It seems every one of the moves that characterised News Corp’s metamorphosis across more than three decades, had on it the hand not only of Rupert Murdoch, but of Ken Cowley, who died last night aged 87.
From the transformation of a union-controlled industry in which, in the UK at least, non-existent “workers” with fake identities claimed a weekly pay-packet, and progressing through the creation and sustenance of national newspaper The Australian, to the broad form of today’s media giant.
Cowley, a football-playing printer who moved to Canberra with his team, had seen the potential for something more in the federal capital than the pre-existing Canberra Times, and, according to journalist Alan Howe, launched a paper called The Territorial to do just that… adding lashings of sport, politics and more to the mix.
Younger brother John Cowley, who I interviewed for our first standalone GXpress issue in 2001, also helped with the paper, selling ads, setting, printing and delivering the paper. He had been “effectively brought up” by Ken after their father was killed in an air accident.
A turning point was clearly Ken Cowley’s 1962 meeting with Rupert Murdoch, who “wanted to see me” during a visit he’d engineered to the Sydney Daily Mirror print works in Surry Hills. Murdoch apparently demanded to know “who writes all this anti-Menzies stuff”, and when Cowley ’fessed up, asked if he could buy the paper.
In an interview, he admitted to having thought about the potential of a national paper and met Murdoch to talk about it, “but of course, at the speed Rupert travels, he grabbed the idea and burned me off in about three days”.
Cowley did however, get a role, ducking out of editorial responsibilities in favour of “what he knew best”, and was still in at the birth of The Australian.
Logistics problems were his particular area, replete with the elderly letterpress rotary which had been installed in the Canberra suburb of Braddon, and the often fog-bound airport from which the papier-maché “flongs” – needed to print editions in other cities – had to be airlifted.
Barry Johnson, who I interviewed in 2010 before his retirement as News’ group technical manager, responded to an advertisement for compositors for “a new national newspaper”, he found himself setting as an apprentice in a Chippendale printery, and “got the job almost before I finished marking-up the ad”. It also meant that he was a natural to help ease production into Holt Street in 1967 when printing in Canberra became too hard.
Working his way up “on Ken Cowley’s shirt-tails”, Johnson also recalled he got Cowley’s job as technical manager when Cowley was appointed assistant general manager. For his part, Cowley was progressively promoted to head production in Sydney, and as deputy general manager, and in 1980 as chief executive of the then News Limited, a position he held until 1997.
Jointly (with Rupert) “midwife” of The Australian, he was intensely proud of the national paper and the technical challenges overcome to produce it in every state and territory capital… beyond flong to facsimile transmission and eventually digital files.
But always with a critical eye, given the ambitions he had himself nurtured for the concept. In 2014, he was quoted by the rival (then Fairfax-owned) Australian Financial Review calling The Australian “pathetic” and saying a better-led Fairfax “could have News on their knees”… although the comments were quickly denied in multiple articles for the News masthead.
I wasn’t in Australia at the time of the 1980 journalists’ strike, instead running a small newspaper in the UK while the rumblings spread of a dispute about “new technology” – the unions’ insistence that their members should reset content which by then had already been keyed into computers – but Howe writes that Cowley saw computerisation as “essential to the changing economics of publishing,” particularly at The Australian.
And told Rupert Murdoch so: Cowley was instructed to, “fix it or close it, and don’t call me back”.
Together, they were also to “fix” the Fleet Street problem, where brother John recalled to me being “absolutely shattered” by the six-million-copy Saturday print orders. “I thought they had put in too many noughts,” he told me in 2001.
John Cowley was moved to the project in London’s Docklands, taking with him a qualified quartet of retirees from his Sydney pressroom to get the elderly but hitherto unused Goss letterpress machines – which Murdoch had bought for a bargain basement price – running. Of the intention to use traditional metal stereo plates, Cowley says he told Murdoch, “I’m not printing on that crap”… and set about installing photopolymer equipment similar to that just put into Sydney”.
Rupert Murdoch’s “go to” person when something needed doing, Ken Cowley was someone I never got to interview personally, although I was introduced a couple of times. These are the recollections of others, and I invite you to add to them either by logging in to comment, or by email to me at email@example.com
Today, Rupert Murdoch said Cowley’s leadership was “integral to News Corp’s growth” and said he admired his “loyalty, integrity and business leadership.
“They were exciting and rewarding days building News into a great business and I know that Ken was always immensely proud of the special role he played in the birth of The Australian to then see it become one of the world’s best newspapers.”
News Corp co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch – who worked under Cowley as well as for his brother in Brisbane – described him as “one of News’ most legendary and successful executives”.
“He was both a kind and a tough boss – the best kind to work for.”
Ken Cowley is survived by his wife Maureen, two children Matt and Melinda, four grandchildren, two great grandchildren and a step granddaughter.
Pictured: Cowley (right) with Rupert Murdoch in 1986; and (above) celebrating the success of The Australian in 2010