Subscribe to our FREE Newsletter 'Great Things to do in Melbourne - the White Hat guide'


Keith Murdoch


In 1904 David Syme, the proprietor of The Age, employed a kid from Camberwell as a stringer. A stringer is a writer who is payed by the number of lines published and thus measures their income with a length of string. It did not look promising. True, the kid was bright � he had been dux of Camberwell Grammar � and had the cock-sure manner of a young person who as yet didn�t know what he didn�t know. But he had a bad stammer � not a good starting point for someone who is going to be interviewing people � and his beat was to be the establishment suburb of Camberwell. The Age, being somewhat liberal in its views did not sell well at that time in establishment suburbs. Still the kid came recommended by his father (a Presbyterian minister), had good shorthand and seemed prepared to work hard and make a success of himself as a journalist.

Work hard he did, and after four years he had increased the circulation of The Age in Camberwell and saved 500 pounds for a trip to England. Journalism often paid better in that period than now, and few present day stringers would be able to accumulate the equivalent amount. In London he studied at the London School of Economics, established important contacts such as the editor of The Times, and wired stories back Australia. He continued his travels to America and at the outbreak of the War he applied for the position of Australia�s Official War Historian. He lost out to Charles Bean, but took up the position of a war correspondent. En route to France he was able to stop off at Gallipoli and speak to Australians and others about their disillusionment with the manner in which the English officers were running that campaign. These four days in Gallipoli were to result in a letter that, along with Ned Kelly�s Jerilderie Letter, was to become one of the most important documents in Australian history. The story of the letter is long and convoluted. It began life as a confidential letter from a British Journalist to Prime Minister Asquith in London to be delivered by Keith. When the letter was removed from Keith�s possession he did what any talented journalist would do. He rewrote and embroidered it adding his own forceful and colourful style. The letter that arrived in London contained descriptions of the British officers such as these:

�The conceit and self complacency of the red feather men are equalled only by their incapacity. Along the line of communications, especially at Moudros, are countless high officers and conceited young cubs who are plainly only playing at war. What can you expect of men who have never worked seriously, who have lived for their appearance and for social distinction and self satisfaction, and who are now called on to conduct a gigantic war? Kitchener has a terrible task in getting pure work out of these men, whose motives can never be pure, for they are unchangeably selfish�appointments to the general staff are made from motives of friendship and social influence. Australians now loathe and detest any Englishman wearing red.�

Was the letter 100% accurate? Far from it, but it did dramatically draw attention to issues which needed to be addressed. Was it 100% ethical? Not really. Keith had signed a standard censorship form and even though this was a �private� letter it still transgressed that agreement. Not fully accurate, not fully ethical but made a splash and made things happen � Keith had taken a significant step along the route from being a mere journalist to becoming a media mogul. The letter with all its embellishments and inaccuracies still forms the basis of how many Australians view Gallipoli today. Keith now found that he had considerable influence and combined with Charles Bean tried unsuccessfully to use that influence to prevent John Monash being put in charge of the Australians.

On his return to Australia Keith eventually obtained the position of Chief Editor of The Herald. Technically, that was about No. 4 in the hierarchy but it didn�t take long until Keith was No.1. To The Herald was soon added radio station 3DB, The Sun newspaper and various media outlets across the country. Australia�s first national media empire was born and partly because a talented and ambitious man was in the right place at the right time.

You can see a copy of THAT letter at:

___________________  White Hat  ___________________

Seven Journalists of Melbourne - overview