi Beach. Others claim that, smarting with humiliation, he took boat to Europe where he faded into well-merited obscurity.
You can believe what you like, sport. But I’ll tell you one thing: he never showed his face in The Isa again.