The start of The Australian 50 years ago from a small plant in Mort St, Canberra, was described by former editor-in-chief David Armstrong as the result of a “wonderful, crazy idea”.
It was indeed that, with the odds factored heavily against its survival, let alone its success. It had to overcome huge financial obstacles, a scale of distribution never attempted by a daily newspaper, as well as state prejudices. The proposal for the new paper also faced still opposition from the News Limited board.
The paper leap-frogged into existence off the back of a biweekly newspaper edited and printed in the Australian Capital Territory by Ken Cowley, who went on to became chairman and chief executive of News Limited.
After meeting Rupert Murdoch in 1962 at the conclusion of a tour of the plant of that produced his Daily Mirror afternoon newspaper in Sydney, he offered to buy Mr Cowley’s paper, The Territorial – an offer that was rejected.
Later Mr Cowley approached Mr Murdoch with an idea for a new national newspaper. “It wasn’t my idea,” Mr Cowley told D.D. McNicoll in an interview for The Australian. “A lot of people were talking about the role of a national newspaper then … so I went and talked to Rupert about it – and my having some sort of role in it,’’ he said. “But of course, at the speed Rupert travels, he grabbed the idea and burned me off in about three days.’’
With Mr Murdoch’s decision to launch the paper, he offered Mr Cowley an editorial position, which he declined, preferring instead to involve himself in the critical role of its production and distribution.
The paper came off the Mort St presses for the first time on July 14, 1964, a testament to the vision and commitment of Mr Murdoch and the passion of the people who worked under him.
Mr Cowley takes great pride in the role The Australian has played in shaping the culture of the nation and its impact on the community. “Because of the size of the country, and the relatively small population at the time, the nation needed a powerful voice that crossed state borders and brought it together,” he told The Bulletin.
“As a national paper, The Australian performed that function.
“There were many difficulties to overcome, both physically in terms of production and distribution, as well as financially. I know Rupert met with significant pressure and resistance from the News Limited board at the time of the start-up in Canberra.