Paul Morgan reviews 'Before Rupert' by Tom D.C. Roberts

Paul Morgan reviews 'Before Rupert' by Tom D.C. Roberts

Before Rupert: Keith Murdoch and the Birth of a Dynasty

by Tom D.C. Roberts

University of Queensland Press, $34.95 pb, 392 pp, 9780702253782

Many public figures are fated to be remembered for a single incident rather than a lifetime's work (think of Gough Whitlam's ad-libbing outside Parliament house, or his nemesis's trousers, forever lost in Memphis). Often, almost perversely, it is one event that stays in the mind. For Keith Murdoch (1885–1952), that phenomenon was the so-called 'Gallipoli letter' of 1915. Most Australians know about the young journalist who wrote a letter exposing the Dardanelles campaign as a disaster where soldiers were dying in their thousands due to incompetent British leadership. The allied armies were soon evacuated. The 'Anzac spirit' was born.

However, Murdoch's role was darker, more nuanced, and far more interesting than the legend. Murdoch was in Gallipoli as an unofficial pair of eyes for Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, who was frustrated by the lack of information from Imperial headquarters in London. The original letter, written by fellow journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, was seized in transit by military police. Only then did Murdoch rewrite it for the Australian government. He also sent a copy to David Lloyd George, the British munitions minister and future prime minister. The letter was eagerly publicised in London by those who were against a second front (the anti-Churchill faction). Murdoch became the man of the hour. The boy from Camberwell never looked back.

Tom D.C. Roberts's life of Murdoch draws on a mass of previously unconsulted letters and diaries (seventy-five pages of dense notes detail his sources). It reveals a complex man who made a mark on our society far beyond the famous letter.

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Paul Morgan

Paul Morgan

Paul Morgan is a Melbourne-based novelist, writer, and editor. He is the author of The Pelagius Book (2005) and Turner’s Paintbox (2007); his short stories have appeared in many journals and collections; and for many years he ran the poetry imprint Domain Press. He is also Deputy Director of SANE Australia, the national mental health charity.