On 1 December 1961 a meeting was held between President John F. Kennedy, Rupert Murdoch and UQ alumnus Zalmenas “Zell” Rabin (Dip in Physical Education ’53) that would change the Australian media landscape forever.
UQ recently caught up with journalist and author Alex Mitchell, who worked with Murdoch and Rabin, to find out the reason behind the Oval Office Meeting (pictured above).
“His [Murdoch’s] aim was to thumb his nose at Sydney's powerful media families - the Fairfaxes (Sydney Morning Herald, Sun-Herald) and the Packers (Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph),” said Mitchell.
Murdoch was still new to the world of publishing and, while he aimed to create Australia’s most successful tabloid, the existing media giants wanted to keep him out of the game.
“The old families thought he was an upstart - the ‘boy publisher’ - and sought to crush his ambitions,” said Mitchell.
Murdoch used Rabin’s contacts in Washington DC to secure an exclusive interview in the Oval Office with the newly elected JFK.
“Murdoch arrived in New York, contacted Zell and told him what he wanted. Murdoch and Zell used their New York and Washington contacts to arrange an Oval Office interview and official photograph. It was a real coup.
“With their tabloid skills, the ‘exclusive’ interview made a huge impact on readers and the ‘get up and go’ Mirror was on its way. The Fairfaxes and Packers were left standing, looking embarrassed and out of date,” said Mitchell.
It was the success of this meeting that saw Murdoch hand editorial control of the Sunday Mirror to Rabin in 1962 and then the Daily Mirror in 1963, which would flourish under his leadership.
During his tenure in this role, Rabin would also go on to train some of Australia’s leading journalists, such as Laurie Oakes.
Oakes said it was Rabin who gave him his first real break in political reporting by appointing him to the position of state political roundsman at the Daily Mirror.
“Zell chose me as the replacement [for state political roundsman] even though I was 21 with only a year's professional journalistic experience under my belt. He took a heck of a gamble, but Zell was young himself and was prepared to give young journalists a go.”
Oakes said that Rabin was a supportive editor who stood by him, even in the face of strong political opposition to his appointment.
“Once the appointment was made he backed me to the hilt, including against the Premier when [Sir Robert] Askin objected to my reporting,” said Oakes.
Murdoch also benefitted greatly from the success of the Oval Office interview and in 1964 he launched The Australian, the first daily paper to be distributed Australia-wide.
However, Murdoch and Rabin’s relationship was tumultuous and Mitchell said they often had differences of opinion.
“They had an unofficial division of labour: Murdoch owned the paper and therefore he was the proprietor; Zell was the editor and in charge of content. However, there was obvious tension between the two men because Murdoch believed he was not only he owner but the publisher and the newspaperman in charge,” said Mitchell.
Oakes recalls a moment when this tension came to a head with Rabin calling into question the quality of Murdoch’s work.
“When I was only weeks into the state rounds job, Zell called me into his office early one morning and tossed some copy onto the desk in front of me. ‘What do you think of that?’ He asked - it was an editorial on the new government's education policy.
“I assumed Zell had written it, but screwed up my courage and said: ‘I think it's crap.’
“‘So do I,’ said Zell. ‘Rupert wrote it.’
“Rupert, of course, being the proprietor.”
While Rabin’s time in the Australian media industry may have been impactful, it was unfortunately cut short by his battle with cancer and he passed away in 1966. His dedication to his work remained until the end.
Despite having their differences, Mitchell suggests the relationship between Murdoch and Rabin was based on deep respect evidenced by Murdoch’s response to Rabin’s untimely passing.
“I was later told that Murdoch behaved most honourably. He gave a large pension to Zell's estranged wife, helped organise the family funeral and a wake.”