MACPHERSON, SIR KEITH DUNCAN (1920–93)
As the 59-year-old chief executive of the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT), Keith MacPherson was a virtual unknown. He was publicity shy, despite running the nation’s most powerful media business. That changed on 20 November 1979 when Rupert Murdoch walked into his office in Melbourne and announced he was taking over the company. MacPherson vowed to stop Murdoch’s $126 million bid.
The amiable and conservative executive who had worked in virtually every section of the company, except the newsroom, was in the fight of his life. The next day MacPherson brought forward a bonus share offer and advised shareholders not to sell. He encouraged two friendly companies—Queensland Press Ltd from within the group and John Fairfax & Sons from outside—to buy HWT stock, which they did, and kept doing well after Murdoch gave up his bid and started offloading the shares he had just purchased. MacPherson told the press that he thought little of Murdoch’s editorial standards and that while Sir Keith Murdoch had once run the company, this did not give his son a birthright to own it. Years later, he admitted that the bravado was an act. He hardly slept for the 48 hours of the whirlwind bid.
In 1981 MacPherson had to do it all again when Western Australian mining magnate Robert Holmes à Court launched his own takeover. The company was better prepared this time and easily withstood the challenge.
These were the highlights in a career that began in 1938, when MacPherson sorted letters in the HWT mailroom. His father, Duncan, had managed the Sun News-Pictorial before and after it was acquired by the HWT. Keith MacPherson trained as an accountant and worked for one of the company’s radio stations, 3DB. After a steady and unspectacular career trajectory, he became company general manager and in 1970 was sent to run the subsidiary West Australian Newspapers Ltd.
In 1975, he returned to Melbourne as CEO, to the annoyance of reporters who wanted a former journalist in the role. After a spill on the board in 1977, MacPherson gained control of the largest media group in Australia. He also served on most of the company’s associated magazine boards, including Queensland Press and Davies Brothers Limited, and chaired the Australian Newspapers Council and the Media Council of Australia. He was knighted in 1980 and retired in 1985, only to watch Murdoch’s successful second takeover bid of the HWT two years later.
REF: Sun News-Pictorial, 22 November 1979.